Spotify Wrapped, the streaming service’s regular end-of-the-year review of everything you listened to, is one of the more surprising cultural moments to rise out of the 2010s. Spotify repackages data it collected on you in an interactive story (in the Snapchat sense) with a playlist, but it’s become a critical feature for all streaming services — a meme, marketing opportunity, and way to hold onto subscribers into the new year all wrapped into one.
Apple Music and YouTube Music recently launched their latest takes on the idea, and what was apparent before is clearer than ever — the year-in-review needs to become an all-year affair, a permanent change to the relationship between users and the data companies collect on them.
Replay and Recap
Apple Music’s Replay 2022 and YouTube Music 2022 Recap are pretty good demonstrations of where the form is now. A streaming service displays basic statistics on the songs you’ve spent the most time listening to, or the artist or album you had on repeat, alongside snippets of song, motion graphics, and album artwork.
In some cases, there are also specific features related to the service itself. This year YouTube Music is showing listeners their “music personality” and letting them tie their Recap to corresponding photos from their Google Photos library. If you spent all summer getting really into Tropicália on the beach, now you can include photos of you chilling in the sand when you share those stats on social media.
None of these features are groundbreaking, and most people know what they spent the year listening to. But the Wrappeds, Recaps, and Replays, make that information embarrassingly shareable, a way to step back and see how you relate to the millions of other people who stream music daily. Information that companies like Spotify are always collecting — but only really sharing once a year.
Streaming services should show us more
There are exceptions, of course. Apple Music creates a running playlist of the songs you listen to most often that you can access all year, but it’s not nearly as informative as the trends these end-of-year reviews offer. There’s information about our habits that these companies know and even base their algorithmic suggestions around, but they only really share them when it’s convenient from a marketing perspective.
Let me see what the algorithm “sees.”
That’s really one of the fundamental tensions of music streaming. Besides shifting habits — singles becoming more popular than albums, playlists making a comeback — streaming music is much less private. As Vanity Fair’s Delia Cai observed, “Spotify [is] the only tech company to successfully rebrand ‘we’ve been tracking you to ‘isn’t this fun.’”
I’m not sure how much that can change, especially if selling music subscriptions is not ultimately as profitable in the long term as good old-fashioned advertising. If these services have personal information about our listening habits, we should at least get some insight into what they know. I think I might value the hard facts about who and what I’m listening to more than the magical sense of discovery that comes with a good Discover Weekly. Let me see what the algorithm “sees.” Let’s acknowledge that we don’t stream unobserved, and let’s just make Spotify Wrapped a year-round feature.