Music and Identity in Streams: Spotify's Affordances as a Space for Identity Work


Music streaming services (e.g. Spotify, Apple Music), typified by their ability to tailor services to the taste and listening behavior of their users (Prey, 2017), are changing how music is consumed, experienced, and shared (Hagen, 2015; Datta et al., 2017). Few studies, however, have focused on the roles music streaming services and the practices they afford (e.g. curating public and private playlists) play within the identity project of the users. This paper fits within a project that examines minority identity-related practices on music streaming services.

The possibility of being presented with, and making, tailored playlists, as well as the accessibility of millions of diverse tracks and artists, might offer opportunities for minority identity politics, for which music has often been used as a vehicle (Leibetseder, 2010; Lipsitz, 1992). At the same time, platforms’ affordances and commercial logics have the ability to enact, steer, and constrain the kinds of music users come across and, consequently, the range of identity-related practices. They can do so by favoring and foregrounding certain artists, genres and practices, and leaving out or neglecting those that are non-mainstream or activist.

This study aims to map the affordances of music streaming service Spotify and examine the opportunities and constraints for identity work by its users. How does Spotify enable music listeners to listen to, find, and share music and how can these listeners negotiate and express their (musical) identity? Moreover, which alternative, counterhegemonic practices and uses, unintended by Spotify, are possible? To answer these questions, we will use the app walkthrough method, developed by Light, Burgess & Duguay (2016), who call it ‘a way of engaging directly with an app’s interface to examine its technological mechanisms and embedded cultural references to understand how it guides users and shapes their experiences (882).’ The method, grounded in the idea of technology and culture as mutually shaping, combines approaches from science technology studies and cultural studies. By ‘slowing down the mundane actions and interactions that form part of normal app use in order to make them salient and therefore available for critical analysis (882),’ we can explore the history, vision, operating model, and modes of governance of Spotify. Moreover, it allows us to map and analyze the various ways the service can be used in an everyday context (e.g., listening modalities, playlist curation), whether and how users can connect with and textually represent themselves to other users and non-users, and it lays bare the embedded sociocultural representations of the platform. The study provides a starting point for further research, including our own project that aims to understand the identity work by people with minority identities on music streaming services.