This week, Spotify sent some unspecified portion of its hundreds of millions of users a message. The message told those users something important.
“You are one of Taylor Swift’s top fans worldwide,” one iteration of this message said. “You’re one of their top 1% fans. Hit Play on their radio and we’ll provide an endless stream of their music.”
People received similar messages about a wide array of artists in the app: Kendrick Lamar, the Barenaked Ladies, Tove Lo, the Doors and many, many more. The Spotify users weren’t always in the top one percent of fans; some messages claimed listeners ranked in the top two or three percent of the artists’ fans.
Many reacted to these messages as Spotify might have hoped they would, sharing them with friends and with followers on social media. Regina Anderson, 22, was one of many people told they were among Ms. Swift’s top fans and who, upon receiving the message, broadcast it widely.
But something struck Ms. Anderson, a communications assistant in Washington, D.C., about the message.
“The way that they phrase it is a little weird,” she said. “It just seems odd. I guess one percent of Taylor Swift’s monthly listeners is 300,000 or something like that.” She wondered how many other people had received the same message.
Peter Collins, a spokesperson for Spotify, declined to provide any information on how many fans received them, how the percentages were calculated or what it meant to be in a top percentile of an artist’s fan base.
Mr. Collins did classify the messages as a “test.”
“At Spotify, we routinely conduct a number of tests in an effort to improve our user experience,” he said in a statement. “Some of those tests end up paving the path for our broader user experience and others serve only as an important learning. We aren’t going to comment on specific tests at this time.”
Like many other media platforms, Spotify has made no secret of its practice of collecting user data. It often incorporates that data into its marketing, feeding it back to users in order to promote itself. This practice is most prominent during its annual year-end Spotify Wrapped marketing campaign, in which the streaming platform provides users with a short presentation about their most-played artists and songs. In late 2019, Spotify Wrapped allowed users a window into their listening habits since 2010.
“Spotify has user listening analytics data dating back to our first years as a streaming platform,” some of its engineers explained in a blog post about that project.
But while the Spotify Wrapped campaign provides more context for the data it offers users, the messages this week were more difficult to parse. Spotify collects data, uses that data to market its features — in this case, artist-specific playlists — but will not give its users any insight into what the data means, or even whether it represents something real.
“I thought it was kind of random given that it’s not the end of the year, it wasn’t part of a roundup, it was just like ‘oh hey by the way,’” said Kasey Carlson, 22, who was told that she was one of Chance the Rapper’s top fans. (Her favorite song of the artist’s is “Cocoa Butter Kisses.”)
Cherie Hu, who writes the music technology newsletter Water and Music, said that the test was typical of Spotify’s lack of transparency.
“What that message does is it reduces fandom to a very surface-level metric on Spotify,” she said. “This raises a question for me of how Spotify is actually calculating fandom. Are they calculating it just by the number of streams? Are they tracking it by how many people go to the artist page?”
In some ways, what Spotify is doing is familiar, as anonymized data becomes a key component of how marketers appeal to customers. Jeff Chester, the head of the nonprofit Center for Digital Democracy, said that such practices had become commonplace.
“Just think about going into the supermarket and getting mobile coupons,” he said. “All of that is tied together as part of the profiling process of you and you have no idea how it’s collected or what it means.”
But these latest Spotify messages are different in two key ways. The first is that they purport to share the service’s information directly with users. And the second is that its data is centered on music, a particularly personal and personality-revealing aspect of peoples’s lives. Matthew Perpetua, a longtime music blogger and a former director of quizzes at BuzzFeed, said that the way that Spotify served up data to users was reminiscent of a personality quiz.
“In this case, the quiz itself is just your engagement with Spotify,” he said. “In lieu of answering random questions that have been put before you, you’re just going about your life and listening to what you want. And they turn it into a quiz or game where they’re like, ‘This is who you are.’”
Or not. While many who posted about the Spotify messages identified as fans of the artists they were being told they were fans of, others were baffled.
Matt Moore, a 33-year-old software developer in New Jersey, was told on Thursday that he is one of Cake’s top fans.
“I mean, I’m a moderate Cake fan,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m in the one percent. I listen to Cake every now and then.”
Mr. Moore said that the message was confusing. “For the most part it makes me feel bad for Cake,” he said. “If I’m their number one biggest fan, then it’s saying something.”
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