Spotify has become a benchmark for measuring K-pop success, but it limits the growth of the K-pop listening audience. Despite changes in its algorithm, YouTube remains the place to develop and grow as a K-pop listener because of the input of other K-pop fans.
Spotify is recognized for spearheading the music streaming revolution, changing the music distribution model that gave music away for little to nothing to the public and profited from artists in other ways, as Michael Hann explains: “[Spotify’s] main business is not helping listeners discover new music (something it’s not very good at), but collecting information about listeners in order to sell its audiences to advertisers.”
When Spotify began to feature K-pop, it was seen as a win for global K-pop fans. Finally, they had a (legal!), reliable site to access their favorite groups. For some, it was an opportunity to draw attention to their faves with high streaming counts. Kate Whitehead credits the increased global spread of K-pop to Spotify: “In 2014, Spotify launched its K-pop flagship playlist K-pop Daebak, which now has more than 2.4 million followers. Between January 2014 and January this year, K-pop streams increased more than 1,800 per cent and during the same period users listened to more than 134 billion minutes of K-pop on Spotify.” For many K-pop fans, it has become the primary source of K-pop.
However, that access comes at a cost in terms of the variety of K-pop to which fans are exposed, a variety that is vital in creating a listening audience with diverse tastes. Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes argue: “Spotify prides itself on its personalised recommendations, which work by connecting dots between ‘data points’ assigned to songs (from rap, indie, and so on, to infinite micro-genre permutations) to determine new music you might like. Its model doesn’t code for surprise, but perpetuates “lean-back” passivity.” Using data to curate the listener’s experience, Spotify de-emphasizes the discovery of new music that may be far afield of a listener’s preferences.
This is contrast to other ways that global fans develop their K-pop preferences in the past. My own research reveals that K-pop fans have a tendency to seek out new groups and artists after their initial exposure to K-pop. This branching is guided by recommendations from friends as well as YouTube playlists and recommendations. YouTube represents a fundamentally different way of accessing music, one that gives a larger role to the human component in the form of other fans. For example, listeners can access playlists compiled by fans that include entries based on their likes.
The presence of simply more music outside the bounds of those determined by data shapes our conception of the music in general. I compiled a playlist a YouTube playlist for my book, Soul in Seoul: African American Music and K-pop. For example, I was able to find examples by R&B artists who incorporate a monologue at the beginning of their songs, like the Chi-Lites‘ “Have You Seen Her,” the same kind of monologue that K-pop group Shinhwa incorporates into their 2004 track “Crazy.”
When I went to create my playlist on Spotify, Shinhwa’s album Brand New was missing from the artist listing, which is a serious omission. Brand New was Shinhwa’s first album after their departure from SM Entertainment, the company with which the group debuted. Not only is it incredibly significant in terms of the development of the group’s sound, it features several hit songs, including “Crazy” and “Brand New.” But a Spotify listener would not know this. In this way, Spotify shapes the listening experience of an individual in a way that omits significant parts of an artist’s musical trajectory.
What does this mean for K-pop? The inability to encounter music outside of a data-driven model means that K-pop listeners are limited if they largely access their K-pop from streaming sites that use such a model, which can skew their overall perception of K-pop.
Cloud. “The Chi-lites “Have you seen her.” YouTube. 10 Apr 2009. https://youtu.be/xVYxKRXDT2I
Kate Whitehead. “How Spotify Had a Hand in K-pop’s Meteoric Rise BTS, Blackpink and EXO Among App’s Top Streamed Bands.” South China Morning Post. 27 Feb 2020. https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/entertainment/article/3052419/how-spotify-had-hand-k-pops-meteoric-rise-bts-blackpink-and
Michael Hann. “How Spotify’s Algorithms Are Ruining Music.” Financial Times. 2 May 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/dca07c32-6844-11e9-b809-6f0d2f5705f6
Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes. “Has 10 years of Spotify Ruined Music?” The Guardian. 5 Oct 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/oct/05/10-years-of-spotify-should-we-celebrate-or-despair
omega. “[역대1위곡] 신화(Shinhwa) – 열병(Crazy).” YouTube. 10 Sept 2016. https://youtu.be/BxsSmAXRaXo
Shinwha Official. “GROUP SHINHWA – ‘Brand New’ Official Music Video.” YouTube. https://youtu.be/YowZgL1AOTA
Spotify, YouTube and the Shaping of the K-pop Listening Audience by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.