Why Are My Secret Spotify Songs Following Me Around?

When I kept hearing music from my “Discover Weekly” IRL, I tried to peer inside my bubble.

Illustration: Patricia Doria
Illustration: Patricia Doria

A few weeks ago, I was at a Brooklyn cocktail bar called the Great Georgiana when I heard something strange. Make that five somethings strange. Over the course of the night, the bar played “Khala My Friend,” by the ’70s Zambian rock band Amanaz; “Like a Chicken,” by WITCH, a more popular Zambian band from the same era; “Red Lady,” a B-side by psychedelic rocker Phil Cordell, whose only No. 1 hit came on the Swiss charts; “Good Time,” by Donnie and Joe Emerson, two Washington State teenagers whose 1979 home-recorded album was essentially unheard for decades; and, at least twice, “Somebody Made for Me,” by the singer-songwriter Emitt Rhodes, once hailed as the “one-man Beatles.” It was a motley collection of tunes, but I knew them all by heart — because at one point or another Spotify had served them up to me on my “Discover Weekly” playlist, a set of personalized music recommendations updated every Monday. Whenever I hear one I like, I save it to a playlist; since I started back in May 2017, I’ve collected more than 370. For the most part, these are semi-obscure tracks that, because I am mildly uncool, I am hearing for the first time — foreign music that sounds western, vault tracks from artists who were little known in their own times, a depressingly large number by singers who died under tragic circumstances. I call them my secret Spotify songs.

Recently, I have felt a sense of déjà vu from the realization that my secret Spotify songs are someone else’s as well. Last fall, I was staying with my cousin in Toronto when out of nowhere she put on “Khala My Friend.” In September 2018, the streamer introduced me to Art Garfunkel’s cover of “Waters of March”; three years later, the Norwegian film The Worst Person in the World used the track over its closing credits. Both “Discover Weekly” and my local wine shop played “Dry the Rain” by ’90s Scottish alt-rock group the Beta Band, famously name-dropped by John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity. Spotify had killed the snobby record-store employee and taken his place.

What was going on? In search of more knowledge, I asked Spotify to give me a general explanation of the way “Discover Weekly” works. The company wasn’t going to reveal each of the “thousands” of factors that go into its algorithm, which would have ruined its business and also taken all day. But the gist is what’s known as collaborative filtering, the bedrock of most recommendation engines: If you and I both like X and I also like Y, the algorithm will serve you Y as well. Mounia Lalmas-Roelleke, the streamer’s senior director of research, told me the algorithm takes into account things like the time of day, what historical era you seem to prefer, and how open a listener is to styles they haven’t heard before. The company also uses a technology that trawls internet text and users’ playlists for descriptions of songs’ content. It was reluctant to share any data that would have shed some light on why it seemed these songs were following me around — except to emphasize that the app definitely was not listening in on users’ phones. So I called up music AI consultant Valerio Velardo, who suggested whatever was happening was largely taking place inside my head: “It’s selective attention.”

Ignoring this quite reasonable hypothesis, I pressed forward with my pet theory. There are millions of songs that could be served up to Spotify listeners at any time. My sense was that “Discover Weekly” is creating an unofficial canon of cool music and offering it to me, music supervisors, and cousins the world over. Velardo identified the goal of a music-recommendation algorithm as “striking a balance between familiarity and novelty,” and it was easy to see how a robot could conceive of the songs I’d been hearing as hitting the sweet spot for people who were into vaguely dad-oriented, sorta-basic rock. They were off the beaten path but not imposingly so, often just a short jog away from music that was much more famous. Zambian rock music from the ’70s is full of the strong riffs and fuzz-pedal effects you’ll hear in the Rolling Stones or the Who. Rhodes is a vocal dead ringer for Paul McCartney. Even a more established artist like John Cale, whose “Barracuda” Spotify served up with the insistence of a tip-hungry waiter, never had the big radio single of his contemporaries, allowing him to feel “discoverable” in a way his former bandmate Lou Reed doesn’t.

Of course, the algorithm wasn’t doing this on its own. In most cases, Spotify was merely duplicating the efforts of the music blogosphere, introducing me to artists the internet had already reclaimed. Last spring, “Discover Weekly” played me “Boku Wa Chatto” from Japanese folk singer Haruomi Hosono, whose 1973 album, Hosono House, has long been a fixture on chill-out playlists. Shortly afterward, Harry Styles titled his third solo album Harry’s House as a tribute (Styles got into the artist during a trip to Japan, as rock stars do). To what extent was Spotify picking songs that were already cool, and to what extent was Spotify making them cool?

I started calling up the people responsible for putting music in things. One of the first songs Spotify ever suggested to me, Richard and Linda Thompson’s “The Cavalry Cross,” popped up in the 2020 horror film The Night House. The choice to use it came from the film’s co-writer, Luke Piotrowski, but he didn’t come to it through Spotify, he said: The inspiration was an NPR story about Linda from a while back. I wasn’t always off base in my suspicions. The pilot of the pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death ends with “High on a Rocky Ledge,” by Moondog, a blind New York eccentric who frequently strutted about midtown in a Viking costume. The song popped up on my Spotify in August 2018, and it felt like such a “Discover Weekly” choice: strange rhymes about alpine flowers accompanied by a childlike piano melody. The show’s music supervisor, Maggie Phillips, confirmed my theory. The streamer had played the song for her after she’d listened to Steve Reich, another artist influenced by Moondog. (Reich was probably how the algorithm got me there, too; a few months earlier, I’d saved a movement from his tape-loop piece “Different Trains.”) Phillips had been wanting to use “High on a Rocky Ledge” for a while but always feared it was a little too unorthodox: “Most people want to use ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ by Talking Heads.”

One of the downsides of collaborative filtering, Velardo told me, is the risk of trapping users in musical bubbles. “If you and I have similar musical tastes, Spotify is picking me things that are in your playlists, but your playlists are going to be very similar to mine,” he said. “It’s hard to escape.” Phillips and I turned out to share many of the same secret songs, and at the end of our conversation, she admitted she’d been thrown into a minor career crisis. “It makes me think I should stop using freaking Spotify because it’s not going to be original anymore,” she said. “I can’t even say something’s my idea. It’s a computer’s idea.”

Another Spotify song Phillips and I had in common was Kathy Heideman’s “The Earth Won’t Hold Me,” a 1976 demo that Heideman, an aspiring country singer, had cut for a songwriter named Dia Joyce. The recording languished in almost total obscurity until the mid-aughts, when San Francisco folk singer Andy Cabic found a copy in a thrift store, setting in motion a chain of events that led, in 2013, to Heideman’s album being reissued by the Chicago indie label Numero Group. Besides Heideman, the label had also reissued underappreciated pros like Elyse Weinberg, a Laurel Canyon folkie who popped up on my “Discover Weekly” in January 2018. A colleague on Slack had raved about Numero’s Spotify playlists, crediting them for getting him into the precise Cocteau Twins deep cut the algorithm suggested to me. Eventually I called up Dom Tracy, owner of the Great Georgiana, and he mentioned the guys from Numero had once DJ-ed at the bar. By this point, every mention of the label had me ready to break out the yarn and corkboard.

The more I looked, the more it became clear that what I thought of as my Spotify canon was likely being influenced by Numero, as well as similar imprints like Brooklyn’s Anthology Recordings and Seattle’s Light in the Attic. All of them specialize in unearthing music that would otherwise have been lost to time. The ’70s are fertile territory for these businesses, thanks to “private press” records — limited-run vinyl, often self-recorded and self-financed — which form a rich vein for those in search of hidden gold. Numero’s sideline in curating popular Spotify playlists could have been influencing my algorithm in other ways — the songs on those, too, had a habit of getting picked up by “Discover Weekly.”

Numero wasn’t not interested in talking to me, but a representative explained it was just “a busy time.” (The more I followed up, the less responsive Numero got.) But Anthology’s Zack Stafford was happy to chat about the relationship between crate-digging labels and streaming services. Labels hoping for a prime playlist placement for one of their releases will pitch to the streamers. “We kind of just have to hope that they like it,” Stafford said. It helps if the old music sounds like stuff that’s popular now. Take Robert Lester Folsom, a ’70s singer-songwriter from Georgia whose intimate, lo-fi recordings were often around two minutes long. Around a decade ago, Folsom was rediscovered by Anthology’s parent company, Mexican Summer; now he’s blown up on streaming. (Spotify loves playing me his “Biding My Time.”)

Still, Stafford said, “it’s a surprise when something hits in the algorithm. We’ll have a song we delivered to Spotify five years ago, then it picks up out of nowhere on ‘Discover Weekly’ and all the other algorithmic playlists.” Sometimes this interest falls off. But sometimes it doesn’t: People save a song to their library, listen to it over and over, and become genuine fans of the artist. WITCH’s lead singer Emmanuel Jagari Chanda has been touring steadily for over a decade, and he just announced the band’s first new album since the ’80s. All unbeknownst to me, who’d imagined them an artifact from the past, locked away in a vault.

This disparity perhaps explains why the first emotion I experienced upon hearing one of my Spotify songs out in the wild was a vague sense of embarrassment, almost as if I’d been duped. Watching a TV show suggested by Netflix or buying a sheet pan suggested by Amazon causes no agita. But when you love a song, you feel a sense of ownership; it can become a marker of your personal taste in a way that feels private and individual, a feeling “Discover Weekly” is designed to encourage. Encountering a secret Spotify song in the world broke the spell. It made me feel like a widget too.

Even worse was finding out some people were listening to the same songs I was the old-fashioned way. Tracy, the Great Georgiana owner, prides himself on the idiosyncrasies of his playlists. “I love Beyoncé; I love Fleetwood Mac,” he told me. “But you didn’t come here to hear that. We want to give you the opportunity to hear something you haven’t heard before. You can listen to Beyoncé when you go home.” Most of the songs I’d heard at the bar that night had made their way onto Tracy’s playlist through means other than “Discover Weekly.” Three nights a week, the bar hosts DJs — legit ones. Whenever one of them, like the Numero guys, plays something that catches Tracy’s ear, he writes it down and adds it to the rotation. He’d first come across Donnie and Joe Emerson through an Ariel Pink cover of their song “Baby” he heard at a club in Melbourne. Amanaz he got into through a Zambian guy who used to work for him. Phil Cordell was a suggestion from his ex-wife, Georgia Fulton, who works at the Long Island Bar.

How did Fulton hear about him? I called her up, and she remembered it clearly. Five or six years ago, she was walking through Gowanus, her ex-boyfriend’s neighborhood, feeling her feelings, listening to her “Discover Weekly.” “Phil Cordell came on, and I remember the song just fucking blowing my mind,” she said. “I played it on repeat like it was a tape recorder.” It reminded her of Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, guys she’d gotten into through her dad, who used to play in pubs in Australia. I knew that feeling. My dad loved Nick Lowe too. She’d felt the same déjà vu I had: “When you find a song, you’re like, I own this. Then you go to a bar and they’re playing it and you’re like, I don’t understand.

Like Tracy, Fulton puts a lot of stock in a great playlist. Some of it’s stuff she’s heard from friends, some of it’s from the algorithm. “It’s classic bar music,” she said. “To me, it’s timeless. I feel like I could be anywhere in the world and it would make sense there. I like to have a drink and imagine somebody else is in a similar room doing exactly the same thing.” After we hung up, she shared with me two of the playlists she’d made for the Long Island Bar. There were 177 songs in all. Twenty-seven of them were by artists “Discover Weekly” had gotten me into. Thirteen of them were the exact same song.

Why Are My Secret Spotify Songs Following Me Around?