The Appears On tab is dead, long live the Appears On tab
The ongoing saga of Spotify’s embattled discovery tool
Early this spring, Spotify users began to grumble about the sudden, unceremonious disappearance of a beloved feature. Prior to May 2020, the Appears On section was situated at the bottom of each artist page, collecting an artist’s credited guest appearances on other artists’ records in reverse chronological order. In May, users noticed that the section had been removed from the mobile app; at the same time, desktop users found that the section populated in a seemingly random non-chronological order, prioritizing most-played tracks over most recent tracks for prime visibility. Despite vociferous outcry from artists and Premium users alike, by the end of May, users were dismayed to find that Appears On had been removed from the desktop app as well.
In response to customer complaints, Spotify service reps variously claimed ignorance, denied that the feature had been deprecated, corralled disgruntled public inquirers into private DMs, and blamed it on hardware malfunction before eventually attributing the change to a specious A/B test. Spotify’s diffuse response indicated that their employees were either wildly misinformed about the feature update, or instructed to lie about corporate strategy to paying subscribers. Either would be consistent with the ethos of a market behemoth that strip-mined the recording industry to the tune of $50 billion.
As numerous artists pointed out in May, the Appears On tab spawned an inadvertent cottage industry of musicians—particularly hip hop and EDM vocalists—buying and selling guest spots with assurance that credited collaborations would improve their music’s visibility on the app; deprecating the Appears On section robbed these artists of an income stream. More importantly from the user’s perspective, Appears On was the last vestige of organic music discovery on an app actively incentivized to consolidate listenership in favor of preferred artists.
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Spotify offers two primary discovery mechanisms. The first is curated playlists, ranging from blockbusters like Rap Caviar to head-scratchers like Chilling on a Dirt Road. Whether intended for mass consumption or adherence to an extremely specific hypothetical mood, playlists are assembled by actual humans to maximize plays. This results in a sonic uniformity among the music Spotify actively promotes: curation favors unobtrusive, mid-tempo background music, and the mood-based playlists source a wealth of user data which Spotify then sells to advertisers.
The second mechanism is algorithmic recommendations, such as Discover Weekly, which recommends songs as similar as possible to those you’ve already listened to. This, too, is executed with stickiness in mind—the better the algorithm can mirror your actual tastes, the more likely you are to turn to it for long sessions while working, commuting, or exercising, resulting in more reliable personal data for Spotify to sell to advertisers. But since they want to keep you logged in and mindlessly nodding along while you plow through spreadsheets or sweat through another mile on the treadmill, there’s a good chance they won’t recommend anything too loud or brash.
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Of course you can use the search function to navigate to artists you discovered in previous sessions or (gasp!) outside the environs of Spotify. The Appears On tab was a great way to keep up with artists’ output between album cycles, and documented wider networks of collaborators across genres irrespective of popularity and playlist suitability. This evocation was democratic in its way—Spotify has no control over whether Big K.R.I.T. collaborates with the sorts of artists who encourage long, mindless listening sessions ripe for data plumbing. Users who preferred not to entrust their entire mechanism of music discovery to Spotify could still rely on radio, the music press, and word-of-mouth to find new artists. But within the app, Appears On was the only non-curated, non-algorithmic method of discovery, and it was also the only chance for artists to influence the way they were accessed within the app.
Appears On wasn’t perfect—it was often bogged down with crappy compilations indistinguishable from public user-generated playlists—and it made sense that Spotify would get rid of it, because it wasn’t easily commoditized and was antithetical to Spotify’s mission of lulling its users into narcosis with Billie Eilish knockoffs. As Spotify approaches a monopoly on our ears and a chokehold on the recording industry, Appears On was just about the only feature which didn’t proactively help screw every artist not named Ariana Grande into oblivion.
You can end up in some dark places imagining where the company that condensed the entire history of recorded music into a $10 monthly subscription might be headed next. Why shouldn’t Spotify get rid of artist pages, or even artist credits, entirely? Any input that users have into their listening experience undermines Spotify’s ideal of frictionless data extraction, and a more equitable artist payout would mean one less favorable to Spotify’s valuation.
It’s hard to be pragmatic about this because, again, Spotify was either passively misinforming its service reps or consciously lying to its customers. But good news arrived buried in their July app update announcement: the Appears On tab had been restored, albeit in its most recent non-chronological form. Direct action works! Sometimes.