Should Spotify be the single destination for music discovery?
Before I dive into this article, I would like to state that this is not meant to be a lampooning of Spotify – the reigning king of music streaming which is inching closer towards global dominance. That being said, its move towards becoming a one-stop destination for music listeners ought to be examined for both its merits as well as its non-trivial pitfalls.
The late 90s marked the emergence of the digital music revolution. Sadly, it felt anything but revolutionary for the music industry as it took the form of rampant music piracy characterized by an epidemic of illegal downloading of music MP3 files through file sharing services such as Napster and Audiogalaxy. It also triggered the downward spiral of the recorded music industry as physical sales of CDs started to plummet and revenues shrank dramatically year over year. This trend revealed the following blinds spots of the recorded music industry:
a. The model of selling physical albums with a few good songs interspersed with mediocre “filler’ was a broken model. The mixtape culture of the 80s and 90s was a striking indication of that. Mixtapes, in essence, were a manifestation of music piracy. Sadly, it was the only avenue for listeners to un-bundle albums and put together collections of music that spanned multiple albums. It seemed like buying full albums at retail price of $17 for three or four good songs was far from a good deal. This deal felt a lot worse for import CDs that cost north of $30. Given the US mainstream’s isolation from Europe in the 90s and beyond, it was not uncommon for listeners to order import CDs of albums that were not released in the US. Noteworthy examples include Culture Club’s “Don’t mind If I do” and “Patience” by George Michael (the latter release six months later in the US relative to its overseas release date).
b. The failure to adapt to the digital world could spell demise for the music industry.
The recorded music industry pursued legal action against those that shared music illegally online for download. This was their recourse of choice as opposed to being spurred to innovate in the face of rapidly declining revenues.
It was not until 2004 that legally downloading individual songs became an option. There was finally a legal alternative to un-bundling albums. Oddly enough, the platform that facilitated this was created by tech giant Apple in the form of iTunes. This was the first step in the right direction. Sadly, by the time it saw the light of day, there was an entire generation of music listeners that did not grasp the concept of paying for music. Getting this large swathe of listeners to become paying customers of music via services such as iTunes was likely to be a herculean task. The recognition of this reality led to the emergence of advertising-supported streaming services – a legal alternative for those that had grown accustomed to not paying for music. Services such as these were in a state of constant friction with record labels and were on the hook for large royalty payments since their offering was essentially a proxy for legal ownership of music. Streaming services such as IMEEM and Grooveshark floundered.
The first true winner of the streaming war was Sweden-based Spotify. Spotify’s journey to dominance was marked by some key differentiating milestones. These milestones are as follows:
a. The creation of a slick design driven by an emphasis on user experience.
b. An integration with Facebook that made the consumption of music a social experience as opposed to the individualistic flavor that had characterized new age music consumption due to services that facilitated algorithmic curation (which was personalized to individual users) of music. Noteworthy examples include Pandora and LastFM.
c. The ability to stream songs in offline mode on mobile devices. This was undoubtedly the greatest leap that Spotify took towards making its service a viable alternative to buying music. It had also accounted for mobile devices contributing to a growing percentage of media consumption.
d. While Spotify had created an alternative to illegal downloading of music and buying music via services such as iTunes and Amazon music, its continued support from record labels (the owners of the most prized music assets) required them to go one step further. Spotify managed this by becoming curators through a combination of human-driven playlists and algorithmically driven radio functionality. By becoming both a medium of music “ownership” (i.e. the ability to stream on-demand) and music discovery, they completed the loop that defines a typical music listener’s journey.
By becoming both an avenue of on-demand streaming and music discovery, Spotify had struck gold in their endeavor to entrench themselves in the lives of music consumers. It made their ad-free paid subscription services far more appealing and now boasts a global subscriber base of 83 million subscribers (as of June 2018). Spotify seems like the musical holy grail for many. More importantly, it is perceived as being exactly that by most. For many, the world of music begins and ends with Spotify. The curiosity to look beyond the walls of Spotify is non-existent for these people. While I am not discounting Spotify’s intrinsic value, its role as the single point of music in the lives of many is inherently problematic for the following reasons:
a. Spotify’s catalog has huge holes:
The perception that people have of Spotify is that it has every piece of commercially viable pop/rock music that has been released. This perception is dramatically different from the reality. Furthermore, what many Spotify listeners are blissfully unaware of is that each country has different Spotify catalogs. This is no fault of Spotify’s. Spotify is forced to work within the confines of antiquated geo-specific licensing boundaries that many record labels have created. Why this is the case is a topic for a separate article altogether. As a result, several major label acts have a presence on Spotify UK but not on Spotify US. The most noteworthy example that comes to mind is the album “White Light” – the comeback album for Irish sibling band The Corrs. Outside of the US, in the late 90s and early 2000s, it was virtually impossible to escape the music of The Corrs and yet their album “White Light” is conspicuous by its absence on Spotify US. While this in itself is not problematic, it does challenge the widely held notion that Spotify represents the universe – at least as it applies to pop and rock music. Furthermore, it makes these albums more undiscoverable because Spotify is a one-stop shop for many. In doing so, it makes the musical mainstream seem far slimmer than it actually is and misrepresents the universe of music to its listeners. Once again, this is not Spotify’s fault but it is a shortcoming that many overlook or are simply unaware of.
b. Algorithmic curation makes listeners believe their musical tastes are far less eclectic and diverse than they actually are:
Algorithmic curation at scale requires services such as Spotify to treat their listeners as “data points” as opposed to human beings. These algorithms do not view listeners as fickle creatures of emotion conditioned by context and riddled with contradiction. As a result, they make listeners think their tastes are far more homogeneous than they are actually are. While these algorithms can undoubtedly facilitate discovery, it is within a specific sonic realm largely defined by the curation algorithm. For instance, if I was a slave to algorithmic curation in my younger years (when music first came into my life and started to gradually consume me), bands such as Jamiroquai and Sade would have evaded me, and I would be worse off for it, My discovery of bands such as these was a by-product of human curation and while its inclusion in radio and MTV playlists was not customized to my tastes at the time, I was certainly better off for it. Fortunately, Spotify allows for human-curated playlists. Unfortunately, they suffer from the classic “chicken and egg” syndrome. For a playlist to be discover-able, it needs to have many followers but it is difficult for a playlist to get followers if it is not discover-able UNLESS the playlist belongs to a famous personality. At least in the US, many of these playlists by famous personalities suffer from the same geocentric bias that conglomerate-owned terrestrial radio perpetrated since the mid-90s. Furthermore, these playlists are restricted to geo-specific Spotify catalogs.
c. Streaming as a substitute for ownership has its limitations
The ownership of music allows us to edit our music files. Edits could include cutting parts of a song (especially the pointless and sometimes cringe-worthy rap sections that have become an unfortunate staple in a lot of contemporary pop music), boosting the volume of a track (a necessity for older songs that have not been digitally remastered). The difference in volume can be particularly problematic in a playlist with songs with dramatically different volumes. Restaurants and bars that use Spotify to play music off their phones find this inadequacy of streaming quite inconvenient. To the best of my knowledge, there is no volume normalizer or volume booster for Spotify on mobile.
d. The ability to skip every song ever heard could undermine the art form of music by shackling its underlying creativity.
The ability to skip a track while sampling an album is desirable in the context of streaming being an alternative to ownership of music. In the context of music discovery, it is likely to be a handicap – especially if streaming becomes the ONLY mode of discovery-oriented consumption of music. If listeners skipping songs after 10 seconds of listening to the songs becomes a growing trend, artists (especially in the pop realm) will start to feel the pressure to be hook-driven in the first few seconds of a song. The creativity associated with music will be shackled by this rather constraining reality. All greatness in pop music does not present itself in the first 10 seconds. A good example of this is one of the first great pop singles of 2018 – a song called “Lower the tone” by Blackpool-native Rae Morris. I think of skipping tracks in the same way that I think of “swiping left” via online dating apps. It is not uncommon for single people using these apps to swipe left after a cursory glance at a profile of a potential date candidate or after seeing the first photo of the profile. Rarely do they give themselves a chance to take time with a profile before deciding whether to swipe left or swipe right. Their prejudices make a left swipe almost instant (I swipe left on fans of Drake and Cardi B!). Once again, this is only a pitfall in the context of Spotify or any other streaming service being a single source of discovery.
This article might look like a shameless and thinly veiled attempt on my part to highlight the limitations of an entity competing for the attention of a music listener in the way that we at Radio Crème Brulee do. We certainly do not aspire to become a one-stop shop for pop music aficionados. This is primarily because we do not believe in monopolies or large oligopolies (such as the four players in terrestrial radio that collectively own over 80% of the terrestrial radio stations in the US). All we ask is that people do not limit themselves to a single music source. Just as civic literacy is a function of our ability to rely on multiple news sources (including those that we do not agree with), we should take a similar approach to music discovery. The survival of the art form depends on it. Today, Spotify has the highest chance of being that single source for music. That is a reality we ought to be truly skeptical of. Please feel free share your comments and feedback in the comment section below.
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