Introduction: The Rise of Streaming

Streaming is now the primary way that most people listen to music. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, streaming now accounts for 79% of U.S. music industry revenues 1.

If you’ve read any feature piece about the past and future of the music industry, you’ve probably seen the RIAA’s graph of how revenue sources have changed over time. As someone who went to high school in the late 2000s, my favourite thing about this graph is looking at the “Era of Paying for Ringtones” between about 2005 and 2010.

Classical music has lagged behind in the overall trend towards streaming: a report covered by the BBC in 2019 showed that in the UK, CD sales were still dominant (and growing) in the classical genre. Classical streaming was much smaller as a proportion of the UK market (about a quarter of sales compared to two thirds overall) but catching up quickly. In fact, year over year growth in classical streaming was reported to be 42% compared to 33% for streaming overall. A recent article from Ludwig van Toronto exploring the same figures in-depth speculated that “those figures are generally recognized to represent existing classical music lovers. Streaming is the way to get that new blood the classical music world is always looking for.”

So — continuing the train of thought from my last post — when someone searches for “classical” in their streaming service of choice, what do they find?

If they’re listening to some of the most popular classical or orchestral playlists on Spotify or Apple Music, you won’t hear many pieces by composers of colour, or women composers. In some cases you won’t hear them at all. In many cases, your chances of hearing such composers is two to three times higher at a local US symphony than it is on the top classical playlists on these major streaming platforms.

Summary: Classical Playlist Analysis

For this analysis, I examined top classical playlists — four from Apple Music, and four from Spotify — that you might find by searching “classical” or “orchestral” in each service and picking from the top results. I compared the number of composers that were women, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour in these playlists with similar numbers from the recent mainstage programs of 120 US orchestras.

US Orchestra Mainstage Seasons

The comparator I’m using is from the Institute for Composer Diversity. From their 2019/20 season analysis, this is the representation of composers by number of times their pieces were programmed by orchestras:

  Women BIPOC
120 US Orchestras 7.9% 5.8%
21 “Top” US Orchestras 7.0% 4.5%

Apple Music

Official classical playlists on Apple Music consistently had about half the number of women composers compared to the average US orchestra mainstage season, and only their new releases playlist, The A-List: Classical, had any pieces by composers of colour (one track by Sofiane Pamart and another by Alexis Ffrench). Apple Music’s Classical Kids playlist in particular exclusively featured white men composers.

Apple Music Playlist Women Black / POC
Classical Essentials 3.0% none
Relaxing Classical 4.0% none
The A-List: Classical 3.9% 3.9%
Classical Kids none none

Full figures and composer details for Apple Music playlists can be found in the Apple Music Deep Dive post).

Spotify

Spotify’s classical playlists were slightly better, but still lagged US orchestras in representation. Most of their playlists had — at best — about half the number of women composers or composers of colour compared to the average US orchestra mainstage season. The one exception was Spotify’s Classical New Releases playlist, which had nearly comparable representation of women composers, and slightly greater representation of composers of colour. Classical New Releases also holds the distinction of having the only track written by an Indigenous composer (Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham).

Spotify Playlist Women BIPOC
Classical Essentials 4.1% 1.7%
Classical Sleep 4.2% 2.8%
Classical New Releases 6.4% 8.6%
Orchestra 100: Spotify Picks 2.0% 2.0%

Full figures and composer details for Spotify playlists to come in a future post.

So What?

Both of these platforms have made repeated commitments to improve representation of women and people of colour on their platforms.

After mass protests in response to racism and police brutality, in particular the police killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, Spotify announced on Blackout Tuesday that it “Stands With the Black Community in the Fight Against Racism and Injustice”, and outlined a number of measures to amplify Black musicians and podcasts on its platform. Two weeks later, it pledged to donate USD $10 million to “organizations that are focused on the fight against racism, injustice, and inequity around the world”. Apple Music made some similar symbolic changes to its platform, and Apple pledged to make unspecified donations to racial justice organizations.

Now, many months later, pieces by Black composers remain scarce on classical playlists on both platforms.

In addition to commitments to support movements for racial justice, these platforms have also tried to position themselves as being on the vanguard of sharing the wealth of music offered by global multicuturalism. In 2018, Spotify launched their Global Cultures Initiative, “which promotes and advances culturally diverse music, surfacing hits from different countries around the world”.

Yet, just over a year later, Spotify disbanded the original Global Cultures curatorial team. Although they pledged to continue the initiative with “a larger, region-specific editorial team of experts”, the change elicited negative reactions from many artists, as reported by Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone also noted that the disbanding coincided with an exodus of several high-profile curators who are people of colour, and a nearly-billion dollar shift towards podcasting — which has largely been to the benefit of creators and businesspeople who are white and established.

Underrepresentation of women has also been an issue on streaming platforms for many years. In 2019, country singer Martina McBride posted about her frustration with overwhelmingly male-dominated algorithmic recommendations in a genre that is well known for being hostile to female artists. Musicologist Dr. Jada E. Watson also found similar results when testing the algorithmic song recommendations for country music fans.

Even earlier, writer Liz Pelly used Spotify’s absurd “Smirnoff Equalizer” marketing campaign to show that the platform had a distinct male bias that was “subtly shifting us back toward a more homogenous and overtly masculine pop music culture”:

I listened almost exclusively to a sampling of the most popular entries: Today’s Top Hits, New Music Friday, Rock This, Rap Caviar, Hot Country, ¡Viva Latino!, and more. Every week, for one month, I downloaded a spreadsheet of the playlist data and analyzed the gender disparity. In the interest of not misgendering artists on the basis of their appearance or sound, I focused on confirming how artists self-identify on their Spotify “about” pages or other verified bios.

The result of this experiment: I found Spotify’s most popular and visible playlists to be staggeringly male-dominated. Not only this, I approached the project by listening from a brand new account in order to confirm that gender bias would be reproduced by way of algorithmic recommendations—that when a user listens to mostly male-dominated playlists, what is produced are yet more male-dominated playlists. Indeed, the sexist music industry status quo is upheld widely by Spotify, even as the platform exploits the woke optics of playlists like Feminist Friday and advertising schemes like the Smirnoff Equalizer to further benefit its brand recognition and bottom line.

In all likelihood, human–algorithmic curation that reinforces bias against cis women is even more inhospitable for trans and non-binary musicians. Despite looking through hundreds of songs, Liz Pelly reported that she “encountered no artists on Spotify’s top playlists who did not identify as a man or woman”.

Perhaps the platforms could argue that classical music is such a small niche that it’s just been overlooked by their efforts to feature diverse artists. Or that the lack of representation in their playlists reflects a lack of representation in a historically-white genre. But neither of these reactions would hold up to much scrutiny. Wouldn’t a genuine commitment to diversity be reflected in all curatorial decisions; in official playlists of all sizes? If the genre is to blame, why do most of the playlists have at best half the number of women composers or composers of colour compared to an average US orchestra season?

Playlist diversity compared to orchestra mainstage programming is not a hard benchmark to exceed. Most orchestras are literally-eurocentric, small-c conservative institutions. And yet, the meager steps taken by US orchestras — at least a full year before the pandemic 2

Orchestras are known for having long planning timelines. For the 2019/20 season, conductors and soloists might have been booked two or three years ahead of their performances.

The latest a piece could have been confirmed would have been December 2018 (maybe January 2019 at a stretch), since marketing teams then need to prepare materials for a mid-winter subscription on-sale that usually launches at least half a year in advance of the first performance.

— to program more composers from the likes of Florence Price, Gabriela Lena Frank, Jennifer Higdon, and Anna Clyne have put them much further ahead than the current efforts of these two tech companies 3.

The dates that tracks were added to a Spotify playlist are visible in the metadata, so we know when curatorial decisions were published:

  • All of the tracks in Classical Essentials were added on October 2, 2020
  • The tracks in Classical New Releases were added between December 18, 2020 and January 1, 2021
  • All of the tracks in Classical Sleep were added on January 1, 2021
  • Orchestra 100: Spotify Picks by contrast, hasn’t been actively curated since 2017; most of the tracks were added in May of 2016

Apple Music’s metadata has “Date Modified” and “Date Added” fields, but both appear to be blank when exporting data from official playlists.

I would like to see progress in orchestra programming continue and pick up speed. If streaming platforms lived up to their diversity commitments, perhaps a new generation of audience members who discover classical composers online would act as a catalyst, demanding orchestra programs that better represent the communities that ensembles work in. As it is, these platforms are cementing the status quo; investing in unseen curators and algorithms who spend their time tending to a musical monoculture.

Some Better Options

For people looking to find ways to listen to a more diverse range of classical music composers, there are some options:

For US listeners, the Institute for Composer Diversity has a partnership with Pandora to curate channels that feature a diverse mix of composers.

For Canadian listeners, CBC’s Tempo seems to be a good choice. There are also a number of Canadian composers who are women or people of colour featured on the Canadian Music Centre’s Centredisks Label. (Centredisks albums are also on the major streaming services, e.g. you can listen to Alexina Louie’s Take the Dog Sled on Spotify. While I’m at it, I should shill a little bit and note that you can also listen to her Triple Concerto on the TSO’s YouTube channel.)

On the major streaming services themselves, there are some playlists designed to specifically showcase women composers, e.g. Spotify’s Women of Classical, and Apple Music’s Women in Classical Music. I couldn’t find official playlists on either service specifically for classical composers of colour, but you can certainly find third party playlists, such as this playlist on Spotify made by NAXOS for Black History Month. I’ll also give an honourable mention to the University of Toronto Faculty of Music Anti-Racism Alliance who made this Centring BIPOC Musicians Playlist (It has a much broader selection of genres than orchestral/classical, but I think it’s very good).

Finally, although the numbers of women composers and composers who are Indigenous, Black, or people of colour on streaming services are low, I researched over 650 tracks for this project 4It’s actually 666 tracks exactly, which feels very ominous. Maybe I should throw out the one track on Apple Music’s Classical Kids where Michael Morpurgo just reads a book on the basis of not being music so that I can say it’s 665…, so the list of people who are represented is still fairly long and interesting.

So those will be the next posts - doing a deep dive into the specific composers represented on the Apple Music and Spotify playlists.

Methodology

Full methodology notes for all my music posts can be found via the Main Methodology Page.

Details and data for the streaming service playlists analysis can be found on the Streaming Analysis Methodology Page.

More details about how I used the data from the Institute for Composer Diversity to create the comparison to US orchestra mainstage seasons can be found on the ICD 2019/20 Season Analysis Methodology Page.