Welcome to Galaxy Brain -- a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture and big ideas. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. We're still figuring things out in our new home so let me know what you think: email@example.com
Two quick things:
- This week a lifelong dream comes true for me … my book with Anne Helen Petersen (my first book!) is coming out! Out of Office: The Big Problem and Big Promise of Working From Home. The best way to buy is, of course, through your local bookstore. You can also buy via Bookshop. The book is filled with the history of work and how to make it better, which includes how to actually figure out what hybrid work looks like. But as with so much of our writing and reporting, it is ultimately about figuring out how to decenter work moving forward. If you'd like a preview, we have an excerpt up today in this very magazine.
- As I’m sure you’ve heard … preorders really, really, really matter. They have a massive influence on our ability to write future books (and also write them about the things we actually want to write about). So if you want to buy the book, it’d be so incredibly helpful if you ordered it now. (Alternatively, it’s also really important to call your local library and request they order it!) If you need additional motivation, I got you:
- Some of you who signed up for Galaxy Brain when it was on Substack might have noticed that there’ve been a few logistical quirks to claiming your free one-year subscriptions to The Atlantic. If you’re having problems, email firstname.lastname@example.org or reply to this email and we’ll get it sorted. Meanwhile, we’re extending the free trial period for this newsletter a few more days!
On to the newsletter!
Every December, Spotify sends each of its 365 million users a recap of their year on the platform. It’s called Spotify Wrapped, and it is a sneaky marketing campaign that manages to take the company’s constant, granular tracking and turn it into a pop-culture moment (see, privacy invasion can be fun!). Nobody cares what songs you listened to most, or whether you prefer vaporwave over acid jazz, but it seems like everyone cares at least a little bit about sharing their listening habits.
Most tech platforms intentionally shy away from showing users the amount of time they've spent watching, clicking, and scrolling. But Spotify proudly promotes it. Perhaps that’s because music is generally more nourishing than an autoplay feed of Jordan Peterson videos and highlights from old NBA games. It’s definitely much more socially acceptable to have music on all day in the background than it is to be constantly scrolling Facebook.
Still, the whole Wrapped cycle that plays out every December is fascinating, because you have large swaths of people gladly posting interesting data about how they use the internet. The metric I’m most interested in is “total minutes” spent streaming on the service. On Wednesday, when Spotify started sending out Wrapped recaps to users, I asked my Twitter followers to help me find the elite Spotify streamers:
(First, a moment of personal disclosure. If I’m going to air other people’s dirty laundry, I’ll air my own. I listened to Spotify for 42,140 minutes. My top genre is indie folk. My No. 1 song was a cover of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” by Florence and the Machine. My top artist is a looping-ambient-guitar player named Sean Angus Watson—he’s great.)
Within minutes, somebody sent me a screenshot of their Wrapped page saying they’d streamed 143,432 minutes in 2021. That’s 27 percent of all minutes in a year, spent listening to … something on Spotify.
Things escalated. Quickly. Here’s a little progression of the numbers of minutes sent to me by Spotify users: 173,843; 202,140 (I didn’t think we’d see the 200,000s); 323,124; and then, a few hours later, I received an earth-shattering number: 376,395 minutes. That’s 71.6 percent of the year, or roughly 17 hours a day
Then, on Thursday, I got a DM from Tiago, who lives near Paris. He sent this:
For those playing along at home, 432,870 minutes is 82 percent of the year. Once I’d made sure that I wasn’t being played with a Photoshopped image (he sent me a screen recording for proof), I started asking questions.
Tiago told me over Twitter direct message that “law school, sleepless nights, and distance learning” played a big role in his streaming in 2021. Like many Super Streamers I spoke to, Tiago told me that he uses Spotify to find things to help him sleep at night, which means his Spotify is often streaming while he’s not conscious.
“To decide which song I’ll listen to is not actually the hardest part,” he told me. He said that he likes to scroll through his Instagram feed, and then, when he hears a post, story, Reel, or video with a catchy song on it, he uses the app Shazam to identify it. This helps him curate playlists. “It depends on each situation,” he told me of his streaming strategy. “To sleep and read I listen to white noise; When I have to work and the deadline is near, it’s motivational songs.” He said he listens to “US & French rap when I work out and take the public transports to go to school, and sad songs when I get back from it lol (XXX Tentacion, Juice Wrld, Lil Tjay, Yoasobi etc.).”
I asked him if he ever missed, well, silence. I figured he’d laugh at me, but, to my surprise, he told me he did. “I actually enjoy silence a few minutes a day, when I meditate,” he said. “It feels like the best time of my day. But at this point, I’d say I’m addicted to music.”
Tiago said that he started streaming a lot about four years ago, but that the pandemic totally intensified his habits. “Being alone at home all day just changed my whole life, in a bad way,” he said. Music became much more of a lifeline for him, to help with loneliness and anxiety and to handle the awkwardness of remote school work.
Of the five people I spoke with who spent at least 25 percent of 2021 streaming music, most said they use music therapeutically in some way.
Max Graham, a music producer and touring DJ who streamed over 200,000 minutes this year, told me over direct message that he uses a Google Home routine: “It starts an Ambient playlist every morning at 6AM at a very low volume that plays all day, unless I change it to something upbeat, like DrumNBass or trip hop, if i’m in the mood. So there’s essentially a bed of music always playing, no matter what.” He told me he’d classify his big streaming numbers as “cheating” but also confessed that “music, and specifically music I’ve never heard before, is key to my day.”
“Definitely, there’s the mental health aspect of it, too,” one listener, who lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and declined to give her name, and streamed nearly 200,000 minutes last year, told me over direct message. “Music is my crutch in a lot of ways. It keeps me steady, so I reach for it without even thinking.” Of all the people I spoke with, this person seemed to have the most carefully crafted approach to streaming. Every month, she creates an intricate playlist, which she'd binge for that month. She told me she also puts playlists on to fall asleep.
“Unless I’m actively watching something on my phone, I got it going pretty much 100% of the time,” Zach, who streamed over 300,000 minutes this year, told me over Twitter direct message. “It depends on the time of day, how I listen. If I’m at work, I’m on normal music and podcasts so I don’t go insane, and at home, I got it playing on a speaker as, I guess, ambient music.”
Zach feels his streaming was something he did, at least in part, for his mental health. It is a way to keep his mind busy, or at least have some company. “I think having something in the background, something to actively listen to, helps me go through the day,” he told me.
I started talking to these Super Streamers mostly out of silly curiosity. But quickly, I realized just how important the platform is for its biggest power users. During an incredibly difficult and isolating two years, people have turned to streaming music services (among other things) to fill voids. And while having something to listen to at any moment is a balm—at night, at work, in anxious moments—sometimes, the constant hum of Spotify can also overwhelm. Some Super Streamers are looking to change things up in the new year.
“That’s one of my goals for 2022,” Tiago told me. “A few hours of silence every day, to enjoy the world we live in a little bit more.”