Podculture: The Sounds of NU

Sammi Boas, Assistant Audio Editor

The Sound of Northwestern University is a Spotify-curated playlist that rounds up some songs that are popular among Northwestern students. The Daily sat down with the creator behind the playlist’s algorithm to chat about how the playlist works.

SAMMI BOAS: Toward the end of February, a Spotify account called The Sounds of Spotify Schools started gaining popularity online. If you go to the account, you’ll find unique playlists named for universities around the globe. Each playlist updates weekly to reflect what students at each school are listening to. Most notably for Wildcats, the account features a playlist just for Northwestern students: The Sound of Northwestern University. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Sammi Boas. This is Podculture, a podcast about arts and culture on campus and beyond. 

SAMMI BOAS: The Sounds of Spotify Schools was the brainchild of Glenn McDonald, a data alchemist at Spotify. Basically, Glenn looks at different listening patterns of countries, cities and demographic groups.

GLENN MCDONALD: Eventually, it occurred to me that, because when you sign up for a student account you have to actually say what college you’re affiliated with, that I could do it for schools. So that account is just me and a lot of math to produce playlists for any school that has enough Spotify student accounts associated with it to produce data.

SAMMI BOAS: Glenn said that the data primarily tells us how many students from a school are listening to a song, as well as what share of global listening that data represents.

GLENN MCDONALD: So the highest possible score would be every single student at Northwestern is listening to this song and nobody who doesn’t have a Northwestern student account ever listens to this song. And you never get that, but that’s the ideal. So, you know, somewhere in the middle there is like 10% of the students at Northwestern are listening to something and they represent 10% of the global listening. And then both of those are still pretty high, but that’s better than, you know, a song that five students are listening to and nobody else has ever heard because it’s their roommate.

SAMMI BOAS: Unless the school is the only sign of life in a geographic region, there’s no way to identify student streams through geography alone. Instead, the algorithm relies on the student Spotify sign-ups. 

GLENN MCDONALD: Then of course, we know like, exactly how much of the song you play, stuff you skip after 38 seconds. Then we can look at, do you finish songs, how often you return to the same artist day after day, and build up composite-ive interesting metrics based on that stuff. Every day’s worth of streaming just goes into a big database that I can query. And for sort of scaling reasons, I usually run a job each day that summarizes that day’s listening. And then most of the playlists, including the Sounds of Students ones, are done weekly. So it takes a Friday through Thursday listening week, each day has already been pre-processed at the end of it. And then, you know, adds up all the students streaming from each school, and then all the streaming period, so that it can compare and find out what share of the world is listening each school has.

SAMMI BOAS: Through the playlists, Glenn hopes to mimic a real-world experience of finding and sharing music.

GLENN MCDONALD: Across the whole set, you’ll often see, like school fight songs. You’ll often find artists that if you research them, you’ll find out they just graduated from that school or they’re still in it. I’m always super pleased when that happens, because that’s what a person would do. Because a person would know, they’d be like, “I know the bands on campus, because they, you know, they put up handmade flyers and stuff, and my friends are in them.” So to the extent that I can reconstruct that actual real world knowledge, just from listening signals, I think that’s the coolest.

SAMMI BOAS: So what’s on the Sounds of Spotify Schools playlists? For each school that has enough streaming data, there are 100 songs. There’s only one song per artist, so it’s more interesting for listening and knowledge purposes, according to Glenn. Right now, The Sounds of Spotify Schools curates roughly 2,000 playlists, all pulling data from students across the world. Glenn said that the playlists’ songs are in a specific order, with the first songs being the most distinctive to students at that university. This layout answers the burning question: what do students at my university listen to that other listeners don’t?

SAMMI BOAS: The Sound of Northwestern University is Northwestern’s playlist, pulling music directly from the Spotify accounts of NU football players, Bienen students, that weird kid in your comp sci class and even Daily staffers, like myself. So what are all of these NU students listening to? I looked at the weekly playlists from April 1 and April 8. The most popular genres across the two playlists were similar, with indie pop, pop and alternative r&b standing out the most. Other popular genres include electropop, modern rock and indie r&b. Across the two playlists, the songs ranged from 1:32 to 5:50 in length. The oldest song was recorded in 1977: “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” by Dolly Parton. There were 20 songs that found their way onto both playlists, including “Overnight” by Maggie Rogers and “Doubt” by Hippo Campus. The song’s artists ranged from artists with ties to NU, like luv lee, Alex Banin and Honey Butter, to more widely-known artists like Chance the Rapper, Taylor Swift and Vampire Weekend.

SAMMI BOAS: But does data know best? I talked to a few Northwestern students to see what they thought about the playlist.

JACQUI TOUCHET: There’s definitely several songs and artists on here that I really like. A lot of it is a little more like chill singer songwriter-y, which isn’t usually like what I choose to listen to so much. But that’s not to say that I don’t like it. I mean, most of the songs when I listened through it, I thought were really good. And like, even some of the more chill stuff I still liked a lot. And there’s some really good vocals on the playlist, which I was surprised about, but I enjoyed that.

SAMMI BOAS: That was Jacqui Touchet, a sophomore double majoring in theatre and linguistics. Jacqui is an avid music listener. Even though Jacqui’s favorite artist, Lauryn Hill, isn’t on the playlist, she said there were a lot of tracks and artists that she likes to listen to.

JACQUI TOUCHET: Some of the ones that I knew before, like I love Janelle Monáe, Pynk is on there. And that’s like one of my favorite songs. Flo Milli’s on there a little bit. I like Mitski, Chloe x Halle, “Photo ID” by Remi Wolf is on there and I love Remi Wolf, Tierra Whack, I also like Vulfpeck. So there’s like quite a few that I like. 

SAMMI BOAS: Jacqui and her pandemic bubble tend to listen to hyperpop and house music, she said. Having been in a pandemic for over a year now, Jacqui said she feels like Northwestern culture and its music culture have been impacted.

JACQUI TOUCHET: At least like in my group of friends and people I know, I feel like I’ve been interacting with a lot of people who are listening to more of like, kind of hype, party music. And I feel like maybe that could be because everyone is kind of like, searching for ways to like, recreate the feelings of being like really social and having a really good time and all that kind of stuff without obviously like seeing people outside of your pod or other than your roommates or whatever people are doing. I think at least like with me and my friends, there will be like three of us, blasting “party music” in the living room trying to, like, you know, feel like we’re at like a music festival again, or like at some sort of concert and something like that that we haven’t gotten to do in so long.

SAMMI BOAS: During non-pandemic times, Jacqui would go and see smaller, more local artists live in concert. Localized playlists, like The Sounds of Spotify Schools, are good for highlighting some of these artists.

JACQUI TOUCHET: I feel like sometimes it’s kind of hard to like find many small artists that really go along with what I or what anyone likes to listen to, which is part of why I like big playlists like this that like to highlight smaller artists. It makes it a lot easier to like, discover new music and discover new sounds that you haven’t been able to find on your own.

SAMMI BOAS: On campus, WNUR’s Rock Show’s purpose is to raise awareness of underrepresented artists. I talked to Thomas Kikuchi, a Weinberg senior and one of the co-directors of Rock Show, about what they thought of NU student’s taste in music.

THOMAS KIKUCHI: I see that the taste and the trends of Rock Show are a little bit different than what I would consider the rest of Northwestern to be into and know, simply because they’re engaging in different kinds of music, and it’s curated by Spotify, or whatever, like their friends, and not so much with the dedication of being about the local music scene and trying to find under represented music, which is like our biggest goal at Rock Show and throughout the whole station.

SAMMI BOAS: Comparing Rock Show to the Spotify playlist, Thomas said that most of the songs on the playlist probably wouldn’t be allowed to be played as a part of Rock Show.

THOMAS KIKUCHI: Mainly because most of these artists are already getting played on some radio station, they’re getting the exposure. And that’s not necessarily what we try to do. Because we are so privileged to have our own FM radio station and have such a large budget to do things, what kind of station are we if we’re just doing the same thing that Pitchfork does, the same thing that a top 40s radio does, the same thing that like, like a Spotify playlist does?

SAMMI BOAS: But Thomas isn’t totally anti-mainstream; in fact, they like a lot of the music that pops up on the Spotify playlist. Thomas said they like many of the same artists that Jacqui likes: Chloe x Halle, Mitski, Flo Milli. But they recognize that there’s no way for a Spotify playlist to be totally representative of what the University listens to as a whole.

THOMAS KIKUCHI: I think it’s already a slippery slope when you start to consider Spotify as the like, know all, be all in being reliable of people’s listening habits. I’d say that obviously there are some artists that I think we all collectively like and can all agree on. And, you know, it’s going off of a wide variety of, you know, different listeners, but at least some of the people that I know, and within Rock Show, I mean, we’re listening to stuff that not a lot of people are listening to. And, you know, it might not even be on Spotify, honestly, at least some of the stuff that I listen to, it can’t be represented on Spotify, if it’s not in there. I’m listening to stuff on YouTube Music, Bandcamp, other stuff that I’ll find through finds that I download, from my personal collection and stuff. Like, of course, I use Spotify too but it’s still not representative of all the stuff and I just think, like, Spotify does not have all the music in the world.

SAMMI BOAS: But ultimately, Thomas sees The Sound of Northwestern University playlist as a way for the Northwestern community to come together and connect, while we’re still all physically separated.

THOMAS KIKUCHI: Music does have that ability to link us. And it’s nice knowing that, like, what I’m listening to feels a little bit represented on here.

SAMMI BOAS: You can find the playlist by searching The Sound of Northwestern University on Spotify. Like the music you heard in this episode? All the songs featured throughout the episode were featured on the April 1 Northwestern playlist. The songs are “Phantom” by Guard, “Grass Stains” by Laura Elliott, “Bliss” by Cam the Artisan, “Oh No” by Softee and “Pretty Lips” by WINEHOUSE. 

SAMMI BOAS: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Sammi Boas. Thanks for listening to another episode of Podculture. This episode was reported and produced by me, Sammi Boas. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Haley Fuller, and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey. 

Email: [email protected] 
Twitter: @BoasSamantha

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