Spotify Wrapped: Creepy Data Surveillance in a Gift-Wrapped Package

Let’s start with a disclaimer. I LOVE Spotify Wrapped. Each year, a buzz travels through the office (or home office) as each team member checks their stats and discovers that – yes – they are getting the most of that Premium subscription. It’s the first real exciting part of Christmas, and hats off to Spotify, one of the most successful brand campaigns of recent years.

As a Last.fm lover who laps up curated playlists based on my music habits, it’s the perfect fit. A soundtrack of songs I’ve listened to repeatedly and then immediately become tired of? Sign me up. Last year, I used my Spotify account to play the office playlist on all year and it ruined my Christmas Wrapped 2019.

[Bonus link: You don’t have to wait for Wrapped for a detailed look at your listening habits. Check out these 10 tools you can use to analyse your Spotify behaviour]

Since its inception in 2017 (you might remember its previous incarnation, Year in Music), Spotify Wrapped has garnered an almost cult following, with music fans counting down the days to get their hands on all that data. Spotify highlights key stats – how many minutes you’ve listened to, your key artists, genres etc; builds you that all-important playlist, and then offers it up in a ‘grammable format (cause you’re absolutely gonna share it).

The success story of Spotify Wrapped

And it works. Unsurprisingly, searches for Spotify Wrapped spike at the start of December each year as music lovers carefully unwrap their first gift of the year (how generous!). To date, there have been 61.2k Instagram posts using #spotifywrapped – and that’s ignoring stories and dated tags.

It’s the perfect marketing formula. Easily digestible data that strokes our musical egos, aligns us into our tribes and helps us stand out from the crowd (or not so much). As a marketing campaign, we absolutely can’t fault it. It’s potentially the only ad campaign that people actively go out of their way to engage with, and we have a tonne of respect for that.

There’s just one thing – this cutesy hyper-personalised assessment of our audio habits is essentially Spotify parading how much data they have on us, and then sitting back and watching as we happily share our findings with the world. If Zuckerberg did this we’d be up in arms. The media is rife with privacy concerns aimed at the likes of Facebook, Google and Apple, and other big players, but Spotify seem to get a free pass.

They’re not shy about it either: “With more listeners and better data, we were able to give fans a tailored experience, showing that Spotify really gets them,” Spotify wrote in a post on the for Brands website. it continues – “And we keep building on it — taking data storytelling to new heights to make each year’s recap more special than the last.”

Spotify LOVES Data

To be clear, Spotify has a lot of data on you. Everything from what brand of headphones you’re listening with, whether you turn the volume up within songs, whether or not you resize the app’s windows… Oh, and they definitely know what you’re doing when you stick on that Chill playlist. That’s right, Spotify knows more about you than simply how many times you binged the new Ariana album.

It might seem pretty unintrusive – after all, our listening habits aren’t really the most private things about us – but the concern hovers over the question of what exactly Spotify’s doing with all this data. If a chance to monetise this data came up, would Spotify not grab it with two hands?

Interestingly enough, neither of Spotify’s founders, Daneil Ek and Martin Lorentzon, worked in the music industry before founding the company back in 2006. Where did their backgrounds lie? Within advertising technology. It leads us to ask the question – is Spotify a music-streaming service, or a creepy data hoarder, obsessed with manipulating the moods of its users?

Spotify has been in hot water for data harvesting before. Back in 2019, it came out that they’d been selling listener data to advertisers, even when the user was in ‘private session’. What’s more, Spotify shares listener data from mood-related playlists directly with the some of the world’s biggest marketing firms. This means that advertisers such as Coca-Cola could choose to play an “Open Happiness” ad specifically when users are listening to music intended to boost their mood.

Again, Spotify is pretty brazen about this, boasting in one advertising deck that: “At Spotify we have a personal relationship with over 191 million people who show us their true colors with zero filter. That’s a lot of authentic engagement with our audience: billions of data points every day across devices!” .

If we’re being cynical, the Wrapped feature – as glorious as it is – is a technicolour, Insta-worthy way of making online surveillance seem less malevolent, even friendly. It’s a comforting arm around your shoulder that reassures you that all this data collection isn’t for their gain – it’s all so you can chart your true musical individuality (psych) and showcase it proudly like a 00s pop punk badge on your well-worn Vans backpack.

Anyway, I’m off to refresh the Wrapped website whilst listening to some midwest emo. Spotify, you’ll always be my favourite creep.