Music streaming services mishandle our data—and our culture is paying for it

No one should be content with incomplete music streaming data.
No one should be content with incomplete music streaming data.
Image: Reuters/Christian Hartmann
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Whether you’re a fan of country, hip-hop, jazz, classical, Latin, rock, or any music genre in-between, you most likely listen to music on a major streaming platform.

This means your listening habits and music choices are noted by curators who work at those streaming platforms, and who input it as data used to inform the algorithms that power the digital music industry.

This is how streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora build their vast metadata libraries. Additional data is imported from music cataloging services like Billboard and TiVo, which include information acquired from services like AMG, Muze, Rovi, and Veveo, which also power services like AllMusic.

But for all access to all this information, music services are afflicted by a data gap. This impacts not only how music cultures evolve, but how artists who fit into an acceptable genre are compensated versus those who fall through the cracks.

It’s an access problem

The main cause of this disconnect is the misanalysis of, or a failure to even see, various subgenres of music styles.

Algorithms that power our digital choices are only as comprehensive and effective as the humans behind them. Because music streaming companies generally do not have an established presence within the communities that produce subgenre musical genres, the people who create the algorithms and define music categories often don’t even see what they are missing.

In an attempt to better understand and hopefully highlight ways to help correct this data collection problem, I spoke with editors and curators at Apple Music, Billboard, Spotify, TiVo, and various other music cataloging and streaming services. Some of them were aware of the issue, but much of the responses tended toward a mix of apathy and derision.

It may feel easy to dismiss the gravity of miscategorization of a song on a streaming platform. But the cultural implications—including economic fallout in different cultural and socioeconomic subgroups—have a deep impact on the people who identify with a given subculture and subgenre. And in an era when people are realizing the urgency of representation, this is a conversation we need to be having.

Everyone makes mistakes. Even under the best circumstances, people and algorithms miss some variables. But when this happens systemically, it reveals a data disparity that can prevent success for minority and major categories alike.

This was apparent with the miscategorization of the now popular artist Lil Nas X, in the less popular case of omission the New Mexico music genre, and the obscured evolutionary approach of Kanye West in connection to the Christian music scene.

Dissecting this data issue can lead to a more accurate measure of understanding how and why we choose the music we listen to. Surely there’s a way to expand possibilities for streaming services, without cramming music into ill-fitting boxes.

Music data 101

While the nuances are complicated, the basics of how music streaming data is generated are pretty straight forward:

Record labels and independent music artists send information about their music to aggregates and streaming services. Those services have editors and curators who verify and expand upon that information, which is then handled by curation teams that add it to playlists and pair it with similar music. Listeners play that music, which feeds into an algorithm informed by their listening tastes, and the algorithm connects relationships between that music and to other music.

The data gap lies at any point where an information variable can potentially be missing.

This manifests in less-than-stellar business opportunities for platforms, at the very least. But a failure to correctly input this data can also damage the perception of authenticity within communities of genres. Think of when Kanye West faced scrutiny from within both hip-hop and Christian music circles.

Data gaps can appear in any information-driven service or business, of course. But within the music industry this is quite literally audible. It surfaces as listeners deliberate whether a top country song is actually a country song, and it reflects on whether hip-hop is heading in the right direction.

These conversations are usually chalked up to being simple generational differences, or the musings of music enthusiasts, or even just a matter of taste. But, as any music lover will tell you, these have very real, and felt consequences.

The alternative catch-all

Lil Nas X’s unlikely breakthrough song “Old Town Road” is now lauded for becoming the longest-running number-one on Billboard’s Hot 100. It isn’t difficult to see why if you listen—the song combines the ever-popular sounds of hip-hop and country music with cowboy Western themes in seemingly irresistible ways.

Yet despite its universal success, the watchmen of Billboard’s Hot Country Song Charts dismissed the track as not country enough. Even after country kingpin Billy Ray Cyrus joined in on the chart-topping remix.

After Billboard removed the track from the country charts, it nevertheless continued to climb on its Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Song lists. The music company drew criticisms of racism and elitism, from as far afield as country music star Reba McEntire and rock critic Robert Christgau.

How was Billboard blindsided by a song that had been trending on TikTok for months prior to its debut on the charts? The media company wasn’t alone. It was simply following industry trends, which have lost their pulse.

Apple Music displays a similar discrepancy. Lil Nas X’s debut EP initially was categorized in the platform’s country genre. It has since been moved under the alternative genre—itself a post-1970s term that became ubiquitous during the 1990s and turn-of-the-century as a catch-all category for anything outside the convention, including 1980s grunge artists like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, and 2000s Nu-metal artists like Korn and Slipknot.

The culture won out in the end. Apple would later brand “Old Town Road” as its choice for 2019’s Song of the Year. Billboard attempted to take positive steps by adding tracks from Lil Nas X’s debut 7 EP to the Hot Rock Songs charts, including “F9mily (You & Me)” and “Bring You Down,” and even by featuring Lil Nas X on the cover of Billboard Magazine.

The song’s removal from the country music genre has since become history. And TikTok’s country music fans have since paved the way for other country artists to make waves on the platform, such as the artist Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up.” Brown also covered “Don’t Take The Girl,” featuring the original artist, country heavyweight Tim McGraw himself.

Lessons from New Mexico music

American folk singer Mike Seeger once famously described his genre as “all the music that fits between the cracks.” True to this characterization, the broad genre holds a plethora of subgenres that preceded the music streaming industry and have only been further misclassified as a result.

In the 1950s and 1960s, two distinct ancient music genres rose to prominence in the greater American Southwest: Tejano and New Mexico music.

Both are Latin music genres with distinct heritages and audiences: New Mexico music originated in ancient Puebloan culture and Nuevo México folk music with Western and Route 66 rockabilly thrown in; Tejano centers around Texan and Norteño styles like country and traditional conjunto.

In the 1930s and 1940s, artists like Tejano music pioneer Lydia Mendoza and New Mexico music innovator Bennie Sanchez (she started the band Los Sanchez, with her husband José) set the stage.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the legendary sons of Bennie, otherwise known as The Sanchez Bros. (responsible for the individual careers of Al Hurricane, Tiny Morrie, and Baby Gaby), began their New Mexico music careers. During that same time, Tejano legends Flaco Jimenez and Little Joe (and the Latinaires, later Little Joe y la Familia) broadened Tejano’s appeal with Texan country music audiences.

In response, Billboard took positive steps to establish a presence in both Texas and New Mexico to cover these intensifying genres. The company even created a Texas spotlight issue in 1974. A small part of the coverage gave the industry a stronger standing while covering the careers of New Mexico’s Roberto Griego and Texas’ Mazz.

Southern California’s Chicano rock developed with the success of Carlos Santana, not to mention artists like La Onda Chicana (The Chicano Wave) which swept charts in the 1970s and which also included the careers of Tejano artists with country music crossovers like Freddy Fender and New Mexico music’s Gloria Pohl and Al Hurricane, Jr.

The 1980s and 1990s saw groups like the Texas Tornados and Bandido, the legendary Tejana star Selena, and Nuevo Mexicano greats Lorenzo Antonio and Sparx rise to fame.

This coverage by the likes of Billboard along with popular television shows like the Val de la O Show created a healthy ecosystem for success. It let Tejano and New Mexico music share audiences in the broader Latin and regional Mexican music radio formats, which are still used globally as blanket terms for Spanish language and Mexican folk music.

Establishing a presence within these communities made all the difference in the world for up-and-coming artists. Unfortunately nowadays, it means Tejano music is mostly relegated as “regional Mexican music,” while the New Mexico music that makes up half of this equation is basically missing within the broader music industry.

Unless New Mexico music creators happen to infuse enough Tejano, Norteño, Latin pop, or other styles into their Neomexicano and Pueblo sound, they rarely ever show up on Tejano playlists on the likes of Spotify or Apple Music.

Spotify, Google Play, and Youtube all catalog and track New Mexico music listener data, whereas Apple Music and TiVo simply do not.

Google Play tends to be more thorough with its data and with nuances due to its vast Knowledge Graph metadata. Spotify skews potential matches toward “regional Mexican,” and their curated playlists often incorrectly lump New Mexico music into Tejano/Tex-Mex playlists, which is itself are sometimes unfortunately solely relegated into Norteño or Regional Mexican playlists, instead of correctly categorizing music in specific New Mexico music playlists.

This, of course, is because major music streaming platforms, like the rest of the industry, have nearly non-existent coverage dedicated to New Mexico music, or the myriad of other mainstream and folk music movements in the American Southwest, including our sizable indie rock, country, reggae, hip-hop, and various traditional Native American and Latin music scenes in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Southern California, Texas, or Utah.

Monoliths and megaliths

As we settle into the modern reality of AI-guided music queues, understanding big-tent genres like country music, and their relationship with subgenres like country trap, will continue to become more important than ever.

While music cataloging and streaming services are not a monolith, their actions have consequently turned music discovery into a set of megaliths that will continue to confound and limit artists and listeners alike.

And while the country music megalith of today, with its well-loved and Grand Ol’ Opry-approved neotraditional wave, has given opportunity to brilliant artists like Carrie Underwood, Eric Church, Luke Combs, and Runaway June, it has also left many other artists and listeners at a disadvantage.

This causes numerous still flourishing subgenres to struggle within the broader industry (think Americana, Appalachian, bluegrass, and Western music) while others seemingly randomly spark (think bro country and country trap).

The rule of established encompassing charts like Billboard’s Hot 100 are important. But so is charting country music’s foray into party music and delineating hugely popular and distinct folk music styles.

The breakaways of bro country and country trap

I’ve personally never been a fan of the bro country that filled the country music airwaves during the early-to-mid 2010s, because I don’t find it to be “country enough” myself. But that personal opinion shouldn’t be a prescription against a particular subgenre of country music, and there’s no denying that it has had an obvious popular appeal.

Bro country and country trap were both once relegated to college campuses in the American South, but they now have large audiences that extend the subgenre’s reach well into mainstream country music.

It’s imperative that their data be tabulated to accurately portray the state of the genre, including their subgenres—no matter the opinion of critics.

And with today’s rich databases and sophisticated technology, shouldn’t this be simpler? As novelist (and one half of the Vlogbrothers) John Green once said, “truth resists simplicity.” Music discovery is much simpler than truth in its entirety, but the data requires ever broader viewpoints to keep a pulse on its vitals.

This is obvious when we see the mis-categorization of cutting-edge artists and when various music styles fall through the cracks.

The curators and data editors who design and fuel the AI systems we use every day can better deliver music to listeners by not sidelining communities, whether in the form of memes, mood-based playlists, anime soundtracks, or K-pop.

Numerous music and music video movements, from AMV (anime music videos) to bitpop to trap to Vaporwave to mumble-rap have flourished in online communities for well over a decade now. While these genres don’t have a lot in common on the surface beyond their large internet audiences, there is a major similarity in that they confound the media industry, which has struggled to understand, document, and categorize their various meteoric rises, falls, and plateaus.

“Old Town Road” and the promising career of Lil Nas X went through the tail-end of an underground phase as a TikTok meme.

We see continually lasting plateaus in AMV subcultures, and even craters with the mostly defunct sub-genres like SimpsonWave.

Who’s in charge now?

Due to the mainstream media’s difficulty in cataloging this content, some have hyperbolically begun to refer to the “death of the music genre.” Perhaps the biggest evolutionary shift is that major music industry platforms are no longer the ones to definitively call the shots.

Regardless of whether or not the industry corrects its missteps, music will continue to evolve; artists like Lil Nas X will continue to cross genres. DJs like Skrillex and Diplo will keep producing tracks for pop artists like Justin Bieber. Classic hits will keep becoming memes. Producers will outpace categorization, as will internationally ascended performances from the likes of K-pop phenomenon BTS and the evergreen talent of J-pop Hikaru Utada.

Navajo country music will continue its popularity growth, just as other country and Western musicians flourish between the Appalachia and the Rockies. And even related folk genres like New Mexico music will continue to grow with rising artists like Cuarenta y Cinco and Dynette Marie Cordova.

And subgenres within New Mexico music will continue to develop as well. Antonia Apodaca, Lara Manzanares, and Lone Piñon are pioneers of New Mexico Roots music. Artists Boris McCutcheon and Chris Arellano are carving out space for the Americana blended subgenre called New Mexicana music.

Streaming services, cataloging services, and major media outlets lack a presence within communities that produce subgenres of music—both online and in real life—but they still hold the power as a metric of success for both artists and genres.

In today’s morphing and versatile online music universe, this can be both confounding and disheartening.

Do it for the subculture

In a lot of ways, the study of unique music subgenres has become a genre in its own right, as we see with popular shows like Sound Field on PBS, or Vox’s Earworm series with pop culture commentator Estelle Caswell, as well as the popularization of niche music-genre experts like country music expert Grady Smith and radio personality Valerie Lora.

Thanks to coverage by dedicated media outlets like Tejano Nation, we have an understanding of the depth of influence of artists like the late singer Ernestine Romero, and how her music made its way to Norteño and Tejano playlists. (Romero died tragically on July 11, 2019 at the young age of 32; according to the Santa Fe Police Department she was the victim of a murder-suicide.)

But the true scope of Romero’s career encompassed success on New Mexico music focused radio stations like KANW, and regular positions on annual top New Mexico music charts like Los 15 Grandes De Nuevo Mexico.

Her music resonated with both New Mexico music and Tejano audiences, with crossover success in both fields, but music outlets in the broader industry did not fully grasp the extent of her successful career within New Mexico music. And after her death, major media outlets only mentioned her success in the Tejano field.

In another confounding incident, during Hispanic and Latin Heritage Month 2019, streaming services created playlists to highlight select music in the community—but none of the major myriad of official playlists and queues contained any New Mexico music artists at all. Mind you, the very inclusion of these kinds of playlists is a step in the right direction, but all music communities need this level of attention more continuously.

This mishandling of Tejano and New Mexico music data is confounding and disappointing, and it misses an entire swathe—at least half, in this case—of brilliant musicians. It completely lacks representation of a US state with the highest percentage of Hispanic and Latin origin citizens.

Kanye West’s crossover

The Christian music scene is currently witnessing a pop resurgence with artists that entered pop culture during the 1980s and well into the turn-of-the-century. We have contemporary Christian music, contemporary worship music, and contemporary gospel music, each with their own sub-genres and movements, from Christian rock to Christian rap.

Artists like Amy Grant, DC Talk, Hillsong, Yolanda Adams, Relient K, Kirk Franklin, and a whole bunch of others found their success within these movements.

Today, Kanye West’s live Sunday Service series, podcasts like The Holy Post, and even co-op labels and church communities serve as strong avenues for success in the genre.—whether that’s David Gungor discussing corporate worship on The Phil Vischer Podcast, the Bad Christians’ cultivation of alternative artists like Vocal Few and Kings Kaleidoscope, or hearing artist Sia perform a gospel rendition of her song “Elastic Heart” during one of West’s Sunday services,

Representation is the future

The question is, as these talents continue to produce results, will the formal music industry catch up, follow suit, and lend coverage where appropriate, or will listeners, fans, and community members have to remain vigilant for the next blind spot?

The arbiters of music media and streaming services must find new ways to establish and expand their presence among music movements and cultures, especially within minority communities.

As an industry so uniquely shaped by the creativity and diversity of artists, no one should be content with incomplete data.

music streaming platforms need to develop a better presence within more communities.

The glaring follow-up question is why industry streaming companies lack diversity to such a degree.

This dearth of representation means music streaming platforms have a pretty arbitrary degree of coverage.

One obvious solution is to hire people from more diverse communities and backgrounds to appoint to decision-making roles. Studies (never mind common sense) say employing folks from more communities improves products and services across industries, from tech to finance and beyond.

In music streaming, better diversify requires more members from communities online (social media, fandoms, AMV, gaming), styles and sub-genres (country trap, nerd rock, anime soundtracks), and within living heritage genres (Hawaiian reggae, Ghanaian, New Mexico music).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see we’d all benefit from music services hiring professional specialists and amateur enthusiasts within specific fields for editorial, metadata, and curation roles.

Listen up

But listeners can make a difference, too. After all, our listening patterns do interact and change the way the algorithm delivers music. Brilliant tools like get data directly from Spotify, and simplified applications like Gnod’s Gnoosic can recommend music tastes based on very little information.

As listeners, we help to bring a song to the charts by simply listening to it, and by sharing songs or playlists in our own networks. After all, listener behavior patterns make up the DNA of streaming data.

It isn’t a replacement for full and proper cataloging and data representation by streaming platforms, but it’s a role we can play conscientiously.