Dec 20th, 2020, 02:25 PM

What's In a Genre: Spotify Wrapped 2020

By Clara Appia
Image Credit: Spotify Newsroom, Spotify Wrapped 2020
How many genres actually are there, and what does all of this mean for the artists?

It’s that time of year — Spotify Wrapped dropped its 2020 edition early this December. In addition to the usual data-based presentation of users' most listened to songs and playlists, there was a new slide in the 2020 Wrapped format that let people know how many genres they had explored in the past 11 months. This led to some minor confusion on social media as music lovers began to wonder exactly how many genres of music there are, and also brought about renewed scrutiny towards the inner-workings of Spotify. 

Wrapped is typically packed full of insights on the artists, songs, genres and podcasts that each unique user has listened to. Between personal Discover Weekly playlists created by Spotify and a seemingly never-ending slew of daily data-backed recommendations spawned by your listening habits, many users spend tens of thousands of hours on both the desktop and mobile versions of the application.


Some interesting and unknown genres apparently include “stomp and holler” and “tropical,” which has begged the question of what exactly is going on with the algorithm at Spotify headquarters. Although listeners may classify their music as simply rap, hip hop, pop, rnb, soul and so on, thousands of sub-genres are delineated in the Spotify library. Data is at the cornerstone of Spotify’s business, and the sheer amount of it of course needs qualification.

This is where engineer and data alchemist Glenn McDonald comes in. His algorithmically-generated website Every Noise at Once counted 1,264 genres of music in 2014. As of December 2020, that number stands at over 5,000 data-tracked genre distinctions for Spotify.


"I worry about anything at Spotify that takes in numbers on one end and tries to produce music experiences on the other — I try to make sure that the numbers make sense, and that the musical experience makes sense," explained McDonald about his technical role with the company. Every Noise at Once is a vast map containing familiar genres like pop, rap and classical as well as niche genres like German partyschlager, Soviet synthpop and gotico Brasiliero. While this can be confusing for some music fans, it provides enthusiasts with a deeper look at how music trends travel across regions and through time. 

Using machine learning to evaluate the deeper acoustic attributes of music was originally the business of Echonest, a music intelligence company. When Spotify acquired the company in 2014, McDonald began the process of analyzing music data over time to isolate new musical directions of artists and further isolate listeners' tastes. It is by examining this data that analysts at Spotify can identify which artists might coalesce into a new genre that eventually becomes added to users' Spotify Wrapped. 

“Everything [goes] through stages — right now, we're coming out of an era in which Auto-Tune dance-pop was kind of the exclusive definition of 'pop,' and into one in which that plus hip-hop is what we mean by it,” remarked McDonald as he explained the emergence of the rap sub-genre trap queen

This move was intentional. Spotify predicted and continues to bet on the trend toward rapidly multiplying subgenres. As online streaming services allowed users to listen to music on-demand, their carefully curated playlists actively encouraged listeners to break out of rigid genre definitions. That bet has paid off. 

“What we want to do is make Spotify more of a ritual,” said Shiva Rajaraman, the company’s vice president of product in 2015. “You’ll begin to use it for a set of habits, and we will start to feed content for every slot in your day.”

What About the Artists?

2020 has been a rough year for the music industry as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic canceled shows, festivals and international tours. The musicians and creators themselves have unfortunately borne the brunt of the economic downturn. While Spotify offers artists a similar Wrapped format as users to account for their year on the platform, the company does not explicitly say how much it pays artists per stream. 

Analysts have estimated it to be about $0.00318, meaning that a rights holder would receive $3.18 (£2.74) per 1,000 streams. Streaming sites like Bandcamp moved early in the pandemic to give a larger share of their profits directly to the musicians, waiving their share of the revenue for the entire day of Friday, March 20. Listeners and supporters spent $4.3 million on music and merchandise in those 24 hours, smashing typical Friday spending 15 times over in order to support their favorite artists. 

However, musicians have had to put increased pressure on Spotify to triple payments to cover lost concert revenue. Activists have taken to social media to explain the compensation structure and advocate for a more equitable split. 


Spotify shares with major record labels 52 percent of all net receipts attributed to their artists. Both parties agreed to this in 2017 and it is believed that the arrangement has remained unchanged since then. The music streaming company generated $2.05 billion (€1.89 billion) in quarter two of 2020. 52 percent of this money, or $1.07 billion, was paid in royalties to labels and distributors, who split these profits with their artists. For the top-performing musicians, this cut of the payout may be sufficient, but for the tens of thousands who are not top tier performers, the financial picture is a bit grimmer. With these mid to low tier performers left to split 10 percent of the 2.05 billion, the average take home for nearly 3 million artists equaled about $12 over this same period. 

While the 43,000 top performing artists and their labels may be able to generate enough income to support their efforts, millions of artists are being left to fend for themselves. Swedish billionaire and Spotify CEO Daniel Ek rejects that narrative, explaining that he had yet to see a single artist produce content with the money they made from streaming alone. However, he highlighted that artists should be happy that there is a larger share of the pie to go around given the ever-increasing number of artists on the platform as its popularity grows. With nearly 286 million active users of Spotify and 130 million premium subscribers, the company has seen growing profits in recent years.

“It’s quite interesting that while the overall [revenue] pie is growing, and more and more people can partake in that pie, we tend to focus on a very limited set of artists,” said Ek as he referenced the millions of artists and fans who have spoken up about the economic disparity and compensation charts.

Ek is encouraging artists to create more music to forge deeper and richer connections with their fans. According to the billionaire CEO, musicians who cannot make a living on the platform may not be in step with modern standards, and instead need to focus on upping their digital marketing and outreach to find more listeners. 

The complaints against the company extend to former interns as well. Former intern Jewel Lam conceptualized a revamp of the Spotify Wrapped format in 2019 as part of a design project with the company. 


A post shared by jewel (@whateverjewel)


"I was a person that had Spotify and loved Wrapped, but it was just a link they would send at the end of the year," she explained to Refinery 29. "It was just something that you personally knew about." Her redesign was presented at the end of her Digital Design internship with the company in NYC and has since turned into a cultural phenomenon. Her reimagined layout has been repurposed into memes, calls to action for activists and more since its unveiling in 2019. 

Spotify for its part rejects Ham's characterization of the events. "Since Spotify’s Wrapped concept was first introduced in 2013, hundreds of employees have contributed ideas and creative concepts that have made the experience what it is today. While ideas generated during Spotify’s internship program have on occasion informed campaigns and products, based on our internal review, that is not the case here with Spotify Wrapped. It’s unfortunate that things have been characterized otherwise,” explained a spokesperson

At the end of the day, explained Ham, the issue is not with Spotify stealing or misappropriating her labor. Her quarrel lies in the same realm as many of the artists who believe they have been shortchanged by Spotify's wider compensation policies. The way labor and creativity are leveraged by the billion-dollar entertainment streaming platform is inequitable for many of its current creators. With few options for monetization and a global pandemic restricting in-person events for the time being, 2021 is set to be an interesting year for streamers, creators and stockholders alike.