Spotify’s New-Generation SEO-Juiced Muzak

Liz Pelly, writing for the Baffler in 2017:

Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect. Note how the generically designed, nearly stock photo images attached to these playlists rely on the selfsame clickbait-y tactics of content farms, which are famous for attacking a reader’s basest human moods and instincts. Only here the goal is to fit music snugly into an emotional regulation capsule optimized for maximum clicks: “chill.out.brain,” “Ambient Chill,” “Chill Covers.” “Piano in the Background” is one of the most aptly titled; “in the background” could be added to the majority of Spotify playlists.


Indeed, Spotify’s obsession with mood and activity-based playlists has contributed to all music becoming more like Muzak, a brand that created, programmed, and licensed songs for retail stores throughout the twentieth century. In the 1930s, the company prioritized workplace soundtracks that were meant to heighten productivity, using research to evaluate what listeners responded to most. In many ways, this is not unlike the playlist category called “Focus” that we see now on Spotify. In March 2011, Muzak was purchased by Mood Media, a company that provides in-store music, signs, scents, and video content. The similarity between the objectives of companies like Muzak and Mood Media, and the proliferation of mood-based playlists on Spotify, is more than just a linguistic coincidence; Spotify playlists work to attract brands and advertisers of all types to the platform.

Peter Slattery, OneZero:

The key to success is to find a phony artist name that Spotify users are likely to type into search. Like Relaxing Music Therapy, some of these “artists” use names inspired by an adjective commonly used to describe music. Others name themselves after popular uses for certain kinds of music, well-known generic tunes like children’s rhymes, or entire music genres. Often, these creators optimize further by titling tracks and albums with related words and reuploading the same songs ad nauseum, which can look especially absurd when filtering to see just a single tune. Relaxing Music Therapy, for instance, has uploaded the track “Stream in the Forest With Rain” 616 times to date.

SEO spam and its various streambait cousins fit right in with Spotify’s own marketing strategy of being a one-stop shop for “music for any mood,” rather than, say, a hub that highlights the most talented artists. In 2017, the trade publication Music Business Worldwide revealed that Spotify’s curated playlists were filled with artists working under platform-specific pseudonyms, such as “Charles Bolt,” with no off-internet presence at all. (The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article.)

As antitrust investigations have begun against Apple in several different countries, I find myself returning to the question of whether Spotify has a good argument. Apple gets to make 100% of the list price when a user subscribes to Apple Music, but Spotify only gets to make 70% of the list price. This gives Apple a pricing and revenue advantage, and the power of default choices gives it a user acquisition advantage. But this situation is not so different to generic brands in other industries, at least for the purposes of this piece.

In a lot of industries, national brands find ways to differentiate themselves from store and generic brands. At some level, a bottle of dish soap is a bottle of dish soap, but you might buy Sunlight instead of the supermarket brand because the latter doesn’t work quite as well. Having access to an enormous library of music for $10 per month is basically the same no matter which platform you choose. Many of them share the same libraries and artists can submit new songs to multiple platforms. Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Prime, Tidal — for many people, these are just wrappers around the same batch of songs they might listen to every month, and it doesn’t really matter which they choose. Spotify is complaining because it is trying to build a business on a single uninteresting product.

So what can it do to differentiate itself? Its push for exclusive podcasts is one step. But what about music? What can it do there? Tidal is not very popular in raw numbers, but it has successfully targeted its lossless audio tier to a specific audience that holds it in high regard. Apple Music is generically fine, I guess, but its social features are nowhere near as great as Spotify’s. Why doesn’t it shout from the rooftops about that? What about transforming itself into the space’s name-brand product, or a more premium product? Why doesn’t it do something to entice people to seek out Spotify in particular? Instead, its catalogue is full of shitty background music, and songs and artists with deliberately misleading metadata.