Duke University Popular Music Response Discussion Response

choose a video (a music video, a video of a live performance, a concert film,  an Instagram live stream…) and write a response (650-1000 words) to  it. Using the ideas and concepts we have talked about in the  course, you will discuss the role of your object or site within the  context of contemporary popular music culture. Don’t write a simple summary or review of the video or performance. While these aspects may  be included, the primary goal of the paper is to analyze and critically engage the video or performance using course theories and concepts.

  Popular Music and Society
ISSN: 0300-7766 (Print) 1740-1712 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rpms20
The Playlist Experience: Personal Playlists in Music
Streaming Services
Anja Nylund Hagen
To cite this article: Anja Nylund Hagen (2015) The Playlist Experience: Personal
Playlists in Music Streaming Services, Popular Music and Society, 38:5, 625-645, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2015.1021174
Published online: 10 Mar 2015.
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Date: 25 September 2017, At: 21:26
Popular Music and Society, 2015
Vol. 38, No. 5, 625–645, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2015.1021174
The Playlist Experience: Personal
Playlists in Music Streaming Services
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Anja Nylund Hagen
Music streaming services encompass features that enable the organization of music into
playlists. This article inquires how users describe and make sense of practices and
experiences of creating, curating, maintaining, and using personal playlists. The analysis
relies on a mixed-method study, including music-diary self-reports, online observations,
and in-depth interviews with 12 heavy users of Spotify or/and WiMP Music. The findings
suggest heterogeneous management of static and dynamic playlists based on structural
and contextual schemes of aggregating music. User control motivates different playlist
practices that demonstrate new ways of collecting music via streaming services but also
derive from pre-digital collecting.
Is it wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like
collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s
a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful,
sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history,
and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at
school, including music. (Hornby 83)
In the novel High Fidelity, Nick Hornby describes the contents of a record collection as
more powerful (or at least more interesting) than real life. Originality governs the
acquisition, combination, and organization of one’s records, and is the reason for the
solace they provide. In contemporary Norway, where this study has been conducted,
music-streaming services have supplanted records and CDs, as well as other digital
music formats, to become the mainstream technology for everyday music listening.
Norway is a leading international market when it comes to music streaming. In 2013
music-streaming revenues accounted for 75% of all recorded music revenues in
Norway (Ifpi Norge), and seven out of ten Internet users accessed one of the two
major services, Spotify and WiMP Music (TNS Gallup). Both these services are able to
supply more than 20 million tracks—a truly extensive range of music that is available
to both average listeners and hardcore fans.
In this atmosphere of music abundance, listening and collecting are in flux. People
listen to more artists than ever before (Maasø) using streaming technology on their
q 2015 Taylor & Francis
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personal mobile devices. This service model transforms Hornby’s obviously very
possessive sense of music ownership into the relatively carefree, even whimsical status
of the renter of access to vast musical archives via online subscription. As a renter, one
assembles and maintains a personal playlist (or one chooses among playlists that are
available for subscription from other users or the service provider).
By looking at practices and experiences related to these personal playlists, this
article investigates how people still manage to “collect” music in the age of the
streaming service. I begin with the following research question: How do streaming
users describe and make sense of their practices and experiences of creating,
maintaining, and using personal playlists?
By examining what is important to streaming users when they create and use their
playlists, I will shed light on individual user logics, structures, and preferences regarding
content creation, organization, and music use in this relatively new digital context.
I will first review the existing literature as I begin to construct my analytical framework.
The Literature
Practices related to streaming services have yet to occupy researchers to any extent,
even though the use of music-streaming services continues to grow, especially in the
Western world. Referring to the values that reigned in collecting in the pre-digital era
can help us begin to contextualize the perspective on collecting music in the digital
age. Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library,” for example, commemorates the
magnificent rituals of the book collector and emphasizes three qualities in particular:
ordering—“For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has
accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” (Benjamin 60);
owning—“The phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its owner” (67);
and desiring—“To renew the old world—that is the collector’s deepest desire when he
is driven to acquire new things” (61).
Jean Baudrillard distinguishes collecting from the inferior activity of accumulating
(22), noting that objects have two possibilities: they can be utilized or they can be
possessed (8). The first refers to the ways in which people harness things in the interest
of asserting practical control in the real world. The second refers to the subjective and
social status of the object divested of its utilitarian function and abstracted from any
practical control. Its destiny is now to be collected, rather than used (8). Baudrillard
further finds that the practices of “true” collecting include pursuing a succession of
singular objects, cultivating the passionate abstraction that is called possession, and,
of course, seeking out, categorizing, gathering, and disposing of objects themselves
(8– 10). The collection cannot exist as such without an internal scheme that may
speak to others but always, first and foremost, speaks to oneself (22). The collection’s
value is often individually assessed. Roy Shuker insists that “[t]here is no ‘typical’
record collector” (237); his study describes significant variation in the given fan’s
association of recordings with identity formation and life history, accumulation and
completism, and discrimination and connoisseurship (237).
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Whereas Baudrillard, Benjamin, and Shuker consider the collection of physical
things, the present article considers the collection of something that has now
apparently surrendered its physical materiality: music. What role the music’s
material form, the music media’s “thingness,” plays in the storage, processing, and
transmission of information (Straw 233) is of interest. “As key elements in the
material culture of music, formats—like the 78 rpm record, vinyl album, and compact
disc—were marked by distinctive sizes, storage capacities, and characteristic
relationships between musical and nonmusical information” (233). Attending to a
format’s aggregative features can reveal inherent, and telling, differences—or what
media theorist Friedrich Kittler (qtd. in Straw 233) would call a format’s “storage
capacity.” For example, an LP’s material form carries with it a distinctive protocol for
listening, and for encountering a given performer’s personality via the information
and a deliberately ordered series of tracks (Straw 234). However, with LPs too,
audiences have been able to subvert given music structures in personal listening
practices, and customization has been cultivated in individual recording practices, e.g.
in home taping and cassette mix taping. Nevertheless, digital formats like CDs and,
later, MP3 files have made the disruption of artists’ “album” presentations easier by
enabling the listener to select and reorder at whim (Straw 234). Also, at least since the
advent of Napster in 1999, online music practices including music downloads have
facilitated mass customization of the musical experience with aggregation of songs
independent of artist, genre, etc. (Jones 230) often with emphasis on single songs
rather than albums (Jones and Lenhart 194).
This already hints at how the digital format affects the listener in the context of
music aggregation. In understanding digital music collecting the user interface of
MP3 players and online music services is key, incorporating a range of material
infrastructures, processes, and practices (Beer 85). The properties or features of
objects, or specific settings available to a given technology, invite particular uses (Ian
Hutchby quoted in Gillespie, Boczkowski, and Foot 23). Still, users are always able to
find ways around this attempt at interpretive closure so that any given object or piece
of technology encompasses a range of intended or unintended uses. The relation
between how something is supposed to work and how people actually use it will
impact both the argument and the conclusions of the present article. Its detailed look
at audience practices will engage both the technology’s capacities and the user’s
capabilities and interests, specifically in light of contemporary conditions for
consumption and the individual premises for music listening.
In comparing music-streaming practices with earlier ideals for music collecting (recall
Hornby) one immediately encounters the dilemma that digital formats and streaming
services make it impossible to “collect” music as such (Burkart 247) because the format
offers music through subscription rather than ownership. Symbolic substitutes for
physical collections must then arise through software interfaces designed to enable (or
restrict) access to music and other cultural objects encoded in digital formats (247).
These interfaces require us to cede control to technology in a way that in turn offends the
music collector’s sensibility: “The controlled life of the music user within the digital
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A. N. Hagen
enclosure seems incommensurable with the empowered music user who once went to
record stores and bought, sold, traded, and collected CDs, LPs, and cassettes, who
retained the rights of first sale with which to build a collection” (249).
Nevertheless, as the forthcoming analysis will demonstrate, users continue to covet,
collect, stockpile, and enjoy music in these digital formats as though music remained
somehow a cultural object, which should be analyzed in relation to artifacts even if
they are not artifacts but only software (Sterne 831 –32). Digitized music via
streaming services and MP3 files, after all, is “designed for massive exchange, casual
listening and massive accumulation” (Sterne 838). These qualities have liberated
recorded music from the traditional economy of exchange value, within which
ownership status is central.
Relatedly, Marjorie Kibby found that music listeners who are actively engaged with
their collections interact with digital files just as they did with physical formats. Digital
music files play an important social and symbolic role in their owners’ lives, and
organizing, classifying, and aggregating them even gives the digital content a kind of
materiality (441). While this is likely true regarding CDs and even individual MP3
files, Kibby’s study does not encompass streaming services, where the continuity
begins to break down, as the owner becomes the renter.
Changes in patterns of human behavior are never technology-led alone. Still, the
popularity of music-streaming services manifests a shift in consumer behavior that is
about to happen. The music distribution era with linearly programmed channels and
objects or units for sale is now moving towards a consumption era where access is
valued over ownership (Mulligan). Subscription models are cannibalizing sales of
music: in Norway music downloads fell by 21% and physical sales fell by 29% from
2012 to 2013 (Dredge).
In this, new fan orientations and alignments with regard to this enterprise
encompass hoarding, sharing, and searching activities as a means of creating selfreflective digital music collections (Burkart 248). In cyberspace, that is, people collect
lists rather than objects, and those lists serve as a form of personal expression that
derives from but also supersedes the record collection (McCourt 251). Eighty-two
per cent of all user-generated playlists in WiMP Music have unique names, confirming
playlist making as a highly individualized practice (Maasø). As such, music is a
complex example of compulsive acquisition because music collections are at once
archives and participatory practices (Kibby 428), with users as content producers in
relation to the contexts and structures of personal music consumption.
More precisely, online users have become content curators, providing editorial
perspectives by highlighting particular content on websites and services that allow
them to categorize and organize collections of content created by others (Changtao
et al. 659). The concept of curation is a constructive model and metaphor offering a
solution to the issue of information overload online (Liu 3). It is based on ad hoc
expertise depending on skill sets and/or knowledge of topics or events, and is
associated with multiple activities or interactions (i.e. collecting, organizing,
preserving, filtering, crafting a story, displaying, and facilitating discussions).
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In socially distributed networks these activities are often interconnected and feed back
into each other (3). Nevertheless, Changtao and colleagues found that a majority of
online users view curation as a personal activity, rather than a social one. Online
curation then might provide a more personal value to the curator by collecting and
highlighting other sets of content than would be offered by using other methods, like
search (667).
Digital music archiving hence involves new sets of values in relation to music
collecting—the intangibility of digital files makes the music less emotionally valuable
than a recording medium you can hold in your hand, Tom McCourt argues (249).
Their visual and tactile aspects are reduced to simply data, metadata, and thumbnail
images, and in this way they are unable to contain their own histories (250).
Paradoxically, this lack of materiality and emotional resonance heightens the listener’s
interest in sampling, collecting, and trading music in new ways that make these
experiences more intense and intimate than owning a physical recording (250). This is
because digital technology offers more possibilities for modifying, altering, and
recontextualizing original content in ways that heighten utility, power, and control for
the users (251). Specifically, digital media make people want to compact music in
archives, cultivate immediacy in the ability to sort and regroup files effortlessly, and
devote attention to customizing this content. “Fluidity, rather than integrity, is the
defining characteristic of digital technology” (251).
Digital music technologies now regularly govern the everyday experience of time
and space (Bull) in ways that have become normalized as habitual and mundane
music practices (Beer 85). The study of these reconfigured music practices is
complicated by their inherent complexity and unpredictability, according to Beer
(78). It is my hope that the present article will contribute empirically grounded
observations regarding the precise implications of music-streaming services for this
growing area of inquiry.
I will apply several methodological models to my engagement with people’s sensemaking regarding their playlists, incorporating stated assumptions and strategies,
actual practices, and a range of personal experiences. I began with a self-reported diary
study, in the hopes of avoiding the potential distortions associated with retrospective
inquiries (Hektner, Schmidt, and Csikszentmihalyi 7).
I recruited heavy streaming users systematically to ensure that this study would
capture people with prodigious abilities to use technology as well as a great deal of
originality in user practices. Heavy users have had their streaming service
subscriptions for at least a year and use it daily (five to seven days per week).
I engaged half of the study participants following visits to three high schools in Oslo
and Akershus, Norway. After circulating participation proposals to about 60 students,
aged 17 to 18, I left with 16 acceptances, from which I chose six. I engaged the other
half of my participants by circulating information about the project on Facebook
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and Twitter, requesting interested users to contact me. Twenty people, aged 21 to 60,
replied, none of whom were known to me previously. Altogether, the final group of 12
participants included five male and seven female Spotify or WiMP Music subscribers
and encompassed high school students, advanced degree students, and workers in
various positions.
The initial instruction to the participants was to write diary entries on every musiclistening session that involved streaming services during four sampling periods that
lasted from two to three days. In the interest of securing reports of an everyday nature,
participants were not alerted about the sampling periods in advance—SMS and
emails indicated when a period was about to begin and end. Diary entries revolved
around seven questions that focused on (1) the listening context (location, date,
time); (2) the music context (what music, from which source, why start to listen now,
how was the music found); and (3) the listening experience (a description of the use of
the music, any parallel activities, the social or personal setting, any distractions,
emotions, and so on).
An earlier pilot study revealed that users would likely have different preferences for
reporting their streaming experiences, so diary material was allowed to encompass
handwriting in diary books, text messages, emails, screenshots from personal media
devices, and replies in spreadsheets created in Google Docs.
Observation and Interviewing
To complement the diary descriptions of participants’ online behavior, I followed
their Facebook profiles during the two months of diary reporting. I also observed their
“scrobble” activity via the digital platform Last.fm, a feature that finds, processes, and
distributes information about digital music listening. This alternative tracking
mechanism allowed me to determine whether behavior patterns changed during the
testing periods.
The multiple components of the study’s design made individual participant
briefings a necessity prior to the investigation, and I managed this via face-to-face
conversations with all but one participant (who lived some 600 kilometers away and
was briefed by telephone). In these briefings I addressed research topics and ethical
concerns such as Facebook friending, Last.fm observation, my frequent inquiries
during the upcoming testing period, and the maintenance of anonymity. All
participants consented in writing to take part in the study, and the Norwegian Social
Science Data Services accepted the project.
The diary study was followed by in-depth semi-structured interviews that lasted
between 40 and 60 minutes. Interview guides included a fixed section with standard
questions and an individually adjusted section that followed up on the conversation
and participant in question. All the participants brought along their most-used
devices for streaming music. This helped me to develop detailed insights through
precise questions, and helped the participants to speak more freely, because the
content and practices in question could be elucidated in direct relation to the
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actual playlists. All interviews were recorded, transcribed verbatim, and coded in
Also following the observation period, I continued to monitor the participant
accounts in Spotify and WiMP Music and captured screenshots from these interfaces.
This proved to be so valuable that, after the study had ended, I asked participants to
continue to send me screenshots with overviews from at least one of their streaming
devices and received permission to use these as illustrations as well. All of the
participants except one sent pictures that helped me to further ground my analysis.
In addition, a sporadic email exchange continued for a few months with some of the
study participants. I formally ended these relationships by informing everyone that the
data gathering was complete, after which I broke the Facebook and Last.fm connections
as well.
My accumulation of data over time produced a comprehensive impression
of evolving, individualized, and contextualized user practices with regard to the
fluctuating circumstances surrounding the music-streaming services. All of the
participants turned out to be passionate music fans and were very generous about
sharing their experiences. Most wrote relatively detailed daily reflections, sometimes
multiple times a day, and this material predictably presented users who were investing
more than most in maintaining their music collections. Obviously, less enthusiastic
music listeners, or listeners who were less interested in sharing their experiences,
would be harder to engage in this kind of investigation. My sources generated rich and
detailed descriptions of music-streaming practices, from which I derived the following
analysis using a bottom-up approach. All participant names and playlist titles
presented in the analysis are anonymized.
Findings: Structures and Logics of Personal Playlists
Heterogeneous Management
All of the participating music-streaming users had personal playlists in Spotify or
WiMP Music that they described as the playlists they used the most in everyday
listening. Within the relevant 12 streaming accounts, the total number of personal
playlists varied from one to 100, and the number of tracks in each playlist varied from
a few to more than 1,000.
During the observation period of the study, ongoing playlist activity was evident.
Some participants added and deleted entire playlists frequently; others modified and
updated content or titles of existing playlists. Some simply streamed the playlists
without changing them much at all. This variation in playlist manipulation indicated
that users demonstrate a lot of individuality in how they approach music-streaming
services, and further that playlists can be regarded as either closed or open “units” of
music, depending upon how static or dynamic they are. In the analysis that follows,
I will rely heavily upon these two terms as opposite poles of playlist behavior, though I
remain aware that, in fact, most people combine them to different degrees and ends.
A. N. Hagen
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Static Structures
With a static playlist, the user basically retains the original aggregation of music for
the life of the list. Tracks ordered within the structure of original album releases
represent (and inspire) numerous static playlists, even though the streaming service
enables the individual to reinvent the album as he or she sees fit.
Personally created playlists become static when the composition or editing of them
stops. Sometimes the playlists are felt to be complete; other times they are forgotten,
abandoned, or replaced. A playlist can become static immediately after it is created, or
more gradually, as was the case with the playlist Sofia (30) made for her 30th birthday
party. She assembled the playlist (titled Gibberish) in the weeks leading up to the party,
in collaboration with invited friends from her Spotify network. The playlist remained
static after the party, though Sofia still listened to it occasionally (diary notes/
interview, 6 May 2013).
Another typical situation in which playlists turn static arises when “best of”
playlists for a given year are abandoned as the next year arrives. This does not imply
that users never listen to them anymore but rather that the lists go from active to
archival. The aggregation of favorite tracks in “best of ” playlists was a common
practice for several study participants. Marius (24) felt that music-streaming services
made it very easy to summarize a year musically, thanks to their immediacy and
responsiveness: “So if I hear a track that is immediately good or I return to [it] several
times, I drag it into the list there” (interview, 28 May 2013).
Dynamic Structures
As mentioned, dynamic playlists can become static over time, but static playlists can
be revived as well. Once-static content, imported from external sources or other selfmade compilations, can supply a resource for a new playlist. Emma (17) consistently
used copies of her existing playlists as a basis for new ones in Spotify. She deleted some
songs, kept others, and added new ones, so that tracks began to overlap across her
Truly dynamic playlist management generally implies a steady increase in content;
more of the study participants manipulated by adding than by subtracting. Still, for
some users, deletion was part of the dynamic playlist process. During my interview
with Louise (17), she spontaneously removed a Rihanna song from her playlist
because it was too hip hop for her taste: “If I get tired of them [the tracks], I don’t like
them anymore, so then I just delete them” (interview, 23 May 2013). Louise’s frequent
playlist updates led her to maintain only one personal playlist in Spotify, titled Star, in
addition to a static list featuring her favorite band, Maroon Five. She consistently
updates Star according to her latest preferences. Just before I recruited her, she had
cleared the playlist of content, because it was a “mess.” Yet by the time of my interview
with her three months later, Star again had 193 tracks, including “Avril Lavigne,
and actually a lot of rock, but also some kind of hip-hop, but now I’m not fond of that
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hip-hop anymore. And soft rock. And pop in general. And a little bit of old songs and
such, like jazz and . . . it’s very mixed, in a way” (interview, 23 May 2013). This static/
dynamic list demonstrated her restless relationship with different kinds of music.
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Temporary Playlists
In addition to updating existing playlists, a dynamic approach includes frequently
creating new playlists. Nathalie (17) is very “playlist oriented,” meaning that most of
her listening sessions catered to playlists. She retained some of them permanently,
adding to them according to specific strategies that I will present in the next section.
She devoted others to certain passing occasions, such as a walk she happened to take,
or a particular day at school. Often she deleted the temporary playlists right after the
occasion in question had passed—the playlist titled March, which she described in her
diary, was gone by the time of her interview in late April.
Nathalie put a lot of effort into sorting and placing tracks in her context-sensitive
playlists, and she was accomplished at seeking and securing the music she wanted,
fully exploiting the dynamic potential of the music-streaming service. She also
benefited from the immediacy of the service, frequently reordering her playlists even
as she was listening to them, using the queuing function: “I press play on the track I
would like to listen to first, then place the others in line. As I said, I prefer to know
what song I can expect up next” (diary note, 7 March 2013). She also created
temporary playlists using excerpts from her various permanent playlists:
I always listen to quiet music when I have to focus on important work at school. The
Chillout list consists of well over two hundred unique songs. I tend to create
temporary lists with selections from the Chillout list with up to ten songs at the
most. I do this because I like to have full control over what I listen to . . . .Right now
I feel very tired, unfocused, and stressed. (Diary note, 7 March 2013)
Nathalie’s workout playlist provides a conclusive example of her dynamic, temporary,
and immediate editing. She found that it was hard to identify good music for
exercising, so the tracks on her permanent training list remained relatively static for a
long time. However, when she rearranged the order of the songs, the content felt
renewed: “I usually modify the set-up on this list, moving tracks up and down
depending on what I prefer that day” (interview, 26 April 2013). The ways in which
Nathalie tailored her playlists allowed her the sense of control she needed to
appreciate the possibilities of streaming services.
Random Plays
In other words, Nathalie’s music-listening preferences and practices do not jibe with
streaming-service features that allow for the elements of surprise and randomness.
One such feature is called the “radio,” and it is typically used in tandem with personal
playlists to automatically extend the user’s music selection. This feature uses metadata
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tagged in the tracks to create streams of music related to the given playlist, so it
represents a relatively effortless means of exploring new music defined by the
“limitations” of a preselected playlist. Some users also find the radio to be helpful in
expanding playlists with related music in the very moment of listening to them. Still,
this experience can be mixed—sometimes the radio plays songs that users dislike or
do not experience as related, demonstrating that algorithmic guesses at musical
similarity can differ from personal preferences in this regard.
Some participants used the radio as a way to avoid making active listening choices.
Another popular feature along these lines is the “shuffle,” which introduces a lesser
degree of arbitrariness into the listening experience because it works only with tracks
from a predefined playlist, though it will play them at random. Kristoffer (21) said
that he was “a heavy user of the shuffle functionality, and very often I let playlists with
hundreds and/or thousands of tracks live their own lives with the shuffle” (diary note,
7 March 2013). This form of listening was at once dynamic and controlled for him,
because he had personally endorsed the shuffle’s options beforehand.
Participants also associated the shuffle with a particular mode of listening.
In contrast to manually edited playlists or the prearranged “album mode,” the shuffle
almost insists upon somewhat distracted or casual listening, because the user cedes
control to the software. Yet adjustments can still be made, even in shuffle mode, to fit
the “logic” of randomness. Håkon (17) stated, “The newest release of the band
Eluvative is like that [it requires an adjustment]. One track is called ‘Epilogue’ and one
‘Prologue’. . . . It is okay to listen to them through [the first time], but I will instead
delete those two tracks from the playlist [so the music suits the shuffle]” (interview, 7
May 2013). Håkon approached music at the level of independent tracks and found the
album format redundant as a context. His playlist practice demonstrates that even
shuffle mode and distracted listening require effort on the part of the listener to
remain in control despite letting the software direct the flow of the content.
Thus far I have presented various ways of managing playlists at a structural level.
The ability to alter the order of, and the arrangements among, playlist tracks enriches
the user experience by adding either elements of chance or possibilities for greater
control. Yet the millions of tracks that are available from music-streaming services
provide personal playlists that have been aggregated according to schemes that
transcend the structural. People assemble playlists according to “themes, events,
experiences, relationships, or as a sort of ‘branding’ akin to DJ practices for the
creators,” McCourt states in relation to MP3 files from P2P downloads (251),
suggesting that users of flexible, personalized, and mobile streaming applications also
find their own ways of managing music in playlists. I will next test this conclusion
against the logic informing the personal playlists of streaming users.
Standardized Categories
Playlists made in accordance with outside systems of music collection and grouping
occurred among the study participants. Some people imported self-curated
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collections from other digital archives, such as iTunes. Others remade playlists with
content from their physical record or CD collections, in order to make that music
available on their mobile streaming devices.
As already noted, the album as such appears to supply a compelling logic for the
personal playlists of Spotify users, while users of WiMP Music are offered a feature that
allows them to mark album favorites within the platform, foregrounding particular
albums in the streaming interface and thereby making album playlists redundant.
Spotify did not have this feature during the study period, so playlists were saved in a long
list that sometimes only partially displayed the whole title of the playlist. As the number
of one’s playlists grew, this characteristic made it increasingly difficult to scroll through
the selections, particularly because titles (and playlist content) were hard to remember
when they were cut off. Spotify has since introduced a feature labeled My Music, which
incorporates the capacity to save whole albums and browse music by artist and album,
making the platform’s content more akin to a physical music collection.
Despite the relative prevalence of sorting tracks by album, streaming users still
managed to insert themselves (or a shuffle) into the listening experience: Emma (17)
noted, “I never remember track titles, so I just playlist the whole album to find a
particular song again. Some of these songs hence recur on several of my other playlists
as well, so this [the album playlist] is really just an intermediary step” (interview, 11
June 2013). Another approach related to the “album playlist” is the aggregation of
several albums into a longer playlist. This works equally well in either Spotify or
WiMP Music and allows the user to sort content by performer while relying upon the
ordering of existing albums. Along these lines, Jon (60) had collected all of the singles
by a band called Mister Fox, which, as far as he knew, had never been released
independently but only on compilations: “If you search Mister Fox, you get some
peculiar French rappers and quite a bit of other stuff, so it is very nice to have it [all]
gathered [in one playlist]” (interview, 8 May 2013).
Though Jon did not identify himself as a “playlist guy” as such, he did maintain
several lists, sorted into different categories, such as all of the recordings of a single
composition called “Theme de Yoyo” or the genre theme English jazz. The organizing
logics of playlists like these resonate with existing classification categories in popular
music as well. Artist, album, composition, and genre are standard groupings used to
structure tracks as products, along with more esoteric categories such as producer, label,
composer, or year of release. When music is aggregated in streaming services, people
tend to turn to these sorts of grouping schemes first as they create personal playlists.
Individual Categories
Recalling Kittler’s concept of storage capacity, the streaming services have aggregative
features whereby user participation enables listeners to become content producers of
contexts and structures for their music consumption via personal playlists. Included
here is the ability to split up existing aggregated structures (like original album
releases) according to personal preference, indicating once again that playlist practices
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A. N. Hagen
often benefit from a high degree of autonomy and individuality. Participants’ playlists
demonstrated many schemes that transcended standard classifications. Some favored
musical aspects: Håkon (17) had playlists sorted by the tuning of the tracks, named
(Drop D) and other band (Drop C/C). He listened to them when he practiced the bass
guitar to help him master the alternate tunings.
Nathalie (17) described her playlist Unique as follows: “The voices of the artists
stand out from ‘the ordinary,’ and that is exactly what is so fascinating [about these
songs]” (diary note, 7 March 2013). Another of her playlists favored slow songs of
gentle character— “The Chillout list is my library for quiet music” (diary note,
7 March 2013) for going to bed or doing schoolwork. Along these lines, Håkon
collected “kind of the most heavy stuff I have” (interview, 7 May 2013) on his playlist
titled Roughish-rapid-rhythm-stuff.
Playlists also responded to themes or things outside the music universe, and there
was truly no limit to the inventiveness here. Many of the younger participants used TV
series and films as references—Nathalie’s (17) playlists included Mystic Falls
(representing The Vampire Diaries), Upper East Side (Gossip Girl), Oz (Wicked), and
Lima to NY (Glee). Jenny (18) had a playlist with various recordings from Les
Miserables, including the full-length version of the movie soundtrack but also
orchestral and stage versions of her favorites that she had discovered in Spotify
(interview, 29 May 2013).
Anne (35), a hobby diver, had a playlist dedicated to water-themed music:
So I thought, “Oh, I have to find some fun music,” and I decided to gather all [of the
tracks I could find] with a fish theme or ocean and sea themes. And that was a lot of
fun because it’s very random. Many of the composers might never even have seen
the sea. So I started collecting it. Nonetheless, I thought a lot of it was crap . . . . I
add new tracks when I come across something. I have never listened to it, though.
That’s not why I have it. (Interview, 21 May 2013)
We saw above how streaming technology invites immediate and dynamic handling of
playlists, which inspires a certain kind of arrangement. We now see how the sheer
abundance of the online archives inspires a different kind of arrangement—more
songs within certain categories are always potentially available, and the users can easily
enter a “state of collecting” that responds to the true collector’s perpetual desire to
renew the collection (Benjamin 61). Anne’s water playlist, then, is something to have,
not something to use, recalling Baudrillard’s description of the collector’s urge to
simply possess things. On the other hand, another common practice produces
playlists inspired by or dedicated to very specific contexts, where the use trumps the
possession, as we will see below.
Context-Sensitive Playlists
Above and beyond their presence on desktop computers, music-streaming services
arose as applications designed for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets,
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meaning that users are able to listen to them in a host of contexts. The conditions and
purposes of these contexts therefore often determine the music aggregations that users
fit to them. In this case, however, there are very different levels of context sensitivity
and exactitude versus flexibility.
Nathalie’s (17) dynamic temporary playlists, for example, demonstrated extreme
context sensitivity—she made many obvious adjustments in the interests of
manipulating the music according to a momentary listening situation or experience of
self. Similarly, Louise’s (17) constant editing of her single permanent playlist Star was
also context sensitive, in that it was frequently updated to track her changing tastes in
music. Both users located their motivation in the immediate listening moment, to
which they responded through the exploitation of streaming’s comprehensive and
immediate search and retrieval functions.
A spirit of exploration governs playlists made in the interests of gathering current
releases, exemplifying a context sensitivity that is directed at the immediate present.
Sofia (35) had a playlist titled New Finery in which she placed tracks that were new to
her, as a sort of staging area, before she decided whether they merited inclusion in her
various other playlists. That way she never missed anything. Many users reported that
they tended to update and manipulate these “main” current-release (or simply
current-favorite) playlists more frequently than their theme-based or situational
playlists as well.
Other examples of relatively permanent context-sensitive playlists were aggregations based on daily situations or routines. Playlists might be created to fall asleep to
(sleep, fleabag), exercise with (make it count, sweating sweetheart, better go working
out), study or work alongside (exam, study night, the work list, or kaam kaam [“work
work” in Hindi]), or commute with (onthago, drive-by-smiling, homewards).
Social events inspired playlists too, including celebrations of a birthday and the
constitution day, a payday gathering with colleagues, dinner parties, or just casual
nights out with friends. Nina (27) recalled:
Just before I was to defend my [master’s] thesis, I made a playlist in Spotify called
Fight Face. I was terribly nervous right before the exam, and therefore I needed some
good up-tempo music that I really appreciated to make me “fit for the fight.” And it
worked out very well and made sure I was less nervous and ready for the exam.
(Email from Nina, 14 October 2013)
Even holidays or seasons in life define playlists, titled things like Alternative Christmas,
Upcoming Summer, Spring-Like Winter, or Summery Sun 2013. Erik (18) made a
playlist to remember music from a cabin trip with his high school theater: “It has become,
like, that I kind of associate the songs with exactly then” (interview, 16 May 2013).
This demonstrates that playlists made and used frequently during a specific period
can become contextual representations in retrospect. Nina (27) tended to listen to
only one playlist at a time; in the interview, this supplied her with detailed flashbacks
of various playlist-associated periods: “It has been a long time since I’ve used it, but
back then I played it a lot, really a lot! Used it back and forth to work, and at the office
A. N. Hagen
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[in which] I worked at the time—we had a radio we could plug the iPhone into, so I
played it there too, as music to work with” (interview, 12 June 2013). Playlist titles
thus serve as personal hooks for the period (and the theme or content) that the playlist
If you wonder about the name of the playlist Fuck Life&dance4ever, I made the list at
the end of spring, when I was so sick and tired of thesis writing, job searches, and
obligations in general that I instead felt the need to listen to some music with
tempo—and dance away. . . . Away from all the tasks, the stress and such, hee hee:)
That list I kept secret in my Spotify account—not because of the tunes chosen, but
rather because of the name on the list and how I felt just at that time. (Email from
Nina, 31 August 2013)
The Self and Others as Playlist Contexts
The email excerpt above demonstrates that Nina’s personal mood, feelings, and
temper informed the music she preferred—she tended to use the self, that is, as her
context for making playlists. Such playlists were common among the study
participants, but people’s uses for them differed.
Figure 1 is the screenshot of a diary note Nathalie (17) wrote on the tram, reflecting
her own process for choosing playlists according to her mood. She was listening to the
Figure 1 “To be honest, my music mood is a total mess. Most likely because I’m a bit
indifferent at the moment, feeling neither happy nor sad, hence it’s hard to define what I
am going to listen to. When I am happy I always listen to happy songs. If I am sad or angry
I choose rock. The worst thing one can do is listening to sad music when feeling sad. Then
you become much more low that you already are” (translation from diary note, Nathalie,
6 April 2013).
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playlist reality isn’t enough because she wanted to feel tougher (diary note, 6 April
2013). Anger management, tender, happytunes, floating fine, and daydreaming
(feelgood songs) were other examples of playlists arranged by mood from the study
Likewise, the self is the obvious context for specifically biographical playlists.
Nathalie’s The soundtrack of my life included “songs I would have played if my life were
a movie” (diary note, 8 March 2013). This list was highly dynamic, with continually
changing content and titles, as she continued to search for herself and undergo
introspective identity work.
In the biographical playlist Memory Lane, Anne (35) had gathered tracks
representing “strange memories, good memories of a high sentimental value” (email
from Anne, 25 August 2013). During the diary period, this playlist was named Guilty
Pleasures. In the interview, however, Anne realized that she did not harbor any
“guilty” feelings about the music or the time: “It’s more a list to reminisce, I think”
(interview, 21 May 2013). She then renamed it Memory Lane, which captured its
function more accurately.
Some participants viewed mood, feelings, temper, memories, or biographical
history as the most efficient and practical dictate for sorting music, because these
various internal logics served as hooks for expediting the surveying of potential
playlist tracks. These lists could be quite personal, like Nina’s Fucklife & Dance4ever, or
even intimate and private, or they could be shared through acts of communication
and social identity management. For example, Nina shared other playlists in her
streaming account. Some were “statement” playlists: Old Danish aggregated
performers exclusively from her native country, to demonstrate the quality of Danish
music to a colleague who doubted it. Likewise, she shared her Björk playlist. When she
was younger, her interest in Björk made her feel different, because none of her friends
liked the artist. As she grew older, the playlist became a statement about herself
(interview, 12 June 2013).
Discussion: Fluidity, Curation, and Control
The range of ways in which the participants explained their personal playlists
proves that music-streaming services invite multiple approaches to and uses of
digital music. Applying individual strategies including selective uses of service
features, the participants provided new and old music to numerous personal
playlists. Some mentioned that service-provided suggestions sometimes inspired
their music exploration. Still, neither editorial or commercial content highlighted
in the interface nor algorithmically provided music suggestions was emphasized
as particularly important in the playlist making, underpinning the autonomous
music interest among this group of streaming users. Rather, a dialectic between
practices, intentions, sense-making, and experiences in the participants’ accounts
was crucial in understanding collecting, curating, and listening to music in this
A. N. Hagen
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The music-streaming service’s capacity to create dynamic playlists allows the listener
to conveniently and flexibly assemble music according to either long-term or fleeting
preferences. This process can be experimental or calculated, depending on the
approach. Streaming’s dynamism resonates with its comprehensive and mediumspecific storage capacity and allows for the insertion of new values into the enterprise
of the collector, partly aligning the descriptions of McCourt and Sterne in this regard.
Streaming’s immediacy in navigation and accumulation lets the collector fetishize
abundance as well as the attraction of the singular object (Baudrillard 8– 10) and
juxtapose passing fancy with long-lasting desire (Benjamin 61). This immediacy also
helps the collector use, rather than simply possess, the playlist, adding a significant
dimension to its meaning.
Music-streaming services encourage almost effortless editing and rearranging of
playlist content, including the relatively instantaneous creation and deletion of whole
lists. This can result in lively collector practices but does not appear to elevate the
streaming experience over the collection of physical recordings in terms of either
intensity or intimacy, as McCourt argues in relation to MP3 files (250). Instead,
people seem to find streaming services to be much more impactful than physical
recordings and even MP3 files in their everyday lives. McCourt’s (251) assertion that
fluidity is a defining characteristic of digital technology resonates with playlist use,
even though, as discussed above, some playlists are relatively static. Others evince
what I would call great integrity, in the sense that they are extremely coherent with
rather than incidental to the context of the present moment or the user’s experience of
the self, whether they are intended to last forever or not. Playlists imbued with
integrity in terms of the listening moment are acknowledged to be more intimate or
intense, because they answer to an immediate need or desire. Streaming music is
therefore fluid too, but perhaps not in the same way as collecting MP3 files, with
regard to elevating integrity too as an experienced characteristic of the technology.
Other playlists reflect the urge to accumulate that tends to define the most
enthusiastic record collectors. The tendency to make playlists simply to keep them
applies to both album-originated lists and self-curated collections like Anne’s “water
music.” The related playlist practices often resemble what Liu calls an archivist
approach to curation; finding, collecting, and aggregating content with the goal of
pulling together a diverse set of content from different sources (2). In addition Anne’s
curatorial practice includes elements of storytelling in how she weaves together
selected content based on a themed story that makes sense with explanatory text or
commentary (3). We might also recall Jon’s (60) summary of his Mister Fox music—
“It is very nice to have it [all] gathered [in one playlist]”—as a reflection of an interest
in collecting itself, rather than listening as such. Jon’s classification is archival, yet
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it also includes an intention to catalog music more easily to retrieve it, which
characterizes librarian curatorial activities (3).
We might thus wonder at Burkart’s insistence upon the incommensurability of the
activities of the music collector and those of the music service user (246). According
to my findings, practices of gathering music into streaming playlists regarded as
curatorial activity are clearly associated with principles of collecting. Still, Baudrillard
might argue that music aggregation via playlists aligns with accumulating rather than
collecting, because of the ease of acquisition of music through streaming services.
Related to practices of accumulation, Burkart refers to practices of music hoarding
as ways of gathering music in digital archives in order to share it, which he insists is
the best way to embed value in collections in intangible formats (247). I have found,
however, that hoarding-like playlist practices ought to be distinguished from those of
sharing. They make sense independently as curatorial activity inspired by the access to
millions of tracks. This curatorial activity becomes meaningful as it includes similar
mindsets to those of possessing collectable objects (Baudrillard 8) with the purpose of
creating and maintaining playlists, simply to keep. Despite the obvious fetishization of
quantity over quality that accompanies “music hoarding,” the role of playlist curator
remains relevant and important, both online and in one’s inner world. As Baudrillard
states, “The objects in our lives, as distinct from the way we make use of them at a
given moment, represent something much more, something profoundly related to
subjectivity” (7). Though the “true” collector’s requirement of object singularity even
among those objects that are aggregated in succession is lost with digital content that
is made to be shared among the masses, the act of aggregation itself activates the
collector’s originality and the value judgments that inevitably ensue. Caring for and
preserving collections through stewardship, to engender long-term maintenance
of and access to the collection for posterity’s sake, is a preservationist approach to
curatorial activity (Liu 3) that corresponds with the idea of hoarding either static or
dynamic playlists simply to keep.
Curatorial practices also might reflect a digital renter’s perspective upon the
meaning of owning a collection, recalling Benjamin (67): the practices of creating
playlists and then keeping them encompass experiences of exclusivity and subjectivity
that bring about, in turn, a felt ownership of the music, or even notions of self-identity
reflected through the playlist. Curating playlists hence also has a communicational
potential in order to create compelling experiences or evoke responses among others,
as demonstrated by Nina’s shared Danish music and Björk favorites. These were
purposefully arranged, verified, and filtered for presentation, almost with “editorial
value” in terms of being assessed as relevant, reputable, and hence meaningful to share
(Liu 3).
Streaming services enable practices of music aggregation other than those of
dynamic music grouping, ungrouping, and regrouping. Curatorial playlist practices
evoke classic record or CD collecting, and we see that the abundant archives of the
streaming service become the stock from which to collect, rather than the source of
countless playlists to apply and then dismiss as moments in life pass by.
A. N. Hagen
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Dealing with Technology
The album format’s apparently paradigmatic influence upon the industry, the artists,
and the listener indicates its likely future viability despite the digital platform’s ability
to disrupt it. The well-respected status of the album in particular applies among
streaming users with histories of listening to CDs and LPs and users who privilege the
comprehensiveness of the album. Hence original album releases will probably
continue to constitute certain personal playlists, unless streaming services offer more
immediate ways to foreground albums, like Favorites in WiMP Music or My Music in
Nevertheless, when a user’s playlists become overwhelmingly numerous, streaming
services begin to appear inefficient and unmanageable as collection systems. The
service’s archive function can seem less than optimal when its interface is overwhelmed.
This might explain why some streaming users prefer playlists based on their own
individual schemes and context-based sorting rather than album- or artist-dedicated
playlists. Their own titles serve as hooks with regard to labeling the aggregation or its
purpose. In turn, we see streaming practices influenced by streaming technology
(and, more specifically, that technology’s shortcomings), as more people abandon
albums for personal lists because they can sort and review them more conveniently.
Playlist Purposes: Control
User control appears to be the underlying motivation for all the different ways in
which playlists are aggregated and enjoyed, archived or manipulated, and even
abandoned. This aspect of control, however, takes a variety of guises.
Playlists, first of all, represent a means of practical organization when one is faced
with an endless archive, coupled with the ability to search and “claim” tracks within it.
Whatever the motivation and intention regarding a given playlist, the user asks the
same sorts of things from the streaming service: ease of use, accessibility of content,
and an overview functionality that is effective and comfortable. Playlists become fixed
entities in a technology defined, ultimately, by its fluidity.
Sometimes this practical purpose overlaps with playlists used as a means of
individualization: control over this content, that is, implies control over the self.
Music-streaming services provide the same vast archive and user features as starting
points to all subscribers, who then overlay themselves upon the service via their
playlist choices. The playlist represents what is unique to the individual in the context
of a much larger, generic platform, and it demonstrates the persistence of the
collector’s uniqueness despite the circumstances.
Control in the context of playlists is also exerted through personal negotiation
and expression of identity work. Playlists curated by moods, feelings, memories, or
biographical/relational representations help the user experience mastery over the self,
whether those lists remain private or not. Identity work can be furthered in particular
through the dynamic manipulation of the playlist, within the immediate context of
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the present moment and the experience of the self. Lastly, users can harness more or
less context-sensitive playlists to structure or simply accompany daily life; without
them, the sheer abundance of music in a streaming service is too overwhelming to
manage effectively or “on the run.”
In relation to these aspects of control in playlist use, Burkart proposes that digital
music environments respond to the listener’s interest in self-reflection by supplying
seemingly infinite resources toward that end. He continues, “[The] desire to search
would become presumably more intense if a music fan’s entire database of digital
music were accessible through a single software installation on a central computer, or
networked computers, and if an exhaustive list of music holdings could be generated
from an online catalog” (248). This is precisely the case with music-streaming
services, which then, through practices of both dynamic and static playlist
management, proceeds to prove Burkart’s final point: “From this line of approach,
then, online music searching is a form of soul-searching that can relieve the collector’s
fetishes for packaging, acquisition, and handling of records” (248).
In this article I have described some of the tendencies of music listeners with regard to
their personal playlists in music-streaming services. These accounts encompass
practices, purposes, and motivations for making and using playlists, as well as various
approaches to music and technology in general. Taken in tandem with the capacities
of streaming technology, these aspects form the basis for the user experience.
The playlist is as unique as the listener behind it.
We have seen that playlist activity via streaming services introduces new practices
and habits but also derives from traditional physical collecting. While physical music
collecting has often been about the hunt for rare gems, playlist collecting involves
imposing one’s will (and oneself) upon an intangible realm of endless abundance. But
the hunt still motivates some streamers, especially those who tend to carefully curate
playlists rather than continually revisit dynamic ones. Other streaming users are much
more interested in the streaming technology’s immediacy and fluidity, which can add
music to intuitive experiences.
In all, streaming users demonstrate the potential for individualization in
consumption, whereby the meaning of a product (in this case, a playlist) can be
utterly transformed through the context and manner of its use. Colin Campbell
writes, “Such activities as collecting, gifting or stylizing hence could be seen as
effectively ‘negating’ the product’s status as commodity” (26– 27). The playlist enables
ownership of music even in streaming services because it undermines or narrows the
impact of the service’s shared features and content in the interests of elevating
personal music selection above all else. When we ask our playlists to answer for our
lives and selves, we transcend the generic platform from whence they came.
Music-streaming services encompass aggregative features that invite participation
and enable listeners to perform as content curators of their music consumption. In the
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A. N. Hagen
format of music-streaming services the participating listener thereby plays a role
equally important as the role of the medium in the storage, processing, and
transmission of information, recalling Kittler’s concept of a format’s storage capacity
(qtd. in Straw 233). It follows that to be a collector in this format requires active
management of music into playlists.
The more we manipulate and actively maintain our playlists, as well, the more
valuable and meaningful they become. This study hence aligns with Kibby’s (441)
observation that ownership of music is intensified among those users who actively
engage with their collections by classifying and revisiting personal aggregations.
In other words, playlist management is as important as initial playlist creation—
sometimes the purpose of the practice is its performance alone.
The practices of playlist makers seem as various and complex as those of the record
collectors in Shuker’s study. Here, as there, rituals and preferences of collecting are
culturally important as representatives of interwoven narratives of desire,
compulsion, and identification, all informed by a fundamental love of music as
well as notions of cultural value (Shuker 328). Media technologies, from this
perspective, must be understood as complex socio-material phenomena and products
of distinct human and institutional efforts. Furthermore, they serve as sites for the
playing out of tensions between, for example, determination and contingency
(Gillespie, Boczkowski, and Foot 6 – 7).
In conclusion, I would return to Nick Hornby’s question of whether it is wrong to
want to be at home with your music collection. My answer would be no, as is proven
yet again by the many and various experiences of streaming users with their personal
playlists. There is a whole world of meaning in one’s music, whether physical or digital
in nature, and no sign of abatement in our interest in it.
This article is produced in association with the University of Oslo research project titled “Clouds and
Concerts” and is funded by the Research Council of Norway under grant number 205265.
Disclosure Statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
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Notes on Contributor
Anja Nylund Hagen obtained an MA in media studies with a thesis on live pop/rock
concerts. As PhD candidate at the University of Oslo she is researching user experiences
of music-streaming services among heavy users in Norway in the research project
“Clouds and Concerts.”

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