Spotify knows we’ve got Ed Sheeran on repeat. Should it feel like a guilty secret?
Streaming services’ unforgiving metrics reveal our true habits. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also aim higher
Divide conquers: streaming pushed all 16 songs on Ed Sheeran’s new album into the top 20. Photograph: Ben Watts
We now have it on good authority that you cannot be trusted. You tell us one thing, then do another. Your private actions, which are now a matter of horrid public record, are so repugnant to industry leaders and cultural tastemakers that they are trying to take responsibility away from you.
Your great offence? Last week you put all 16 songs from Ed Sheeran’s new album, ÷, aka Divide, into the top 20, lined up as neatly as beaming hoofers in a parody step dance. This, and his similar achievement in the UK charts (nine songs in the top 10), propelled by streaming more than by sales, have both set records while prompting calls for a rethink of how the charts are calibrated.
Critical opinion and popular taste have rarely been in lockstep, but some of the response to Sheeran’s achievement resembles the rage of Shakespeare’s Caliban at not seeing his face in the mirror.
The charts are now distorted by streaming, goes the argument, for which 150 plays on Spotify are counted as equal to one sale. The music journalist Laura Snapes put it most stridently: “The dominance of streaming rewards passivity – repeat listening – rather than active discovery,” she wrote, adding that it “concentrates the vote into the hands of a certain group who love playing the same tracks over and over. The public’s most prevalent tastes are thus revealed in gory detail.”
That makes it sound that the problem with streaming isn’t that it’s misleading but that it’s too accurate an account of behaviour. This has long been the guilty secret of many people’s iPods, which keep merciless track of their 25 most played songs, data that, in some circumstances, can be more compromising than WikiLeaks. (I once took malicious glee to find that a hipper-than-thou friend’s most played song was Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling. What a feeling.)
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that our cultural habits, as much as any aspect of our behaviour, seem to change when we know we’re being monitored and when we think we’re not being followed. One reason first attributed to the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon was the rise of the ereader: unlike a telltale book jacket, the device doesn’t broadcast your literary choice to fellow commuters or waiting-room snoops.
The idea of a “guilty pleasure” now seems almost quaint, yet the discrepancies between your Hodges Figgis bestseller list and the Kindle chart still suggest a furtive pattern. Even Simone Sowood, author of this week’s electronic hit Arousal, might encourage you to judge her book by its cover, a glistening depiction of taut abs beneath a loose bow tie, unlikely to mistaken for the new Sebastian Barry.
The evidence suggests, though, that we aren’t even particularly honest with ourselves when it comes to our stated tastes and our actual consumption. When Netflix was still a mail-out DVD-rental company, issuing movies that its subscribers placed in a queue, it was puzzled to discover that certain films languished unwatched and unreturned. An economics experiment helped provide an answer: asked to pick a film to watch straight away and another for a later date, most people chose fluff first and an important drama for later. By the time the serious film arrived they still wanted trash. Moonlight may win the Oscar for best picture, but it doesn’t take an envelope mix-up to make you opt for La La Land instead.
There’s a good reason, then, that Netflix, Amazon Prime or any of the streaming TV services doesn’t provide charts for its content, while television stations are always watching their figures. Commercial broadcasters sell eyeballs to advertisers, so numbers matter. But streaming services make their money from subscribers, where any tipped show, whether huge or niche, is another reason to sign up.
When a cawing report in Variety last year dwelled on how modest the apparently modest viewership was for Amazon’s much-awarded comedy Transparent – revealed by an analytic service that measures “what people do rather than what they say” – it missed the point. The buzz around Transparent might attract you to the service even if you only used it to keep abreast of Jeremy Clarkson’s noisesome controversies. The best intentions of your responsible self and the shameful behaviour of your actual self could both be appeased.
Technology and its unforgiving metrics have given us a much more precise reflection of our habits, just not our desires. Even Sheeran’s repeat listeners will become jaded if his chart dominance leads to too many soundalikes, and Netflix subscribers will grow wary if another series of Stranger Things comes at the expense of The Crown.
There may, indeed, be a gulf between what people do and what they say, but our stated intentions aren’t a rouse either. If the tug of instant gratification has delayed you from the discovery of something worthwhile, it’s time to get around to it.