What Spotify Means For Music

13 April, 2018

During a 5-week stretch at the beginning of this year, I attended one show a week. First it was Julien Baker. Then it was Julie Byrne and Steve Gunn. Then it was Emily Wells. Then it was Converge, Sumac, and Cult Leader. Then it was Vince Staples. It was an exciting development: in high school I had gone to shows at least once a month, typically at 924 Gilman in Berkeley, and a decade later I found myself once again actively consuming music by seeing the musicians that made the music I loved in a way I had not been in the intervening years.

A few months ago I read “The Problem With Muzak” by Liz Pelly in The Baffler. I loved it. I read it at least 10 times. I knew I wanted to write about it. I didn’t know how to feel about what the article told me. I also didn’t know exactly what point I wanted to make by writing about it.

Until I got my first job out of college, I was a serial filesharer. What started with Kazaa eventually moved to Soulseek, and then torrents and general web browsing savvy to find what I wanted. When I did purchase music, it was typically vinyl records of albums that I had already pirated for mp3s, or I just bought t-shirts, telling myself that it was okay because I was still supporting the band. (Thus, my wardrobe is reminiscent of the following tweet: "hardcore kid culture is owning over 100 shirts and exactly one pair of pants.")

These days I listen to 99% of my music through Spotify. I am a happy paying customer. By the count of my linked Last.fm account, I average about 50 songs a day. And I had convinced myself that I was finally on the right side of ethics by paying $10 to a corporation that offered me unlimited music streaming. But Pelly’s article makes it clear that my $10 does not support the artists I care about. They’re seeing a laughably small amount of money. In terms of economics it reminded me of Steve Albini’s breakdown for why bands signing major label record deals often put the bands in a financial bind.

So I decided to boil down my response to her article in a few rules:

(1) Paying \$10/month through a subscription service does not adequately support the artists you like. You cannot just be a passive consumer.

(2) Attend concerts: give the artists more of your money, buy merchandise, and forge a stronger connection with the music you like

(3) Consider, when the love of music is strong, supporting the artists by purchasing their music through record labels or Bandcamp.

In searching for commentary about Pelly’s article I came across a blogpost by Om Malik. He took a similar position to mine, which is effectively: “Yes, the things you say are bad, but the reasons they are bad are not all Spotify’s fault.” However, it is ironic that in another blog post—published on the same day—he blames algorithms and convenience for why music has “lost that loving feeling.”

Music lost a bit of personal connection and became Muzak. I didn’t know the albums by heart. There were no liner notes, no way to learn the story. There was no getting up and changing the CD, a simple effort that brought me closer to the music. Playlists went on forever, and the music just played in the background. Endlessly. I didn’t know who was playing. The snippets became a way of identifying the song, but I couldn’t tell you the name of the song, without looking at the screen. And then the algorithms took over.

Malik is correct that the circumstances that contributed to Spotify’s stunning rise exist outside of Spotify, but nothing about those circumstances prevented Malik from maintaining a personal connection to the music he listened to. Even in the decade since I’ve stopped going to shows every month, I haven’t lost a personal connection with music. And is it not a wonder of its own that Spotify is able to recommend me songs that I end up loving dearly? One of my favorite songs that it has recommended to me is “Animals” by Cancer. I have listened to this song at least 140 times. I have listened to it at least once a month since Spotify recommended it to me months ago. I have shared it with at least 5 people.

In searching for others who felt similarly about Cancer, I found a piece that matched my experience listening to the album.

I tried to play Cancer‘s “Totem” at work – my colleagues didn’t like it. I tried playing it at home – my girlfriend didn’t care for it. Then I tried to read reviews about it – and some people hated it. And I must say I can understand why. It is not the kind of music that I would normally listen to on my own. But what kind of music, exactly, is it?

I found a connection out of nothing but a seed that was a Spotify recommendation that ended up justifying the entire cost of the subscription service. Malik’s lack of connection to the music he had been consuming speaks more to how he has been living his life, as a music fan, than how music is in 2018.

Malik is not wrong that there are dangers in convenience. But this should be a broader reminder to all of us to take stock of how we are spending our time, and if it is an accurate reflection of the things that we value, and respond accordingly. Businesses will always exist to wring value out of us, but just because that is the case we shouldn’t forfeit our agency for cheap temptations.