Data ethics unit to probe impact of music-streaming algorithms

DCMS entity is to examine the effect on artists of automated recommendations 

Credit: Photo Mix/Pixabay

The government’s dedicated unit for promoting the ethical use of data and automation is to examine the role played by algorithmic recommendation systems in music streaming services.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) has announced that it will be conducting research of artists – or “music creators” – to find out more about their experiences with the algorithms used by music streaming providers, and the impact such programs have on their work.

The survey takes place as part of broader research by CDEI into the role of algorithms in recommending content to users of streaming services, such as Spotify. The government body’s investigation will include consideration of the impact on how music is consumed by listeners and, in turn, how this affects artists.

The centre said: “The CDEI will be carrying out a survey to take the views of creators into consideration as part of our research, as well as begin to understand if and how algorithmically driven recommendation systems affect different categories of creators, creators across different genres, and whether there are any apparent differences in their effect by region, age, gender identity, or ethnic group.”

Established in 2019, the CDEI sits within the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. 

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The House of Commons select committee dedicated to DCMS policy issues last year led an inquiry into the economics of music streaming. In the resultant report, one of MPs’ recommendations was that “government should commission research into the impact of streaming services’ algorithms on music consumption, including where creators are forgoing royalty payments in exchange for algorithmic promotion”.

The government agreed with this recommendation, and said that leading such research would represent a continuation of previous work undertaken by CDEI.

“The government… agrees that there would be value in conducting further research on recommendation algorithms used by streaming services and takes the growing role of algorithms seriously,” it said, in its official response to the committee. “The CDEI published the final report of its review into bias in algorithmic decision-making in November 2020, and the government responded to this report in July 2021 setting out how we are implementing several recommendations. 

“In addition, the Creators’ Earnings research [commissioned by the Intellectual Property Office] highlighted this as an area of further research that would be beneficial for the government to undertake. This research suggested an investigation into whether adjustments to recommendation algorithms may alter the distribution of streaming revenue, so that less popular artists receive a greater share.”

The DCMS committee’s inquiry was intended to put under the spotlight the “economic impact music streaming is having on artists, record labels and the sustainability of the wider music industry”. The investigation was launched to better understand how and why artists receive “as little as 13%” of the £1bn-plus generated each year by streaming, according to the committee.

MPs examined the business models and practices of Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Google Play, and also took steps to “consider whether the government should be taking action to protect the industry from piracy in the wake of steps taken by the EU on copyright and intellectual property rights”.


Sam Trendall

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