Spotify: A Posthumous Playground for Musicians

A Report by Emma Braun


The music industry has been anything but stagnate over the years. Though music as an art form has existed throughout history, it wasn’t made widely available for distribution until the 1980s when sound recording became more of a lucrative field. Means for music consumption have changed greatly (and rapidly) thanks to the technological age in which we have entered. Meaningful developments in methods for listening to music have allowed even more people to have access to even more artists in even more genres.

The Current Playing Field

Driven by the desire for interconnectedness craved by current society, certain companies have found ways to pioneer music listening in ways we only ever could’ve dreamed of. Spotify, a subscription music streaming service, is one of the most prevalent examples of capitalization of such an ideal. Noticing both the abundance of illegal music torrenting and declining sales plaguing the music industry, Spotify delivered itself to the public as exactly what the public needed, a way to listen to music without having to commit to buying it.

The need to hold onto what is gone as well as the desire to have unlimited access to everything makes Spotify an unstoppable force. But the platform has shown to be most unstoppable when being used as a means to sell a memory of someone lost. The spikes in listening habits directly after an artist’s passing are incredibly telling to how people choose to listen to music nowadays and the value they put on lost talent. This universal trend has happened with the majority of artists who’ve passed since Spotify’s conception.

Figure 1, From Spotify

This topic is of the utmost importance to study because it seeks to define a pattern in human decision-making that could have a large effect on the music industry in the future as things become even more digital and people gain access to even more content. There is an underlying reason to why people do what they do and this research seeks to determine the trends that originate from these personal reasonings.

Spotify has changed the music industry in a lot of ways; however, much of the past focus has been on the change to how the music industry makes money, not how people make decisions on music consumption. There has also been a change to how people react to and value music and with the proper data, shift in dynamic can be studied. Human nature drives many decisions, even those above oneself. Industry executives and marketers need to be aware of what kind of content will have what kind of effect when delivered through the platform of Spotify.

Figure 2, Spotify Subscribers, From Business Insider

History of Spotify

Spotify began as a Swedish start-up in 2006 co-founded by Daniel Ek and Martin Lorenzton. The subscription music streaming service was launched to the public in 2008, just a short 2 years after its conception. After gaining rapid popularity in Europe, Ek and Lorenzton launched the service in the United States in 2011. As of 2016, the service had accumulated around 40 million paid subscribers.

Figure 3, Spotify founders Martin Lorenzton (left) and Daniel Ek (right)

A Deeper Look into the Service

One of the components that has helped Spotify flourish within its field is the ease-of-use to their service. As a free user, meaning the listener pays nothing, the Spotify web player or downloadable computer application contains a library of millions of songs for the user to listen to at his or her own discretion. The most noticeable difference between a paid subscription and free usage is the lack of in-platform ads and the ability to make listen to songs directly, not through shuffle.

Spotify’s Effect on the Industry

Music as an industry wholly draws off patterns in humans nature to find content inspiration. Topics of love and loss dominate the charts because their message resonates stronger with more people — and the artists making these songs know this. Prior to the existence of Spotify, the general public tended to be more selective in the music they chose to listen to due to the fact that it had to be purchased individually. Artists’ revenue would come primarily from record sales.

Starting in 1999, sales saw an intense decline as less and less people were purchasing CDs and records. The decline in selling music to own is still present globally, but the existence of subscription streaming services has led a resurgence of popularity for music. In 2016, subscription streaming was valued at $1 billion,a $500 million increase from the year prior.

Figure 4, Change in music sales, From The New York Times

Combined with Apple, Spotify has acquired nearly 2/3rd of the world’s 90 million paid streaming subscribers. Record companies and artists have realized the dependence they now have on these services. If an artist wants to be popular in any regard, their music needs to be available on a service like Spotify.The formula that Spotify has thrived on is providing its subscribers with millions of song choices for the price of one CD per month, justifying the cost every time. Further than that, Spotify changed the way people consume music by eliminating the need for downloads; instead they store all their content on one, shareable cloud that all their users have access to.

Figure 5, From Statista


Does society have a fixation with death?

As humans, we tend to have a fairly bleak outlook on life. People are born, they live a life they hope to be good, and then they die. With musicians, some of their greatest popularity, triumphs, and speculation take place post-mortem. Why is this? For one, the culture of fame has bred a new type of human being. We crave notoriety, and if we cannot get it for ourselves, we worship those who have it.

For a long time, it has been a music industry standard to utilize posthumous promotions to generate profit. Whether it is releasing a remastered, improved quality, a new album remixing of old work, or the re-release of earlier content, companies fine ways to benefit from the death of beloved artists . Spotify, though it cannot deliver tangible products, has sought similar means of gaining traction through the media exposure surrounding a musician’s death.

David Bowie

David Jones was born on January 8, 1947 in London and died January 10, 2016 after a long battle with liver cancer. During his career, Bowie was celebrated as a trend-setter in the industry, and an artist who constantly took risks with his music.

Figure 6, From Quartz Media

As a platform, Spotify frequently updates its content in terms of new playlists, charts, and weekly suggestions. Following the announcement of Bowie’s death, Spotify put a link to his music front and center on their homepage. That day, plays of his music saw a spike by 2,700%. He has an official playlist made by Spotify as well as is featured in 3 other Spotify-official playlists

Currently, David Bowie is the 205th most popular artist on the site with 7,093,587 monthly listeners (and counting), and he is a verified artist.


Figure 7, From Instagram

Prince Rogers Nelson was born on June 7, 1958 in Minneapolis, MN and died on April 20, 2016 of an accidental overdose. During his lifetime, Prince was known for rebelling against the music industry.

At the time of his death, Spotify only contained a few of his lesser known songs due to the fact that he’d had all his music removed from streaming services in 2015. On the day of his death, Spotify’s instagram account posted a picture in tribute to him. Though it got more than 5,000 likes, the majority of comments were made by users pointing out that they couldn’t even listen to his music on the service.

The following year, Spotify began its purple ad campaign, releasing a series of large billboards across New York City with nothing other than the Spotify logo over a purple backdrop. From those ads, the public was able to infer that this meant the return of Prince’s Warner Bros catalog music to the streaming platform. The ultimate release date was set to coincide with the 2017 Grammy Awards, in which there would be a live Prince tribute as well. Spotify also marked Prince’s return to streaming by creating an official This Is: Prince playlist featuring his most popular songs. Currently, Prince sits as 359th most listened to artist on Spotify with 4,751,103 monthly listeners and is a verified artist on the site.

George Michael

George Michael was born on June 25, 1963 in London and died of heart and liver disease on December 25, 2016. Previously a member of the popular 80s pop group, Wham! Before becoming a solo artist, Michael’s music had been extremely popular in his prime. Immediately following his death, the rate of plays his music got on Spotify increased by an estimated 3000% from the day before. Currently, George Michael is the 405th most listened to artist on Spotify with 4,367,582 monthly listeners and is a verified artist. Michael has five official Spotify-created playlists on his channel as well.

Figure 8, From Spotify


To assess a sudden rise in popularity of an artist following his or her death, I chose to look at the data presented in four unique Spotify Viral 50 Charts for the weeks following David Bowie’s death, Prince’s death, George Michael’s death, and the release of Prince’s music on Spotify. The data I collected highlights not only the rank of an individual artist’s song but also the frequency that that artist appears on the chart. For my data itself, I pulled from Spotify and Billboard as two reputable music sources. After inputting the data from charts for the weeks of Jan 14, 2016, April 28, 2016, December 29, 2016, and Feb 16, 2017, so I could compare the artist’s’ presence on each chart with other artists to see their frequency.

Figure 9, Spotify Viral 50 chart results, From Spotify

Figure 10 shows visually the the data in the chart above. As you can see, all artists saw a spike in plays of their music on Spotify, especially compared to the week prior.

Figure 10, Spotify Viral 50 chart results, From Spotify
Figure 11, Prince recommended artists, From Jonathan Albright

I also looked at the Spotify recommended artist feature, more specifically, the artists that they recommended for fans of Prince. Using Figure 11 I could visually note any possible correlation between artists. One such occurrence worth noting was the close proximity of the Prince “bubble” to the Michael Jackson “bubble.”

I decided to check the insights section of the Spotify website on the release day of Prince’s music and found that they had an automated heat map to show how Prince’s return to the streaming platform went around the globe. According to Spotify, the Top Five cities with the most active listeners were Minneapolis (Prince’s hometown), Saint Paul, New Orleans, New York City, and Decatur. The map features a time lapse of online hits for Prince’s music from February 11th to 20th.

Figure 12, From Spotify


As this report clearly shows, the posthumous celebration of an artist’s music has become a societal norm. Online music streaming services, Spotify specifically, have perpetuated the desire to immerse oneselves in what we can, in a sense, no longer have. David Bowie, Prince and George Michael will no longer make music, but the music they do have will live on infinitely in the seemingly never-ending music library of Spotify. There’s no question that people love and will always love music. It’s a driving force behind what connects us as human beings.

Figure 13, From Tableau

The viral nature of a song describes how quickly it has risen in popularity during a certain time period. Spotify Top 50 Viral Charts mark the most popular songs by reach.

One of the most tell-tale signs of a spike in artist popularity their placement in the Top music charts for a given period of time. Using the date of death for David Bowie, Prince and George Michael, I was able to collect evidence on this exact phenomenon by collecting the information from Spotify Viral Top 50 Charts. For each artist respectively, the week immediately following their death saw an extreme spike in listening which ultimately disappeared by the next week. The data I collected from these charts shows, beyond a reasonable doubt that the listening patterns of Spotify users are subject to cultural occurrences, primarily, an artist’s death.

Figure 14, From The New York Times

For the week following the death of David Bowie, Prince, and George Michael, respectively, each artist held at least 50% of the spots on the Viral Top 50 chart, with the exception of Prince, whose full music wasn’t released to stream until the following year. When looking at the specific songs that made it onto the chart, they represent a wide variety of each artist’s work. David Bowie’s most popular song during his life, for example, was “Let’s Dance” which made it to the №1 spot on Billboard’s Top 100 when it was released in 1983. Despite that, the song most listened to after his death was “Heroes” which had been considered a flop and never made it onto the charts during Bowie’s life.

These charts serve as an indicator for any importance cultural occurrences during that time period, including and especially an artist’s death. Social media plays a very large role as well in gaining viral traction. Likes and shares can propel content from being viewed by one person to being viewed by millions.

As shown in the Figure 13, each artist respectively accounted for over five “spots” on the Spotify “Viral 50” Chart the week directly following their death. It is important to note that the apparent outlier in this data set, the week of April 28, 2016, is due to the fact that Prince’s full body of music had not yet been added to Spotify at the time of his death. The week of February 16, 2017 reflects the date when Spotify publicly announced the addition of all of Prince’s music to their online library. After their purple ad campaign, they ultimately unveiled his music release using an Instagram post, as they had done to commemorate his death previously. The Viral 50 chart for the following week would show that their efforts to advertise his return to Spotify would prove successful; Prince held a 75% stake of the chart for that week.

Tactics as dynamic as their purple ad campaign or as simple as the location of a playlist of their home page can affect what people choose to listen to.


Spotify sits in a unique position in the music market as a large determining factor to music listening trends. As consumption has shifted from tangible products to subscription streaming, people are looking to it and other similar services for recommendations, playlists, and trends. As the data shows, a musician’s death has a direct effect on what people choose to listen to. Specifically, they tend to gravitate toward a platform like Spotify because of the unlimited, unrestrained listening. Spotify has acknowledged this repetitive pattern and is now in the phase of using it to their advantage. Through ad campaigns, playlist creation, strategic placement, and promotion, Spotify can provide the services its customers want while benefitting themselves.

Moving forward, Spotify should seek to further develop their action taken when an artist dies. More social media reaction on their end will garner even more listeners (which ultimately could lead to more subscribers). The subtle techniques being implemented currently are working in their favor, but as competition gets more fierce with streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify will need to employ even more advanced subliminal marketing tactics. It is highly unlikely that public reaction to the death of a musician will change. People feel inclined to revisit what is now lost; one of the best and easiest means to do so is to relive their glory days through their music. If Spotify can learn from this innate desire, they can develop a platform-wide formula in any occasion of a musician’s death.


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