On Commonwealth Avenue, a Boston University student tunes into “Stay @ Home — Allegrettos Version” by the a capella group BU Allegrettos. Over at Northeastern, a student blasts LEEWAY’s “Get Out My.” Across the river, “Kokomo, IN” by Japanese Breakfast plays in a Harvard dorm, while on the lawn at MIT, “Overnight Sensation” by Børns is playing through someone’s ear buds. Zoom out a bit farther to discover students at Boston College listening to “Look How Far We’ve Come” by Quinn XCII, who sings, ironically: “Watch the stars in Cambridge/‘Cause you’re way too smart for Boston College.”
Glenn McDonald is a Spotify “data alchemist” living in Cambridge who created The Sounds of Spotify Schools account, which makes playlists for universities around the world — around 3,000 to date — based on each school’s unique student listening patterns. The playlists are updated once a week.
“Now we have all this music online and all these people listening, what can we do with that listening data to help the world of music sort of self-organize, so it’s an asset to have all this music instead of just a bottomless well?” McDonald said in a recent video interview.
Each playlist is made up of 100 songs, drawn from subscribers who sign up for a Spotify student plan through their university-affiliated e-mail accounts. The algorithm deals with “a combination of how popular the songs are with the students at a school and what share of global listening those students represent,” McDonald said.
The playlists are ranked: The first song is the one most distinctive to a university and so on to the 100th song, which is the least distinctive. To maintain variety, each playlist contains only one song from an artist.
So what does “distinctive” mean in this case?
“It’s the [song] that is the highest combination of popular among those students and not as popular everywhere else,” McDonald said.
If student groups or artists create music, it will most likely appear at or near the top of the playlist. BU student Jerry Neequaye, who performs as $cary Jerry, had his song “Casamigos” listed third on Boston University’s playlist earlier this month. Neequaye uses a program to find out which online playlists are adding his songs.
“I didn’t even know this existed,” said Neequaye, a rising senior, about the school-specific playlists. “I did it a couple of times, and I saw every song I dropped would be added to the playlist. Somebody at the school is really tuning in, which I really appreciate.”
Other artists may often appear on Sounds of Spotify Schools playlists because they are connected to the school in some way, whether it means being an alum or an artist who had performed on campus. Northeastern University student Chelsea Henderson recognized a couple of artists on the Sound of Northeastern University playlist from their visits to the school.
“I’ve seen Dominic Fike on there and Gus Dapperton, and I know they’ve performed for Northeastern,” Henderson said in a phone interview.
While it may be fun to browse through the schools’ playlists and compare them, it’s easy to wonder whether students think these playlists are representative of what their peers actually listen to.
Harvard University student Zavier Chavez seems to think so.
“There’s a lot of independent music for smaller artists [on the playlist]. I think that is definitely something that makes this feel very Harvard in my experience. It feels very indicative of the same kind of sentiments towards music, the music industry, and art as a whole,” Chavez said in a phone interview.
While he believes the Sound of Harvard University playlist is an accurate reflection, he also recognizes it’s hard to pin down an entire student body with 100 songs.
That may not have been McDonald’s intention in the first place, but instead to provide a snapshot into an area of student life.
“My main hope was to find some listening of each school that the people in that school would recognize as their own,” McDonald said.
Find all of the playlists on Spotify at The Sounds of Spotify Schools.
Riana Buchman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.