In a short time, Spotify Wrapped has become an unmissable end-of-year ritual. People can't stop sharing and dissecting their feelings about their Wrapped playlists on Instagram and Twitter, discussing their music tastes with an earnestness and enthusiasm not usually seen on social media. Spotify first branded their personalized analysis of your yearly listening habits as Wrapped at the end of 2016 — but it wasn't packaged in such a fun, bite-sized, social media-centered format until last year. Before it was presented on a microsite and sent out as an email link, but now the data pops up right in the mobile app in a customized video format that you can share to your Instagram stories with one click.
While it seems like 2020 has been the year that every platform added an Instagram/Snapchat-like stories function (reminder that even LinkedIn has stories now), it's easy to understand why they'd do so when you consider how the stories format is what truly unleashed the floodgates to Wrapped's popularity. According to Forbes, last year "more than 60 million users engaged with the in-app story experience" in just a few weeks, and it was mentioned on Twitter over 1.2 million times. This year, you can hardly open a social media app without seeing mention of it. Both Wrapped and Instagram stories have been around since 2016, but Wrapped only started utilizing the format last year thanks to artist Jewel Ham, who was working as a Spotify design intern when she conceived of the idea, never knowing her work would become such a big part of Spotify's current Wrapped iteration — and never getting the proper due for it.
On Wednesday, Ham took to Twitter and revealed how she had developed the idea during a three-month summer internship at Spotify, posting elaborate design concepts of the Spotify Wrapped format we've become so enthralled by.
"I was a person that had Spotify and loved Wrapped, but it was just a link they would send at the end of the year," she recalls of the older versions. "It was just something that you personally knew about." She re-envisioned the data as something much more interactive and communal, something that lived on social media and naturally fed into its ecosystem. "When I gave the presentation at the end of my intern project, it was received really well. They liked the idea. That was my last day."
Ham kept silent when it was first unveiled in 2019. "But this year, I feel like now that it's gained some traction, it's not as brand new, it's so much more popular. I have seen so many memes about, Oh, how did you know I listened to so-and-so? Or I've seen so many people posting theirs, using them as horoscopes almost. It's crazy. That simply was not there before."
When we reached out to Spotify for comment, the company denied that this was accurate. "Spotify is proud to provide young talent from all backgrounds with the opportunity to create, contribute, and learn alongside some of the best teams in the business," a spokesperson told Refinery29. "Since Spotify’s Wrapped concept was first introduced in 2013, hundreds of employees have contributed ideas and creative concepts that have made the experience what it is today. While ideas generated during Spotify’s internship program have on occasion informed campaigns and products, based on our internal review, that is not the case here with Spotify Wrapped. It’s unfortunate that things have been characterized otherwise.”
While it may be true that nothing as conceptually complex as Wrapped can be credited to one person, intern or otherwise, Ham's contribution is clearly a key factor to its popularity. Ham's reference to horoscopes is an apt one; more and more people have turned to horoscopes (and horoscope memes) not only because we enjoy knowing who we are — it's more layered than that. It's about the intersection of who we think we are, who others think we are, and who we actually might be. It's a conversation, not just a statement. And conversations happen among multiple people, which is why, like a tree falling in an empty forest, if your Wrapped playlist drops and you don't post it on social media, does it really make a sound?
Spotify itself isn't a social platform — it's no Last.fm. But the company's yearly tie-up of what you listened to has become a distinctly social activity, so much so that some even make a party game out of guessing which Wrapped playlist belongs to whom, or experience a not-insignificant degree of shame over whether their Wrapped playlist measures up to barometers of "cool."
The fact that this cultural moment was conceptualized by a then-20-year-old intern about to enter her senior year of college at Howard University is also a reminder of who internships actually serve. All too often, they're portrayed as a favour to young people who don't have a long résumé yet, a way to "get a foot in the door" and learn from great mentors, but in fact, it’s often a way for giant companies with well-paid executives to get cheap or free labor — and innovation.
Ham wasn't entirely surprised that her idea was adopted wholesale without so much as a thank you note. "This was not my first corporate position, so I know that's not really the practice," she says. "Because the reality is, at the end of the day, they legally have the right to. That's the reason it's such an issue."
"It's not just Spotify personally. They're cool people," she continues. "But these corporations, they own all their intern content." She did receive a stipend during her internship — a stipend that was more generous than what many companies may offer — but it's no substitute for a real salary or other remuneration. "Stipend — that word alone doesn't sound right for major ideas, but that's it [for pay.] How would you have any idea when you're onboarding that you're going to create something so groundbreaking?"
She says she worked independently from start to finish, without oversight from supervisors on the direction her project should take. The goal they assigned her was fairly broad: make Wrapped appeal better to Gen Z. It seems every company is clamoring to capture Gen Z's attention and approval these days — even hiring Gen Z consultants to tap into their perspectives. But all too often, Gen Z labor goes unsung and unpaid.
To be clear, Ham doesn't want to make it sound like she didn't enjoy her experience. "It was a good internship, and I had a good time," she says. She loved the people she worked with. But it's the extractive nature of internships that's the core of the problem. "The things that I enjoyed the most about Spotify were very perk-related — they have a lot of snacks, they have nap rooms. But I feel like I have to distance myself a bit from all those benefits because that doesn't translate into any type of compensation for such a large idea."
It's easy to believe that these shiny apps with their sleek sans-serif logos are somehow innovative by their nature — due to a belief in tech utopianism, or that youngish tech companies foster ingenuity through their healthily-competitive, perk-heavy cultures and aesthetically pleasing offices. This image of cool can be incredibly alluring, working to draw in young, fresh talent who won't be properly compensated in the end.
The fact that people applying for internships are mostly young people without the experience to give them a better sense of their work's value or negotiate for better terms, is exactly what deepens the power imbalance of internships. "You should be going for paid [internships], but it almost doesn't matter how much you're paid because it will never be enough," she says. "When you're coming up with ideas like that, that have reach like that, at an age like that? You can't even put a dollar figure to it. If I were to sit in a corporate meeting, I would have no idea what to say, how much it was worth. But I know it's exponentially more than the stipend."
"I'm hearing a lot of people saying, Oh, that's what you do. That's how companies work. I feel like the most dangerous thing to say is, That's how it is because that's the way we've always done it. That is not right," says Ham.
"It doesn't make creative sense. The idea is what runs the company. However you execute it, that's what's driving the streams. It's driving traffic to other artists, it's bringing people together. I know for a fact that there’s a huge demographic of people that are on Apple Music, and they see their friends post their [Wrapped story] and they switch.”
This certainly isn't the first indication that Spotify doesn't pay the artists integral to its business adequately. As of 2018, it was reported that the company paid music rights holders (not just artists specifically) between $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream. Music streaming platforms have come under fire in recent years for how little they pay artists. This past summer, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek faced backlash for an interview in which he stated that the rates they pay aren't really the problem, but that some artists need to hustle and grind and produce more content. "You can't record music once every three to four years and think that's going to be enough," Ek said.
Ham recalls working extremely long hours on her Wrapped project because she felt so passionate about it. "I did so much overtime," she says. "I remember the day before the presentation, I left the office at about 4 a.m. so I could shower and get back at 6."
The overtime was her choice, but it doesn't change the fact that this was what it took to create a great idea. "I have an idea and I'm going to flesh it out — but I'm worth a stipend? It doesn't sit right with my spirit."
Now, she realizes how passion can be a double-edged sword when you're working with corporations that see you as the means to an end. "The more you get into it, especially when you find yourself really interested in the project — it's almost dangerous. I really gave my all in the project because I love using Wrapped. I had ideas about it. For us, it's such a genuine, Ooh, wouldn't this be cool? But for them it's a lot more… leechy. It's more parasitic."
"It makes me question how people value creativity," says Ham. "I find that a lot of people who are creatives are immediately recognizing this as wrong. But for people who are not, it feels as if we're dispensable."
As an artist, Ham is no stranger to the concept of being paid in "exposure" or "clout" or other intangible things. "People will really trade anything for art other than compensation," she says.
"At the end of the day, the problem here is not that Spotify stole my idea. It's that I gave it to them." The way we treat labor, especially the labour of young people, and especially the labour of Black women, creates an environment where they often have few options but to "give" their work and their ideas. It's not realistic to expect interns to negotiate the rights to their intellectual property, and the ubiquity of how many other interns have been in Ham's shoes doesn't dilute the fact that it isn't equitable. "I really believe in working for yourself when you can," says Ham. "Because personal creativity is powerful. It runs the world truly, especially Black women's creativity. It runs the world."
Right now, Ham is a curatorial fellow at the Art Students League of New York and is also working on personal projects, which you can view and buy on her website. When asked whether there's a running theme throughout her recent work, she answers, "Reparations."
"Really, this situation is about other people realizing that they're eligible for reparations — to know their value, that the content and things they contribute are worthy," says Ham.