Last fall, 28-year-old Chloe Johnson was going through a breakup when Billie Eilish dropped her mournful single “when the party’s over.” “That song just stuck,” the New York–based marketer told me. After that, Eilish’s music became the soundtrack to Johnson’s life: She played it on her phone during her commute on the train, at work on her desktop, and when she got home at night. She shared it with her dad. She made an Instagram fan account. “Then, one day, I went to switch a song, and all of a sudden I see this little thing moving on my screen,” Johnson said. “And I’m like, What is that?”
Johnson had stumbled upon a new genre of programming within the Spotify ecosystem: vertical music videos. Ahead of Eilish’s debut album, WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, the singer worked with the streaming platform to film a handful of smartphone-friendly visuals for breakout singles. The videos can be played in full on something called the “Billie Eilish Experience” playlist, but they have also been edited down to eight-second loops that pop up on users’ screens anytime they play a track on their smartphone. (Most notable among them is the edit for “you should see me in a crown,” a clip in which a tarantula crawls out of Eilish’s open mouth as she makes unblinking eye contact with the camera.) Other non-singles from the album feature animated fan art that depict Eilish as an anime character or a demon. Some even come with “Storylines”—text cards on which Eilish herself explains her music. (“this song is explaining that the ‘guy’ doesn’t always have to be the ‘bad guy,’” Billie wrote about the album’s breakout single in her signature lowercase. “in this case it’s me.”) Johnson began streaming music from her iPhone XS Max and leaving the screen on so that clips of Billie played in the background all day. “Now, it’s like it’s everywhere,” Johnson said. “My battery dies so much quicker now because it’s just playing videos all day long.”
Johnson’s quick attachment to the feature suggests that Spotify has reinvented the once-lambasted 9:16 vertical video format for the modern musician. Since the platform first debuted a vertical video for Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar” in May 2017, it has experimented with the medium as a way to both boost its signature playlists (like RapCaviar or Rock This) and enhance anticipated releases from major artists ranging from Nicki Minaj to the viral country sensation Mason Ramsey. At the start of 2019, the company introduced a feature called Canvas, which allows musicians to attach looping, Vine-like animated videos to individual tracks—a tool that artists began using as a way to repurpose footage from their music videos in a snappier, digestible format. When Taylor Swift’s hugely anticipated album Lover debuted on the platform last month, Spotify presented it with three exclusive vertical music videos and behind-the-scenes clips. The Canvases for Lover include whimsical, moving cotton-candy-shaded portraits, outtakes from her official music videos, and video clips that look as though they’ve been pulled straight from her smartphone’s photo reel. Anytime a user plays an individual track from the album on their phone, it automatically loops a related GIF on their smartphone. Watching this footage synced to Swift’s music feels new, in the sense that the endless looping format of the videos mimics the mesmerizing posts I typically see on TikTok—the feverishly paced social media darling that has seen explosive growth in the past two years. But the experience is also somewhat nostalgic. The last time I consumed music videos with such bottomless zeal was every weekday after school with the help of Carson Daly.
There are plenty of reasons Spotify is quietly exploring its own signature form of multimedia. Since it went public in spring 2018, the algorithm-driven company has aimed to keep a leg up on its most direct competitor, the decidedly human-curated Apple Music. In addition to building out personalized, AI-driven song suggestions and expert-curated new-music playlists, Spotify has begun expanding its service to new countries and investing heavily in original podcasts. As all powerful tech corporations aim to do, Spotify is also strategizing ways to squeeze every bit of engagement out of the millions of people who use its app each month (232 million, to be exact). The platform’s sudden interest in music videos is a direct challenge to YouTube, which became the de facto home for the medium after TRL shriveled up in 2008 and MTV went the way of E! “As I’m listening to the song, I don’t have to make the commitment and watch the whole music video on YouTube or Apple Music or something like that,” said Mike Aktas, a 16-year-old Eilish fan who loops Canvas video on his phone while listening to the artist in the morning, at school, and in the evening.
Usually, when a tech company volleys for a leg up on its competition, it goes and does something embarrassing like launch Google+. Yet Spotify’s vertical formats have infused a novel intimacy into traditional music videos, which have become preventively costly, and are too often phoned in by overworked or uninterested pop stars. Canvas is maybe the closest digital re-creation of liner notes that has ever existed, thanks in part to Spotify’s strict regulation of artist-submitted content on its platform. It helps that the videos are a natural complement to Spotify’s core media—music that young people want to stream indefinitely.
In the storied history of entertainment formats, vertical video has always been cast as the unwanted stepchild. Horizontal formatting was once so sacred in the movie industry that VHS tapes opened with a disclaimer that read, “THIS FILM HAS BEEN MODIFIED FROM ITS ORIGINAL VERSION. IT HAS BEEN FORMATTED TO FIT YOUR TV.” The primacy of the 16:9 aspect ratio was so ingrained that for much of YouTube’s early years, users would shame people for filming in vertical video. Even as smartphones began forcing acceptance of the format, they were often filmed as an afterthought, with the goal to reach as many eyeballs as possible. Eventually more digital natives begun using their phones as their primary entertainment devices; in 2015, Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report noted that the percentage of vertical videos people watched online jumped from 5 to 29 percent between 2010 and 2015, and that engagement increased with the advent of social media apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Vine, and Musical.ly.
Still, Spotify eased into the genre much like any other entertainment company. Per Kris Belman, a director who has worked with Spotify to create videos for Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, and Imagine Dragons, filming vertical footage was often part of a larger package, to be done alongside more traditional horizontal shoots. “We framed everything for a traditional 16:9 format,” Belman told me. “Then we just made sure we were safe for vertical, knowing that they could reframe within the edit if they needed to. To me, it was more like, OK, this is something we have to do. Let’s make it work, as long as it doesn’t impact what we really want to do, which is to tell the best story we can digitally within a wider format.”
As the platform began working with more digital-savvy artists, it began to tailor video concepts to the format. When Swift released her sixth studio album, Reputation, in 2017, she worked with Spotify to film a vertical video for the song “Delicate” that was completely different from the high-production horizontal piece that Joseph Kahn made for it. The result of that collaboration had all the trappings of a standard lip-sync video, but it was elevated with a thoughtful wardrobe, forest setting, and subtle choreography of expressions and movement. It’s only when Swift raises both of her hands to touch her head one minute into the video that you realize she is not, in fact, filming it herself. “It does feel more present, because they’re vertical videos!” Yasmine Marien, a Brussels-based 22-year-old who runs a fan page for the singer, told me via Instagram DM. “It’s just her recording herself and it kinda makes you feel like you’re watching it on a livestream or something. I don’t really know how to explain it, you just feel a lot closer to her.”
When Eilish filmed a vertical video for “idontwannabeyouanymore,” she similarly worked with director Eli Born to make full use of the format. For the past six or seven years, Born had been filming vertical videos as extra footage, tacked on to shoots. This was his first assignment in which vertical video was the main event. “I met with Billie and she wanted it very specifically to be in a white void vertical with her singing to a mirror.” He sought inspiration from Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” video, which used the vertical video format as a way to crop out the sources of light for lens flares.
The production for the shoot was both effective and budget-friendly: a mostly uninterrupted performance video of the singer addressing her reflection in the mirror, shot at Evidence Film Studios in Echo Park. It required the presence of only Eilish, Born, a lighting person, and a cameraperson. More importantly, the final end product, as played on a smartphone, offers a kinetic personal experience with the singer, not unlike an Instagram or Snapchat Story from the world’s most beloved teen pop star. Oddly, the high-level production of her video—and the fact that she is shown head-to-toe—creates an added level of ownership. It’s like she’s a songstress Mike Teavee, shrunken down to live inside a screen, and available at any hour of the day.
“As videos go across more and more platforms, it’s creating new ways of saying things,” Born said. “A conventional frame, a horizontal frame is mimicking peripheral vision and wanting to present things in that way to be immersive. But when you’re doing something vertically, you know it’s a lot more selective. You’re not seeing what’s on either side of the frame, so it draws your attention inward, and it becomes like a really curated experience.”
While Spotify has focused on major pop stars thus far, the recent introduction of Canvas—those animated videos and illustrations that automatically play with tracks—has created branding opportunities for lesser-known musicians. According to Sebastien Lintz, a label director who manages the Dutch DJ Hardwell, the looping videos allow enterprising artists to catch the attention of listeners. “Overall it has really to do with branding,” Lintz said. “Like communicating your look and feel as an artist, because video says more than artwork.” More engaging visuals may improve the performance of the song and catch the attention of editorial curators at Spotify who have the power to promote music within the platform’s ecosystem. (A Spotify rep declined to provide engagement data for both its vertical music videos and Canvas animations.)
Per Lintz, Spotify still maintains strict requirements for which artists can submit supplemental videos and GIFs on the platform. Typically it prioritizes artists based on their number of monthly listeners and other metadata related to their performance on the app. Artists are also prohibited from explicitly advertising shows or albums within the visual.
Spotify’s standards might feel slightly draconian in a digital media landscape that has always preached the value of unregulated user-generated content. But in a moment when so many tech giants are being called into question for their radically free publishing policies, Spotify’s move feels refreshingly buttoned-up—a content platform that does not seem readily exploitable by anti-vaxxers, trolls, or digital hustlers. In internet speak, it has found a way to make autoplay videos not annoying. Or, in Mike Aktas’s eyes, maybe even cool.
“They just changed the way that I listened to music,” Aktas said. “I hope to see more artists doing this in the future.”