Opening Spotify, one might argue that any gender disparity in its streaming service is its own doing. The home page feels much like a Hanna-Barbera corridor. You could check out New Music Friday, with hot hits from Shawn Mendes, Kodaline or David Guetta; or The Pop List, which includes tracks from the likes of David Guetta, Shawn Mendes and Kodaline.
According to BuzzAngle’s end-of-year report, the thousand most-streamed songs accounted for around a third of all audio streaming in 2017 (for context, Spotify is generally quoted as being host to over 30 million songs). Spotify carefully chooses the songs that appear in its algorithmically-honed playlists and brand tie-ins, so the top performers stay at the top.
The top ten most-streamed tracks of 2017 contained none by women. The answer to this, for Spotify, lies in a branded, algorithmically-honed playlist. The Smirnoff Equaliser was introduced for International Women’s Day, but has gained prominence since then, as intrigued devotees of music and equality realise it doesn’t work.
Users are offered a playlist based on a six-month snapshot of their listening, which they can alter dynamically as the service suggests artists to even out the gender balance. Results are patchy, with a strange predilection for suggesting Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You.’
The additions to my own male-skewed list are not brilliantly discerning. In the company of The Smiths and cuts from Editors’ latest album, songs from Dua Lipa and Ariana Grande do not make for a consistent listening experience.
Nor do they turn the spotlight on lesser-known artists. DJ and LGBTQ+ activist Honey Dijon says in a promotional video that the service gives artists ‘the chance to be seen and heard.’ Dua Lipa was the most-streamed female artist in the UK in 2017, and has featured in adverts for Adidas, Vauxhall and Google – she does not lack the chance to be seen and heard.
If the goal is simply raising awareness of unconscious gender biases, then the Equaliser is a success. Further, it lets you go some way to addressing your concerns. But it does not do enough, and without featuring artists who might benefit from the exposure, all the service achieves is to send the user on their way to listening equality with a vague sense of responsibility.
The Smirnoff branding is also concerning. According to a report published in JAMA Psychiatry last August, rates of high-risk drinking among women are increasing. Diageo, the company that produces Smirnoff, released special ‘Jane Walker’-branded editions of its Johnnie Walker whiskey to celebrate this.
Spotify could do more to back artists, but it does not need to. It will list its shares on the New York Stock Exchange next week – with little explanation of how this will affect artist payment. It has already had well-publicised disputes with musicians. The Smirnoff Equaliser’s haphazard execution means it is hard to see it as anything other than two corporations capitalising on a trend – claims to gender equality masking another attempt to lead people down the same rolling corridor.