“That’s cool, queer + digital rights activist, the title of the album is Spotify is Surveillance. Review it, Ris,” said Idha Saraswati in the Serunai chat group. It was from that message that I got to know Evan Greer.
From there, I started looking for information about who Evan Greer was, and listened to the provocative album Spotify is Surveillance, and I immediately fell in love with this musician and her album.
Evan Greer is part of what the punk subculture calls queercore. The queercore subculture has grown since the ’80s. Queercore is against masculine society that always discredits LGBTQ people. It’s natural for Greer to claim herself as a figure of a movement that fights for equality of LGBTQ people, or specifically transgender considering that she is a transgender person.
Apart from being a queer activist, Greer’s second title is as a digital rights activist. Here, Greer uses music as a medium to convey a message that is commensurate with the title of her latest music album: Spotify is Surveillance.
This immediately raises a big question in my mind: is Spotify really a surveillance instrument?
Spotify is one of the biggest music streaming services. Like other streaming behemoth such as Apple Music, Spotify is arguably a new way of listening to music in today’s era. Spotify and cloud streaming services are lined up as the future of music. Abandoning the pattern of listening to music analogously that stumbles out of date.
Spotify claims to have 50 Million songs in their catalog, as well as 270 Million active users per month. This is not a small number. With that figure, Spotify’s valuation is estimated to be $20 billion.
Spotify often claims that they are a neutral music streaming service. Just presenting music to its customers. However, in practice Spotify has received a lot of scathing criticism because Spotify is actually not very neutral.
In his dissertation entitled Dance like nobody’s paying: Spotify and Surveillance as the Soundtrack of Our Live, T. Andrew Braun accuses Spotify of actually pretending to be neutral. Spotify claims to be the savior of the music industry and democratizes the music industry. However, the fact is that Spotify created a new dictatorship in the music industry. Spotify is the engine of taste creation, and the engine of surveillance capitalism.
Spotify’s dictatorship can be seen from how their algorithm works to collect user data, then provide music recommendations that are similar to what users listen to. This becomes a dictator when musicians are then forced to create songs that are “friendly to the Spotify algorithm” in order to survive and be heard. The 50 million songs on Spotify have to work hard to get listeners.
To better understand Spotify’s performance as an instrument of surveillance capitalism, we must first understand what surveillance capitalism is.
In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff fully explains what surveillance capitalism is. This book is a baboon book, that is to say, a very thick book with each chapter very comprehensively examining this most recent form of capitalism.
Broadly speaking, Zuboff adapted Karl Marx’s idea of commodities. The difference is, if in Marx’s thinking in a production model the capitalists collect accumulated profits from the performance of the workers. Meanwhile, in Zuboff’s view of the most recent supervisory capitalism, the accumulated profit is obtained from data on the habits of internet users. Zuboff calls this a “behavioral surplus”.
T. Andrew Braun deposited this concept of surveillance capitalism in his dissertation. In Spotify’s case, the behavioral surplus is user data. What music they listen to, how old the listeners are, where they live, even Spotify also knows the mood or feelings of the user’s heart when they play a sad song or a happy song.
This behavioral surplus is then harvested by Spotify to be used as (1) a commodity to sell to advertisers (Spotify is a freemium service, meaning that those who use the free version of Spotify and are not subscribed will listen and view ads on Spotify), and (2) into a bundle. huge accumulation of data injected into their algorithms and machine learning. This algorithm will then work to provide authoritarian music recommendations, making users keep using Spotify for as long as possible.
This is dangerous because as Evan Greer says in the lyrics of the song “Surveillance Capitalism”, “algorithm makes decision”. Spotify users often don’t have the option to actively search for the music they want to listen to themselves. Instead, users are forced to listen to music according to the recommendations provided by the Spotify algorithm.
In the language of musician and academic Gian ‘Jay’ Afrisando, “the algorithms of major music streaming providers tend to have biases that exploit their listeners for the sake of capitalism. This algorithm tends to present a selection of similar and circular music options. This algorithm destroys the creativity of musicians in listening to music”.
For musicians themselves, Spotify’s algorithm is also dangerous because it tends to homogenize the form of music created. It is common knowledge that on Spotify, a musician’s song will be counted and paid for if the listener has listened to at least 30 seconds of the song being played.
This rule allows many musicians to create uniform music: music that is fun and made as good as possible in the first 30 seconds of a song’s duration for Spotify to count. The songs that are created are usually short in duration of about two to three minutes. The number of songs in the album has changed. Usually in the era of compact discs (CD), one album contains 10 songs. Now in the Spotify era, musicians slip 13 to 16 songs in one album. This is in order to get as much play count as possible. More play count means eating a lot of accumulated money.
Spotify and its advanced algorithms are capable of curating the most precise tones for every human emotion. Spotify has a list of music when you’re feeling down after breaking up with your boyfriend, or rock music to boost your mood. Spotify can tell when you’re sad. Or, of course it’s still fresh in our minds when there was one scandal: rapper Drake’s Scorpion album appeared on every music list and music suggestion as a form of massive promotion. It means? Even if you don’t want to listen to Drake, the album will still appear on your Spotify homepage.
Scorpion even infiltrated the music list which actually doesn’t really relate to Drake’s type of music. Yes, in the hands of the right power (read: big labels in the music industry), Spotify and its intelligent algorithms can be a taste-making weapon.
Apart from that, Spotify has also recently received strong criticism from a number of parties because they plan to patent an artificial intelligence that is able to spy on our conversations and voices and then target us with advertisements and music to keep us on the platform created by Daniel Ek. 24/7 if necessary.
Fight Against the Surveillance Capitalism
So what can we do to fight this surveillance capitalism? There are many ways it can be done.
For example, Evan Greer, armed with minimal recording equipment: a condenser mic, a battered laptop, and Garage Band software, she composed and recorded the album Spotify is Surveillance. With these minimal provisions, Greer composed a mix of punk-rock and bedroom pop music that vehemently criticized the practice of surveillance capitalism.
What’s interesting is the fact that while the album Spotify is Surveillance criticizes Spotify and surveillance capitalism, the album itself is available and can be listened to on Spotify. Greer is well aware of the existence of this supervisory capitalism. Instead, she uses Spotify to reach more listeners. That is, the message of criticism will be spread more widely.
Some parties are also quite aware of this issue and have started a movement and petition against Spotify’s surveillance. An example is the Stop Spotify Surveillance movement which is aggressively voicing and raising petitions for Spotify to stop practicing surveillance capitalism.
For music listeners like us, what can we do? Can we avoid Spotify’s algorithm trap? The answer, according to Jay Afrisando, is no. We cannot escape the power of the algorithm.
Evan Greer said in her song “Surveillance Capitalism” like this: “Private companies basically have more power and more information on us than governments do. Without any sort of infrastructure to hold them accountable”.
Yes, private companies—including Spotify—have more power than the government. Their algorithm is really powerful and undeniably difficult to fight.
What we can do is minimize the damage it causes. This can be done, for example, by instead of listening to music recommended by Spotify on the home page of the application, we ourselves consciously choose what music we want to play.
To avoid being trapped in this vicious circle of music uniformity on Spotify, we must also undergo active behavior while surfing on Spotify. This means not only passively and simply listening to music. We must listen actively. Observe carefully every music we listen to, how it is arranged, then look for more information about the musicians, music, and albums we listen to. Who composes the song, who is the producer, what is the issue to be conveyed, and so on.
By making such efforts, no matter how small, we have at least made an effort to fight surveillance capitalism. We are fighting for our privacy rights that Spotify has violated by collecting the behavioral surplus that they do.
May we all avoid the cursed Spotify algorithm trap.