Like many of you, I use the music-sharing platform Spotify as my primary listening app. Each week, Spotify generates a new playlist of 30 songs specifically chosen to match each listener’s preferences, called Discover Weekly. My Discover Weekly for the week of January 15-21 included several unfamiliar artists and one very familiar artist: The Northwestern Nor’easters.
The Nor’easters were brought to my attention last spring, when I was abroad and they were winning the International Championship of Collegiate a Cappella. I had since forgotten about the group, until this past week when I saw their name on Spotify. They recently released a new album, Collective, Vol. I, and the song “FOOLS” started playing from my Discover Weekly as I ran errands. Upon realizing what I was listening to, I immediately searched for the rest of their album and listened to it a few times.
The Nor’easters’ album was impressive, demonstrating their dynamic ability to perform various moods with energy and skill. The songs “Cheyenne” and “715- Cr∑∑KS,” the first two of the album, are two poles in texture. “715-Cr∑∑KS,” originally by Bon Iver, emphasized dissonance and utilized strategic silences. My favorite piece off of their album is the song “FOOLS.” The song opens with gentle oohs and aahs filling in the introduction, then the group sets up the verse and drama of the lyrics. It was easy to notice the craftsmanship that went into the creation of the album and this particular song.
Upon listening to the album several times, I realized that many Bates groups were likely on Spotify, and I quickly looked up some of my favorite songs. After some digging, I found albums and tracks by many Bates groups. “Love You Long Time” and “Bust Your Windows/Why don’t you love me?” by the Merimanders and “Sexual Healing” by the Deansmen are easily my three favorite tracks by Bates groups on Spotify, and I consequently listened to them on repeat for longer than I would like to admit.
As I listened to the Nor’easters, Deansmen, and Merimanders, I came to the realization that I enjoyed their music as much as I liked the music of other “professional” musicians on Spotify. I started to reflect. Singing sans instruments does not preclude a singer from having talent or devoting time to their craft, and my Spotify history clearly demonstrates that a cappella musicians have audiences. Why don’t we hear more a cappella groups on the radio or online? Why was I so surprised to hear a cappella while I ran errands?
Much like how Facebook caters ads to each user, Spotify runs algorithms to determine what type of music users would like based on their listening habits. While I definitely appreciate some aspects of this technology, I am now left wondering what wonderful music I am missing out on because Spotify doesn’t think I will enjoy it. I am struck by how much I enjoy the a cappella music Spotify had hidden from me, because I had grown so trusting in the application’s ability to predict my music tastes. My biggest takeaway from this realization is that, as intelligent consumers, we should be aware of how often we depend upon algorithms to know our preferences, and how misleading these algorithms can be.