It seems the most wonderful time of the year has officially been overshadowed. To teenagers on the internet, present company included, the beginning of December no longer marks the long-awaited holiday season, but rather the release of Spotify Wrapped. Since its first year, Spotify Wrapped has been providing a generation obsessed with astrology and MBTI personality types another invaluable method of broadcasting our identity to the internet. The idea of receiving your most personal songs and musicians of the year wrapped up in a pretty bow seems perfect. However, though the product is wildly successful, its creation has faced controversy.
The basic concepts of Spotify Wrapped—viewing your year in music—has existed since 2015. Since then, in one form or another, users have been able to gain insights into their most-played (and presumably favorite) songs and artists of the past year. However, in its infancy, Spotify Wrapped wasn’t nearly as socially dominant. Users only received a personal link to view their listening habits of the year, so posting it online wasn’t the norm.
Soon enough, “Your Year in Music” morphed into Spotify Wrapped, the marketable series of graphics that users could virtually show to all their friends and followers. Brand new personal insights such as listening time, soundtrack themes, and bingeable songs all made the public eager to share their personalized data online. You could now show the world that you streamed Moon Song by Phoebe Bridgers 30 times in a row, or that you were in the top 0.005% of your favorite artist’s listeners. Music narrates people’s most emotional moments and their most valued identities, so people have jumped on the opportunity to display it. Though undoubtedly genius, the implementation of this concept came with backlash from social media users.
In December 2020, when Spotify Wrapped was officially made into a colorful series of social media graphics, Howard alumnus Jewel Ham came forward on Twitter and addressed her uncredited role in inventing the platform. She said she created the Spotify Wrapped idea during a summer 2019 internship. Ham provided the images and graphics she constructed for her final project at the company, displaying uncanny resemblances to the current design of Spotify Wrapped.
Ham’s tweets soon went viral, eliciting outrage from thousands. With enough traction, media outlets reached out to Spotify inquiring about the invention of Wrapped. As expected, Spotify denied that Ham prompted the campaign, claiming that, “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.” Despite this statement, the evidence still says otherwise. Most agree Ham played a large role in the design of Spotify Wrapped. However, whether or not Ham’s claims are recognized by Spotify, the situation highlights a larger issue regarding internships, credit, and art as a whole.
"At the end of the day, the problem here is not that Spotify stole my idea. It's that I gave it to them," Ham said in a tweet. Though she received a stipend for her time at Spotify, the amount of impact her ideas potentially had on the company seem to warrant much more compensation. When it comes to unpaid or underpaid forms of labor such as internships, where a majority of compensation comes in the form of ‘experience,’ workers face a grim dilemma. They are expected to give every ounce of effort in an attempt to enter the industry, but they are also expected to receive little actual credit for the overt amount of hours they put into creating a new idea, such as the case with Ham. It calls into question the ethics of ‘experience’ as payment.
In addition, the problem with unpaid internships extends far beyond issues of credit or effort. As college students know all too well, securing internship positions is practically essential in the current job markets, with over 80% of ‘Big Four’ accounting positions filled by those with internship experience. However, because so many internships are unpaid, these necessary experiences get locked behind a paywall that only privileged applicants can access. Expecting an applicant to find transportation, housing, and cover other living expenses while not earning a wage practically weeds out applicants without substantial resources. This system can not only rob people of credit, but also of their career.
For Spotify, internships aren’t the only area of controversial compensation. In recent years, the company has come under fire for underpaying its artists and lacking transparency in the ways they compensate. According to the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, artists only make an average of 0.00038 cents per stream, with advocates pushing for an increase to one cent.
The union also advocates for a change to Spotify’s system of compensation. Under Spotify’s current model, the pro rata system, streaming revenue does not go directly to the artist. Rather, it goes to the labels who give Spotify their artists’ catalogs, and is then distributed to each artist based on what percentage of their label’s streams they had. Therefore, though you may not stream a certain artist, they may receive some of your streaming revenue if they control a large enough portion of Spotify’s total listeners. This system, in addition to muddling transparency, encourages artists with mass appeal at the top of the pyramid, while underpaying independent artists with smaller but perhaps more committed fanbases.
Unstable compensation isn’t limited to the corporate environment. Problems with Spotify’s internship program reflect a larger issue with art and its exploitation under the economy of streaming. Now that we have largely exchanged music ownership for streaming, we must advocate for a fairer system of compensation for artists and employees alike. In order to be trusted with nearly the entire world’s music library, Spotify must assure that their business models are the fairest they can be.