Back in January, Spotify was granted a patent for technology so creepy that it sent a chill through the music industry that still hasn’t subsided. The company has been planning for years, apparently, to listen into our conversations and background noise in order to recommend us music. Spotify told the Patent Office their technology could obtain “content metadata [that] indicates an emotional state of the speaker,” and that once it has gathered enough so-called “emotion objects” it will use them to tailor what it plays next. The paragraph detailing Step 205 of the procedure seems to imply that making users happy is the goal, but then ends with a dire warning that, “Numerous other examples are possible.”
As Black Mirror as this all sounds, it’s really nothing new. Facebook intentionally—proudly, even—manipulated its users’ emotions way back in 2012. Most of us have come to understand that our data is worth much more than our humanity, but thankfully a group of musicians didn’t let Spotify’s patent go unnoticed. Fight for the Future and the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers has spearheaded a campaign to Stop Spotify Surveillance and over 180 musicians sent a letter to the company in protest. In addition to expressing concerns over emotional manipulation, the letter says that the technology would be discriminatory, violate user’s privacy, jeopardize data security, and exacerbate inequality in the music industry.
Now, Spotify has claimed that they have no plans to actually roll out this technology. But even so, the letter’s last claim—that curation algorithms exacerbate inequality—sticks with us. These algorithms are self-fulfilling prophecies. We’ve all listened to Spotify’s Daily Mixes, “made for us,” and scratched our heads. But Spotify’s approach to music curation is all wrong. Bear with me for just a moment. I’m not here to pretend that the old ways of music discovery were perfect. Radio DJs are just as corruptible as Spotify. Concerts are only now coming back and can be cost-prohibitive for many. But at least there are humans involved in the curation when you discover a new band through a trusted critic or at a club or opening for a concert. When we share music with each other, human to human, there is a chance to say “you might not like this at first, but give it a chance.” Music can take us to places we’ve never been to before—evoke memories we’ve long forgotten.
As lovers of music, there are important steps we all can do to loosen the grip of Spotify, Apple Music, and the like. Seek out music that doesn’t fit your usual style (or your mood). If you want suggestions for who to listen to, turn to your favorite artist. Follow them on social media. Artists are always sharing new music for them fellow musicians. Buy albums directly, either through the bands’ websites or bandcamp. Buy merch. Merchandise is still the best way to support artists. Whether it’s on their website or at their merch stand at a concert, buy a t-shirt. Follow your favorite artists on Patreon. Support your local or school radio stations. Commit to the idea that you get to decide where the music takes you rather than letting Spotify tune into emotions for their profit. If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that we need more human contact, we need it and thrive on it.