Robert Prey knows what you’re listening to

Stuck in a Spotify bubble

You probably listen to music on Spotify every single day. Media scientist Robert Prey says you should be aware of the way what you listen to is being influenced. ‘They’re packaging the music for you.’
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Door Thijs Fens

1 September om 16:03 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:16 uur.
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By Thijs Fens

September 1 at 16:03 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:16 PM.
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Thijs Fens

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‘Easy on Sunday’, ‘Coffeeshop’, ‘Made in NL’. You’ve probably seen these ready-made playlists being suggested on your Spotify account. Rather than consist of specific artists or specific themes, the lists have songs for specific situations, like a workout session or a relaxing afternoon. 

Playlists on Spotify aren’t new, but they have been changing lately, says Robert Prey, media scientist with the Faculty of Arts. It’s no longer about the genre, but about the context in which someone is listening to music. ‘Like the playlist “Acoustic Summer” you always listen to on a relaxing Sunday afternoon’, he says.  


Originally from Canada, Prey has been interested in the relationship between culture and technology. Technology fulfils a function, he explains, while culture exists to enrich our lives. ‘I’m interested in the tension between the two concepts. How do they interact? How does Spotify the technology mesh with the music?’

Prey says that Spotify has had a profound impact on the music world over the past few years. The playlists the platform offers are increasingly popular. ‘It makes sense, since they present the music in an easy package.’ 

That might be easy for listeners, but it does come with a dark side: most of the time, listeners have no idea who the singers or songwriters are. ‘That’s not okay’, says Prey. ‘We need to realise that these artists are people who are trying to earn a living from making music.’


He knows that algorithms are important to the platform. ‘Spotify analyses what people listens and bases its suggestions on that. They hope to keep people listening for as long as possible.’ 

Artists are just people trying to make a living

Artists would love to know how those algorithms work so they can make sure people find their music. ‘Today’s artists are very different from what musicians used to be’, says Prey. ‘Before, they’d write and record a song to be played on the radio. But now they have to figure out the best way to play their music the most often.’ 

This is a big deal; Prey says approximately forty thousand songs are uploaded to Spotify every day. ‘It’s hard to stand out from the crowd.’

The UG researcher analysed playlists and interviewed several artists. He realised they’re facing a dilemma. On the one hand, they’re happy that it’s easier than ever to get their music heard; the radio is no longer their only refuge. ‘But they’re also worried about disappearing in among those thousands of songs.’


Prey grew up in a small town in Canada, and went to college in Detroit, the birthplace of Motown. He used to listen to music a lot as a kid, but Detroit is where he truly embraced. ‘I wasn’t particularly musically gifted. But I joined a lot of bands, playing the drums or the guitar.’ 

He moved to South Korea for a television job and joined several bands there, as well. He then returned to Canada to do his PhD in Vancouver. Then, the opportunity for a job in Groningen arose. ‘Five years ago, they created this new programme, Media Studies. I applied and before I knew it my wife and child and I were on a plane to the Netherlands.’ 

Independent artists are developing new music trends

Back to his research, as there are more interesting findings to share. Spotify very specifically promotes certain artists in playlists and on social media. Starting in 2014, the company starts promoting its own playlists, which include many big label artists. ‘Big artists like Beyoncé will always profit from that.’

The big labels may dominate the playlists, but Spotify also takes time to promote independent labels. Prey applauds this, since it’s not something radio stations tend to do very much. ‘Independent artists are creative frontrunner and they’re the ones who are developing new music trends.’ 

Taste in music

Prey thinks it’s important that Spotify users know exactly how the platform works. It’s something he’s trying to teach his students. ‘This is the age at which they’re developing their taste in music. They have to know that there’s more than Spotify and what they recommend. They should listen to music through different platforms, talk to their friends about what they like, and go to places like Vera to listen to bands they’ve never heard of.’

He tries to follow his own advice. ‘I’ve made it a point to go to more live shows, since the royalties that Spotify and other platforms pay are so bad. It’s also just great fun.’

Why does my Spotify homepage look the way it does?

Prey’s own taste is music is eclectic. He likes funk, soul music, and afropop, but also enjoys indie rock and folk music. He uses Spotify a lot himself. Recently, he’s been listening to a lot of podcasts, like music podcast ‘Afropop Worldwide’. 

Does Prey have any musical tips? ‘I’ve been listening to the new Run the Jewels album a lot, and I love the Korean classic rock playlists “Korean Old Vinyls”.’

Leave your bubble

Since he started his research, he’s become more aware of how he uses Spotify. ‘I’m much more conscious of the playlists and podcasts they recommend to me. Why does my Spotify homepage look the way it does?’ 

Prey doesn’t reject the suggestions he gets, but he does try to leave his ‘bubble’. ‘I recommend this to everyone. Do it. It will improve your taste in music.’


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