Spotify & Digital Methods – forthcoming thematic section in the journal Culture Unbound

Within our research project on streaming media and Spotify, we are currently putting together a special thematic section for the journal Culture Unbound. Six articles will be included, three long ones, and three short ones, and we are currently wrapping up all writing. Together with Rasmus Fleischer, I am myself finishing the introduction to the thematic section – which in the present version reads like follows:

With a user base now officially reaching 100 million—including 40 million paying subscribers—the music streaming platform Spotify is today widely recognised as the solution to problems caused by the last decades of digital disruption within the music and media industries. Spotify resembles Netflix, YouTube—and lately Apple Music—as an epitome of streaming’s digital zeitgeist envisioned to shape our future. Industry interviews, trade papers, academic books, and the daily press reiterate innumerous versions of this “technological solutionism” (Morozov 2014) in almost as many variations.

This thematic section of Culture Unbound is broadly concerned with the music service Spotify, and novel ways to approach and do academic research around streaming media. Approached through various forms of digital methods, Spotify serves as the object of study (but basically any other streaming media services can be studied in similar ways.) The six articles presented—three long ones, and three short ones—emanates from a cross-disciplinary research project entitled, “Streaming Heritage: Following Files in Digital Music Distribution”. It was initially conceived at the National Library of Sweden (hence the heritage connection), but the project has predominantly been located at the digital humanities hub, Humlab at Umeå University, where the research group has continuously worked with the lab’s programmers. The project involves four researchers and one PhD student, and is funded by the Swedish Research Council between 2014 and 2018.

While most previous scholarship on Spotify has primarily focused the music industry, digital music economy, intermediation or piracy (Wikström 2013; Wikström & DeFilippi 2016; Allen Anderson 2015; Galuszka 2015; Andersson Schwarz 2013), our project takes a software studies and digital humanities approach towards streaming media. The project broadly engages in reverse engineering Spotify’s algorithms, aggregation procedures, meta-data, and valuation strategies, all in order to study the platforms underlying norms and structures. In short, reverse engineering starts with the final product (the music service Spotify in our case) and tries to take it apart—backwards, step by step. Basically, our scholarly purpose is thus to draw a more holistic picture by using Spotify as a lens to explore social, technical, and economic processes associated with digital media distribution. The key research idea within the project is to ‘follow files’—rather than the people making, using, or collecting them—on their distributive journey through the streaming ecosystem, and hence to take empirical advantage of inherent data flows at media platforms (as Spotify).

Over the last ten years, within the extensive field of media and internet studies, different types of digital methods have been taken up as key instruments for developing novel ways to analyse and understand, ‘the digital’, ‘the internet’, as well as digital media production, distribution and consumption. Following the catchphrase, ”the system is the method” (Bruhn Jensen 2011), digital methodologies are increasingly deployed for performing broad social science or humanistic inquiries on, for example, big data and black-boxed media platforms (as Spotify) that today increasingly serve as key delivery mechanisms for cultural materials (Ruppert, Law & Savage 2013). As a research practice, digital methods “strive to follow the evolving methods of the medium” (Rogers 2013:1). Furthermore, the issue of data of, about, and around the Internet, as Klaus Bruhn Jensen has eloquently stated, “highlights the common distinction between research evidence that is either ‘found’ or ‘made’”. If one removes complexities, basically all ‘evidence’ needed for Internet or digital studies is hence already at hand. When listening to music at Spotify, for example, user data is constantly being produced. Such data is “documented in and of the system”, and “with a little help from network administrators and service providers” it can be utilised as the empirical base for doing research (Bruhn Jensen 2011:52).

To researchers seeking to take empirical advantage of data flows at contemporary media platforms, however, it quickly becomes clear “that such platforms do not present us with raw data, but rather with specially formatted information” (Marres & Gerlitz 2015). Data, in short, is often biased (in one way or the other). Twitter, for example, determines what data are available and how it can be accessed, and researchers often have a hard time knowing what relevant data that might be missing. Nevertheless, the major academic problem confronting media scholars seeking to work with digital method problem is the lack of access to data. In our research project, the difficulty in working with Spotify, is in essence that the company does not share any data. As a consequence, user data has to be acquired and compiled through other means—for example by deploying bots as research informants, or by recording and aggregating self-produced music and sounds. Building on the tradition of ‘breaching experiments’ in ethnomethodology, our project has as a consequence, tried (in different ways) via repeated and modified interventions and experiments, to ‘break into’ the hidden infrastructures of digital music distribution. On the one hand we have been interested in broadly studying different data patterns and media processes at Spotify, but we have also been keen on producing and obtaining research data, for example by using bots as virtual listeners, by documenting (and tracing) Spotify’s history through constantly changing interfaces, or by tracking and archiving advertisement flows (through software as Ghostery).

Localising Spotify
Departing from the interventionist and experimental approaches we have used in our research project—which both metaphorically and practically tries to track and follow the transformation of audio files into streamed experiences in the simple way a postman would follow the route of a parcel (from packaging to delivery)—the notion of localisation has become salient. Following files is more or less a technical impossibility in a streaming media context, yet approaching and circumscribing Spotify—both as a company and a service—has also proven to be hard. Within our research project, we have in fact, repeatedly asked the insidiously simple question: where and when is Spotify? It might seem naive, but during the research process it has become increasingly difficult for us to understand and grasp our object of study.

A Google search on “What is a Spotify?” generates the answer: “a Swedish commercial music streaming, podcast and video service that provides digital rights management— protected content from record labels and media companies” (Google 2016). But such an answer hides more than it shows, and can easily be problematised. Is Spotify, for example, a content platform, distribution service or a media company? Furthermore, music naturally lies at the heart of Spotify (even if podcast and video seems increasingly important), but what kind of content is actually accepted—i.e how is ‘music’ defined? And what about the ‘Swedishness’ of Spotify—where is the company actually located? Headquarters is still to be found in central Stockholm on Birger Jarlsgatan 61, but the service is now available in some 60 countries, not to mention the digital variety of desktop and mobile versions (which all differ slightly). In addition, how to situate Spotify commercially and financially—i.e. how much money is Spotify actually making (or losing), and how to measure its economic impact?

As is apparent from the four issues above—and one could easily have inserted more of them—localising Spotify is easier said than done. Starting, however, with the question if Spotify is a tech or a media company, for a number of years it was obvious that Spotify foremost offered a technological solution for record companies struggling with piracy. In a private conversation a couple of years ago, one of us (Snickars) asked Sophia Bendz (at the time Head of Spotify marketing) what kind of company Spotify actually was. Without hesitating for a second, Bendz stated that Spotify was a tech company, only distributing content produced by others. The tech identity, however, was even back then in 2012 dubious, and has become increasingly harder to sustain. Advertisement serves a case in point. In endless discussion with record labels (around rights management) Spotify took the stance that a freemium version (Spotify Free) with recurrent advertisement, would in the long run be the best solution, foremost as an incentive to scale businesses and attract global listeners. Spotify’s classification as a strict ‘tech company’, hence, misses the fact that a core part of its businesses has been to provide content to audiences, and selling those audiences to advertisers. Other music services decided otherwise, and Spotify has consequently had to struggle—and increasingly become more of a media company—all in order to keep to its business plan with Free and Premium. Arguably, the music industry still sees Spotify as the top streaming service around, “but the company has done little to address the lack of new music from a large collection of major artists when their albums are released” (Singleton 2016). That is, in a digital environment where streaming music becomes default, focusing on tech and distribution only, will result in missed business opportunities. True, Spotify has not really entered into content production (like Netflix), even though some self-made videos are provided, such as interviews with artists as well as other content (like pop-ups that explain lyrics). Hence, stating that Spotify is only a tech company (in the form of a streaming service) fails to see other defining characteristics of the enterprise.