Spotify Users Suspect Foul Play as Sabrina Carpenter’s ‘Espresso’ Dominates Playlists

Users are complaining about Sabrina Carpenter's Espresso haunting their Spotify playlists.
Users are complaining about Sabrina Carpenter’s Espresso haunting their Spotify playlists.

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Are big labels paying big money to hi-jack music streaming algorithms?

Picture this: You’re enjoying your carefully chosen Spotify playlist, lost in a mix of songs that perfectly match your varied tastes. Suddenly, like a caffeinated earworm, Sabrina Carpenter’s “Espresso” pops up in your music for the hundredth time.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone in this.

Spotify is once again at the center of a controversy, with users constantly hearing Sabrina Carpenter’s “Espresso” in their playlists, no matter their tastes. This has led to a bigger discussion about how Spotify recommends songs and whether it’s being manipulated.

Accusations of Algorithm Manipulation

Sabrina Carpenter's Espresso track cover. (From: Spotify)
Sabrina Carpenter’s “Espresso” track cover. (From: Spotify)

Sabrina Carpenter’s song “Espresso” has been popular since its release in mid-April. But many Spotify users, including comedian Steven Phillips-Horst, say the song shows up too much in their playlists, no matter their music tastes.

“How is it that no matter what direction my unique personality takes me in, it leads me back to this same song that I only heard three days ago that I don’t even really like that much?” he asked.

Many people agreed with him, leading to widespread guessing about what drives Spotify’s song choices.

Another X user talking speculating on the potential manipulation on Spotify algorithms in favor of Espresso. (From: X) https://twitter.com/accountnofive/status/1792563318961709184
Another X user talking speculating on the potential manipulation on Spotify algorithms in favor of Espresso. (From: X)

This isn’t isolated to Sabrina Carpenter, though.

Listeners have also noticed other recent pop songs, like Chappell Roan’s “Good Luck, Babe!” and Tommy Richman’s “Million Dollar Baby,” appearing a lot.

This makes people think Spotify has deals with record labels to promote certain songs.

Moreover, the website PopFiltr found Carpenter’s new single “Please Please Please” as the No. 2 song on many artists’ Radio playlists. This included pop stars and classic rock bands, showing how the algorithm pushes rising hits across different types of music.

People talking about other songs appearing in playlists that don't exactly match them. (From: X)
People talking about other songs appearing in playlists that don’t exactly match them. (From: X)

How Does Spotify Algorithm Really Work?

Contrary to what many may believe, Spotify’s algorithm isn’t just one big system.

The platform uses different features like “Smart Shuffle,” “Discover Weekly,” and personalized “Radio” playlists. Each of these has its own algorithmic goals.

“None of it is as centralized as you’re imagining — it’s not like there’s a master sticker on the song that causes everybody to promote it.” says Glenn McDonald, former Spotify ‘data alchemist.

“A lot of things on Spotify are trying to keep you in your comfort zone and play you the right things.”

Instead, Spotify’s system uses collaborative filtering and the idea of “optimal distinctiveness.”

What goes into Spotify's personalized recommendations. (From: Spotify) https://newsroom.spotify.com/2020-11-02/amplifying-artist-input-in-your-personalized-recommendations/
What goes into Spotify’s personalized recommendations. (From: Spotify)

This approach suggests music that’s familiar enough to keep listeners comfortable but different enough to maintain interest. With this, Spotify can keep its users engaged without pushing them too far out of what they’re used to.

In short, when users search for a specific song or use the Radio feature, Spotify’s algorithms queue up similar tracks on personalized playlists. This interconnected system is designed to keep users engaged and discovering new music, based on what they already like.

But here’s where it gets interesting: the algorithm also uses the “Matthew Effect,” where chart-toppers become even more popular.

With this, platforms push popular music to more people, even though it doesn’t exactly match their tastes. This is done so platforms can utilize tracks that they know other people already like, hoping that this will make others stay on the platform even more.

Modern “Payola” or Smart Marketing?

While some people cry “payola” (paying for airplay), the truth is more complicated.

Traditional payola laws don’t apply to streaming platforms. But Spotify does offer a legal pay-for-play option called Discovery Mode.

Introduced in 2020, it allows artists to forfeit 30% of streaming profits for increased play likelihood.

A brief discussion on what Discovery Mode is. (From: Spotify)
A brief discussion on what Discovery Mode is. (From: Spotify)
Yet, it’s unclear if major artists like Carpenter utilize this feature. And, the program has faced criticism from Congress for potentially disadvantaging up-and-coming artists.

The need for such schemes is rooted in how music marketing has evolved over the years.

Modern tactics include teasing songs on social media platforms like TikTok months before the official release. So, artists can see the audience’s reaction and build anticipation.

This is usually handled by a team of experts who are familiar with the ins and outs of different social media platforms.

So, for indie artists without major label backing, playlist submission services offer a glimmer of hope for exposure, albeit at a cost.

Prices can range from a few hundred dollars for consideration on dozens of playlists to thousands for hundreds of potential placements.

Some marketers even resort to more dubious practices like stream farming, using bots to artificially inflate play counts. However, this risky strategy can backfire, damaging an artist’s standing with Spotify.

The Role of Big Labels in the Controversy

Sabrina Carpenter performing in Coachella 2024. (From: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)
Sabrina Carpenter performing in Coachella 2024. (From: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Sabrina Carpenter‘s rise shouldn’t be dismissed into pure algorithm magic. It’s the result of years of hard work.

This former Disney Channel star has been steadily building her audio empire, with five albums under her belt since 2015. She also opened for Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, had a buzzy romance with actor Barry Keoghan, and carefully built her public image. All of this helped her rise to fame.

Plus, “Espresso,” released in mid-April, quickly became popular after her viral Coachella performance. And, its active engagement on TikTok further boosted the song’s popularity.

Yet, people speculate that the industry muscle behind Carpenter may have still contributed to her success.

She’s signed to Island Records (under Universal Music Group) and Hollywood Records (under Disney Music Group), which are both powerful in the music industry. This support, along with her Disney background, gives her a strong base for her current success.

However, the plot thickens when we consider the cozy relationship between Spotify and major labels.

Universal and Sony, two of the “Big Three” labels, own between 6-7% of Spotify stock. This connection has made people wonder about behind-the-scenes deals, though there’s no solid proof.

For speculators, the stock ownership might give major labels a lot of say in how Spotify operates and plans.

It’s not clear exactly how this might affect individual song promotion. But, it definitely raises questions about whether Spotify is fair and if there might be conflicts of interest.

Carpenter’s trajectory isn’t unique. Chappell Roan, for instance, faced early career struggles, being dropped by her label after a 2020 single flopped. But she kept going and got a spot on Olivia Rodrigo’s tour and an NPR Tiny Desk concert. This led to her own rise in popularity and presence in Spotify’s algorithm.

Why Users Are Prone to Believe in Spotify Conspiracies

Even with little evidence, users are quick to believe in Spotify conspiracies. This lies in the platform’s lack of transparency.

“As a listener, I wish I could tell on any given song, ‘Why is this here? Why should I trust you?'” says McDonald.

Recent company decisions, like big layoffs, adding AI-driven features, price hikes, and royalty issues, have only made these worries worse.

Plus, the move away from shared cultural experiences, or “monoculture,” has made it harder for users to tell the difference between natural popularity and algorithm promotion.

Critics argue that some pop stars make what they call “dopamine-hacking jingles.” These are catchy, easy-to-listen-to songs designed to exploit our brain’s reward systems, fueling theories about how some hit songs and artists are manufactured.

Music streaming platforms have changed more than how we consume music.
Music streaming platforms have changed more than how we consume music.

Carpenter’s success likely stems from a combination of talent, strategic marketing, and algorithmic factors. But, the growing speculation emphasizes the need for greater clarity in how music reaches listeners’ ears.

Whether through better explanations of recommendations or more user control over their listening experience, addressing these concerns could help rebuild trust and create a more open music streaming ecosystem.

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