Music Business

Neuromarketing and Spotify’s campaign to get inside your head

Spotify is once again up to its eyebrow-raising tricks, this time partnering with a neuro analytics company to gather data from its listeners’ brains in order to market to them more effectively.

Op-ed by Chris Castle of Music Technology Policy

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, there’s more. According to reporting at Axios, Spotify employs “neuromarketing” technology to push crap onto the fans in their dearly cherished royalty desert, the ad-supported free service eschewed by Apple Music.

So what is this latest affront to humanity from Daniel Ek? Axios tells us:

Spotify partnered with the neuroanalytics company Neuro-Insight to study how brain activity changed as more than 600 subjects listened to digital audio on the music streaming platform.

The users consumed different kinds of streaming audio — like rock, rap and Latin music, as well as ads — while researchers took real-time readings of their brains using steady state topography (SST), a brain tracking method developed by Neuro-Insight founder Richard Silberstein that measures brain electrical activity and speed of response to stimuli [also known as music].

SST is able to “tap the speed of different parts of the brain very sensitively, and by virtue of the fact that different parts of the brain are specialized for different functions, we’re able to infer psychological processes,” says Silberstein.

Betcha didn’t know you were were in the “stimuli” business, didya?

Yes, that’s right. Spotify is harvesting the brains of fans in order to sell them stuff. How?


Different kinds of music had a measurably different effect on the brain — speech-driven genres like rap music tended to produce more engagement, while instrumental or acoustic genres like rock tended to produce greater emotional intensity.

Notable for a partially ad-driven platform like Spotify, 93% of the brain’s measured engagement with the musical or podcast content transferred directly into engagements with the ads that followed.

Let’s pause there–remember when Facebook got caught doing its “emotional contagion” research on 700,000 Facebook users without consent that breached every known ethical canon for human subject research?  (And of course nothing happened.)  Axios tells us that the Spotify study has not been peer reviewed–so make a note of that loose end and how they came up with those 600 test subjects.  That they told Axios about.  If the study were peer reviewed, somebody would have asked this consent question.  So by not having it peer reviewed….

Also realize that this neuromarketing study was done privately. If Axios is writing about it, it’s probably because the Spotify comms team pitched the story–like it was a good thing, not that it was a creepy thing. It’s also worth noting that they don’t say much about how Spotify uses the neuromarketing technique on a daily basis, but it sure sounds like they use it a lot.

Who wants to bet that the “stimuli” (aka “music” or “songs”) also produced a data harvest that is of great value to Spotify. So even if you can get past the idea that you are driving fans to the platform so that Spotify can harvest their brains and the data derived from that brain farm, Spotify is not sharing the value of those “nondisplay uses” of your music, another reason why the company should be paying for the value transfer from musicians and artists as we recommended in the study I co-wrote for WIPO that considered such issues. (“Platforms do not compensate performers for these efforts or the valuable data they extract, yet attracting fans is a major factor driving valuation metrics.”)

One question to ask of Spotify is whether they are neuromarketing to your fans and whether you really want what Spotify says its sinister goal is with that nightmarish consumer manipulation: “Our goal is to use signals like this to make sure we’re serving music and podcasts to the user that they want before they know they want it.”

Doesn’t that just feel illegal? As a great man once said, if something feels illegal it probably is.

Is forcing you to be complicit in this menacing control obsession and ghoulish brain harvesting really what you signed up for?

What if fans liked your records because they liked the music?

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