A quick glance through Spotify India’s charts will leave you surprised. India’s Top 50, a compilation by Spotify based on the most streamed songs of the previous week features homegrown independent artists, global pop stars and Bollywood artists. “Brown Munde”, a Punjabi song by AP Dhillon, has been a chart topper for nearly three months now. Alongside homegrown artist AP Dhillon is The Weeknd, an American pop artist who is currently #1 in the world based on the number of monthly Spotify listeners, and Bollywood playback singer Arijit Singh. But is this what India is listening to?
What’s surprising is that regional, independent artists like AP Dhillon are finding their place amongst global chart toppers on Spotify even though their exposure and reach do not usually match that of American pop artists or Bollywood singers. Spotify’s editorial playlists which are curated by music experts and genre specialists around the globe provide independent artists a chance to pitch their music to Spotify directly, giving music producers like AP Dhillon a fighting chance against the dominance of Bollywood or globally popular music. The chance to pitch music to Spotify Playlist Editors coupled with Spotify’s algorithms, which assess a listener’s taste and preferences to recommend AI generated playlists to them, gives independent artists a chance to feature in these recommendations. So it would not be surprising to see upcoming RnB/Trap artists like AP Dhillon in a recommended playlist with global sensations like Drake, Post Malone and The Weeknd because of the similarity in genre.
However, Spotify’s algorithmic mechanisms tend to create a deluding image of what is actually trending on the ground. According to a report on Spotify usage by LiveMint, 25-55 year olds in Gujarat are only listening to Bollywood Music, but users in Goa across ages only listen to international music. On Spotify India’s charts, these varying tastes and preferences get compiled into a single playlist, without accounting for regional outliers like Goa and Gujarat. At this point, it is important to examine the role of Spotify’s algorithm, called BART (Bandits for Recommendations as Treatments).
BART first analyses the language, lyrics and content of the song that listeners are tuning into. In the second stage, it detects the “vibe” or “mood” of a song and decides whether it’s upbeat, chill, heavy, minimal, instrumental, and so on as part of a mechanism to recommend new music that is similar to the listener’s tastes and preferences. Based on these results, Spotify’s AI technology will curate a playlist for listeners on a daily basis called “Daily Mix”. These algorithms have the power to create a listener’s own musical universe that is solely based on the user’s taste and preferences in music as detected by a software. For instance, if a listener shows interest in Bollywood singer Arijit Singh, then Spotify will recommend artists like Atif Aslam and Armaan Malik in the listener’s daily mix. Which is why unlike other popular Indian streaming platform charts like Gaana and JioSaavn, Spotify India charts tend to be a misleading assortment of musical choices, which are largely influenced by Spotify algorithms. Unless a listener is curating their own playlists without relying on Spotify’s recommendations, there is a low chance that listeners will move out of this musical bubble that they have been pushed into by Spotify.
External factors like Spotify’s market share in India and how listeners in India access their music are also crucial in determining whether we can rely on Spotify India charts to reflect what India is listening to. In the period between 2014-2020, India saw a massive drop in data prices from 270 INR to 11 INR, paving way for India’s digital revolution. Global service providers like Spotify, Amazon Music and YouTube Music have used this opportunity to penetrate the music streaming markets in India which were previously being dominated by Gaana, JioSaavn and Wynk Music. According to a report by INC42, as of September 2020, Spotify had amassed 42.1 million Monthly Active Users (MAU), overtaking Gaana which had 41.1m MAU. JioSaavn with 44.9m MAU was the market leader, followed by Wynk Music at 43.1m MAU. All these streaming platforms curate charts of their own, but they never seem to match. “Brown Munde” does not find itself on Gaana’s “Top Trending Hits”, or on JioSaavn’s “Trending Today” playlist. Even global hit songs like “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd and “Senorita” by Shawn Mendes, which featured on “Spotify India Top 50”, don’t make an appearance on Gaana or JioSaavn’s chart toppers. Bollywood and regional film music are much more prominent on Gaana, JioSaavn and Wynk Music charts in comparison to Spotify. This indicates that consumers remain largely divided on which streaming platforms they prefer, based on the music they prefer to listen to. Most listeners who prefer Bollywood music, are more likely to use Gaana and JioSaavn, and the reasons for this could be multiple. For instance, these platforms might offer a better collection of Bollywood music as opposed to competitors, or the price of these platforms could influence consumer preferences as well. Spotify, being a new entrant, might not have penetrated the market to its full potential, or users who have been long time users of other apps prefer familiarity as all streaming platforms have different user interfaces which are hard to get accustomed to at first.
It would be wrong to assume that Spotify’s charts are an accurate representation of what India is listening to. While this might be true to Spotify, the music streaming market in India is still growing and largely nuanced in terms of consumption. Spotify however is a special case that still needs examination because it is run by algorithms which are much more advanced than other streaming platforms. This is simply because the app recommends music based on multiple factors through BART, a luxury that is uncommon amongst other platforms. At this point of time, it can be speculated that different factors affect the way in which songs place themselves in the charts across platforms. In the future, even when all these streaming platforms reach complete market potential, Spotify India charts are still likely to differ in their charts from other service providers. For this, only the algorithm can be blamed.
Rohan Pai is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In his free time, you’ll find him singing for a band, producing music and video content.
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