Spotify Wrapped & Apple Music Replay Vie To Be The “John Lewis Ad” Of Streaming

The streaming services have become locked into an arms race to see who can own the end of year reveal, says Eamonn Forde. It's just that the artists who are, arguably, being badly treated and the listeners who foot the bill are the ones doing all of the heavy lifting when it comes to branding and marketing

It is a hell of a conjuring trick. Spotify have made listening data, your listening data, not just cuddly but also competitive. There is nothing remotely dystopian about a giant global company with a market cap of $35.5bn slicing and dicing your listening habits for the year and getting you to publicly share them as you compare with friends just how much broader and greater your taste in music is.

Spotify Wrapped, basically a cutesy PowerPoint on what you listened to this year, is a major event annually: and not just for Spotify itself. It has become so ingrained in our consciousness, so much part of our winter behaviour, so much part of a shared endeavour, that it is streaming music’s version of the John Lewis ad. A heart-warming talking point that brushes over any of the other unpleasantness that dogs the service through the rest of the year.

Spotify invites the media to (very conditionally) look under the bonnet, with staff members breathlessly describing just how wonderful it is to be involved in something so wonderfully wonderful.

Spotify Wrapped, as we know it, only started in December 2016 and this was after a dry run a year earlier with what was then called Year In Music. The dynamics were the same, but the branding is what changed. And branding is absolutely key to all of this.

Straight out of the gates, it was a success. It instantly got people talking. It got people sharing. It went, yes, “viral”. That was its whole intention. It was entirely a branding and marketing exercise for the company, with the twist being that it was designed, from the ground up, to have Spotify’s hundreds of millions of users do all the heavy lifting for them.

Like Tom Sawyer hoodwinking his classmates into whitewashing the fence for him, Spotify managed to use Wrapped to get its paying customers to be its evangelists and its brand ambassadors.

The more you pushed your results on social media, the more your friends felt compelled to join in and push their results too.

In this blizzard of sharing, the specifics of what you are sharing – the, to be cold about it, data points around what you listened to this year – get lost. But the only thing that does cut through the static is Spotify’s bauble-like green logo.

To its credit, Spotify pulled this off with aplomb and basically owned this annual share-fest in the opening years of Wrapped. It was a virtuous cycle of hype for the company. It was getting the kind of advertising and media coverage you just can’t buy. Which, of course, it didn’t have to buy.

Naturally, the other streaming services, the ones lagging behind Spotify’s dominant market share, wanted a slice of the action.

Apple Music was not going to willingly choke on Spotify’s dust here and so created Apple Music Replay in 2019 which ploughs a similar, but different enough, data furrow as Wrapped.

Like other major retailers strategically launching their big Christmas ads first and hoping to mop up the anticipatory interest in what John Lewis is doing, it has become an arms race to get your version of The Year In Review out first. Being second, runs the corporate argument, is just another way of being last.

Apple Music Replay went live this year on 28 November, beating Spotify Wrapped to the punch by a whole day. “A week is a long time in politics,” claims the hoary maxim. Twenty-four hours is longer still in digital music.

The second great conjuring trick of Spotify Wrapped, and latterly Apple Music Replay, was getting the artists themselves involved in furthering the hoopla around it all.

Here they come, the bloviating headlines that Taylor Swift is the most-streamed act on Apple Music AND on Spotify this year. That’s the same Taylor Swift who called out Apple Music in 2015 when it wanted to dodge paying royalties on music played by users availing of its introductory and free three-month trial. And the same Taylor Swift who pulled her music from Spotify in 2014 in protest over its royalty payments, only agreeing to put it all back on again in 2017.

She, of course, is not personally doing the trumpeting here, but she’s a click-friendly name for websites happy to recycle Spotify and Apple’s press releases.

Many – far too many – other artists giddily join the cavalcade here and share their data from Spotify and Apple Music. There it is, all laid bare for anyone to see. How many streams they had this year, how many listeners were listening to them, how many countries these listeners came from, how many new listeners they had drawn in this year.

Their art is reduced to snackable data points and analyst reports. And they are delighted to be part of it, effusively offering praise in a flurry of words and emojis that are directed to each streaming service, bowing and scraping before these digital child emperors on their thrones. “Thank you for noticing me,” they fawn.

Given how many artists have gone public about how little they feel they make in “the streaming economy”, it seems truly perverse that they want to send up fireworks for the very platforms they feel are short-changing them. Maybe they understand the streaming economy is more of an attention economy than a monetary economy. Maybe they don’t care and they just want to “join in” and fear they will be forgotten if they are not wildly waving their end-of-year report cards from Spotify and Apple Music.

It is all a bit like writing a thank you note in advance to the stingy uncle who never buys you a Christmas present. It’s all so terribly, awfully, embarrassingly undignified.

It is entirely fitting that Spotify was founded in Sweden as this is a whole new level of Stockholm Syndrome.

There are, thankfully, some acts who will raise fists rather than cheers when this time of the year rolls around. Amazingly, this year it was “Weird Al” Yankovic who subtly and sarcastically went studs-up on Spotify Wrapped.

"I want to thank you all for your amazing support", he said in a video posting. "It’s my understanding that I had over 80m streams on Spotify this year. So, if I’m doing the math right that means I earned $12. Enough to get myself a nice sandwich at a restaurant."

He added with a flourish, "So from the bottom of my heart, thanks for your support. And thanks for the sandwich."

If Spotify Wrapped and Apple Music Replay are competing to be "the John Lewis ad" of annual roundups, the artists furthering their viral cause should be presented with a truncated version of that retailer’s recently retired strapline to understand how it directly applies to them in the streaming world. “Knowingly undersold.”

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