So Spotify recently released a nifty little year in review widget, which I find completely irresistible. (No one is shocked.) In addition to a fun nostalgia trip and some hilarious metadata missteps, tho, it does reveal some interesting things about my listening habits, so for my last post of 2015, I want to dig into those a little.
First, a quick note on the data: I obviously don’t have insider access to Spotify’s algorithms, but from the outside, it looks like their formula was pretty simple. To calculate the “top artist”, they just use “how many times was a track by this artist streamed?” as a substitute — so if I listened to one track by Artist A 500 times, and 501 tracks by Artist B one time each, Artist B would be listed as my Top Artist. This will have amusing consequences later.
In total, I did a lot of streaming this year: On Spotify alone, I streamed 118,000 minutes’ worth of music, which works out to about 82 days. I’ve been keeping a pretty regular 8-hour sleep pattern, which means that I was streaming music from Spotify for a third of my waking life. Not too shabby. Those 82 days encompassed 2,884 different artists and ~11,000 unique tracks. How did those artists and tracks break down into Top 5s?
- Imagine Dragons (553 streams)
- London Symphony Orchestra (440 streams)
- Bastille (365 streams)
- Jubilee Riots (315 streams)
- DeltaCappella (312 streams)
There are a few things to note here. The first is that I am unapologetic pop boy band trash. It is true, I make no denial. (You are not allowed to judge my taste unless you’re willing to give me other things to listen to.) The placing of the LSO is emblematic of something that will be a long running theme here: Spotify is terrible at dealing with classical music metadata. I’m sure I did actually stream that many tracks that had the LSO listed in the “artist” field, but 1) there are certainly tracks with the LSO playing that aren’t credited as such and 2) I wasn’t listening to these things because the LSO was playing them. Their LSO-ness was completely incidental to why I sought them out, and wasn’t something I even necessarily noticed while I was listening. I would be very interested to see a breakdown that swapped “composer” for “artist” for classical tracks, but I don’t think Spotify currently has that capability.
Jubilee Riots is disproportionately low on this list. They have one album, and I discovered it in July, so they were at a large disadvantage in terms of racking up play counts; that they did so well anyway is a testament to just how much I like that album. DeltaCappella also probably requires some explanation. Had you asked me about them before I used this widget, I would’ve given you a blank stare. It turns out that they’re the group that performs Michael Ching’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (which I’ve discussed previously), and that alone was enough to bump them up into my Top 5. Again, Spotify is bad at classical metadata.
- Poulenc: Complete Works (577 streams)
- Jubilee Riots: Penny Black (315 streams)
- Michael Ching: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (312 streams)
- Imagine Dragons: Smoke + Mirrors (213 streams)
- Bastille: All This Bad Blood (197 streams)
CACKLING. Poulenc wrote a lot of music, and there’s a boxed set of recordings of all of it, and I listened to it once. But because it had so damn many tracks (he wrote several operas), it’s my Top Album. I can’t. (But this also illustrates my point about metadata: If Poulenc were credited as the “artist”, he would knock Imagine Dragons out of the top artist slot from this alone.) It’s also interesting to think about length here: The Ching is more than twice as long as Penny Black, which means that the discrepancy in their play counts as entire albums is significantly higher than the slight difference in stream count would suggest (tho, because the Ching is cut into short segments, the amount of time spent listening to each is probably about the same).
- Walk The Moon: “Shut Up And Dance” (63 streams)
- Jubilee Riots: “Traveller” (33 streams)
- Jubilee Riots: “The Song Plays On” (32 streams)
- Jubilee Riots: “Two Bare Hands” (32 streams)
- Jubilee Riots: “Cut The Lights” (32 streams)
OK the thing with “Shut Up And Dance” is that it ends on a V chord so as soon as it’s over I want to listen to it again and this means that if I want to listen to it once that means I want to listen to it over and over on loop forever and this has happened multiple times and it is A Problem.
- Modern Performance (aka Contemporary Classical)
- Show Tunes
- Modern Classical
- Celtic Rock
(Spotify doesn’t give play counts for this list — I suspect that there’s a pretty sharp cliff between 3 and 4, but I can’t be sure.) Despite 1 and 3 being the same genre (ditto 2 and 5), this is the only list that I think really gives an accurate breakdown of my listening habits on Spotify. Most of what I listen to is classical music or music theatre. Even if we’re extremely generous and say that the average pop song is six minutes long, all of the pop streams in my top artists combined would make up only about 7,400 of my 118,000 total listening minutes. That’s about 6%, and is definitely an overestimate.
Beyond pointing to the greater average track length for classical pieces and again hinting at Spotify’s dicey treatment of classical-pertinent metadata, this also reveals something about how I’m listening. Most of the classical listening I do is exploratory: I’m listening thru a particular composer’s catalogue, or I’m picking my way thru a specific historical nexus — the bulk of my classical listening on Spotify is music that I’ve never heard before and want to get to grips with. Once I have it more or less in my head, I move on. My iTunes library bears this out: In the 4+ years of accumulated play counts its numbers are based on, the classical piece I’ve listen the most to is Bartók Béla’s Concerto for Orchestra, which clocks in at 38 plays. Admittedly, this doesn’t include the times I’ve listened to it on CD or played it live (twice, at this point), but the point still stands: When it comes to classical music, I don’t repeat listen all that much.
When it comes to pop music, on the other hand, there’s a relatively small repertoire that I listen to a lot. There are a lot of reasons for this. Part of it is definitely my unwillingness to listen to only part of a classical piece. If I have a 15-minute gap to fill, it’s much easier to just throw on Imagine Dragons and hit pause at the end of a song than it is to think of a classical piece I know and want to listen to that’s about the right length and track down a recording of it without taking so long that the piece is now too long for the time available. My pop listening also tends to be comfort listening. I actually don’t like a lot of the classical stuff I listen to (because, again, it’s exploratory, so I don’t know what I’m getting myself into . . . ), and at a certain point, when I need to clear my head of that, I’d much rather leave classical waters altogether. I’m not at all opposed to expanding my pop repertoire, but given how I use it, I don’t feel the same need to constantly be seeking out new stuff that I do with classical.
Looking at this overview is also a little sobering. I spend ~95% of my listening time on only two genres (or metagenres or whatever you want to call “classical” and “music theatre”), which honestly seems more than a little blinkered. There are vast swaths of music out there than I’m not listening to at all, and I’m sure a great deal of that music is excellent stuff that I’d actually quite like. At the same time, tho, even with all the classical listening I do, I feel like I’ve hardly scratched the surface of that world. The depth of knowledge I’m slowly accruing about the classical scene is important to me, and it’s something I’m loath to give up for greater breadth overall. This is an old dilemma, and obviously not one that I’m going to solve. Feeling torn about it will not magically give me world enough and time to know all things about all musics. Life is fleeting, and there’s only so much we can fit in the time we are allotted.
A Final Note
The first song I listened to in 2015 was Robin Dransfield’s take on “The Cutty Wren”. The original folk song caught my ear for its semblance to “Green Bushes” and “Lost Lady Found” (warning that that one contains a slur against the Romani people), and around the turn of the year, I listened to every recording of it that turned up in a Spotify search. Then, as is my way, I forgot about it and moved on with my life. If Spotify hadn’t included this in the year in review widget, there’s no chance I’d be thinking of it now.
So much of my listening is like this. Incidental, happenstance, driven not by any real agenda but merely by what happens to catch my ear at a given moment. The big, symbolic stuff may stick in the mind better — I listened to this because I was working it up for my recital; I was going thru a rough patch and listened to this album on loop; I repeated my Get Pumped! playlist endlessly to get me thru grad school applications — and it’s easy to look back on those memories and construct a narrative that ties them neatly and inevitably together, but a more careful approach would reveal a great deal more chaos. Like life, listening is messy. That’s part of its beauty. Out of all the ferment and churn, some things bubble up and stick, but most are noted in their moment, then set aside for other things. I expect that this will be the case for 2016 as well. There’s a whole wide world out there. I’m excited to keep exploring.