Mize: Problematizing Spotify

The platform may be giving us much more than we paid for.

by Frances Mize | 2/7/19 2:25am

 For a long time, Spotify was nothing more to me than the obscure, Swedish-born music streaming platform that my artsy older sister used. But five years later, it’s almost impossible for me to envision listening to music without it. I spent a few weeks over winter break with my old iPod Classic. In comparison to the luxurious, adaptively intuitive world of Spotify, listening to music on what had once been my most coveted possession (as an 11 year old, I had opted for the Classic over the Nano because that is what I believed the more “serious” music listeners used) had become taxing. The motion was not a click, but rather an arduous scroll. Playlists were harder to access. Navigation was more cumbersome, and I felt less flexible in my listening. To jump even further back in musical history, to a time when music was something people held in their hands and had to be retrieved from the store or library, is even harder to grasp.

As of this month, Spotify provides its 207 million active users, 96 million of whom are paying subscribers, with more than 40 million songs. Its resultant impact on listening behavior and conduct is extreme. It is not just an intermediary platform for the listener and the listened-to, but a heavy handed influencer, whose music — something it provides, but does not historically produce — has become inextricable from its function as an interface. Further, the codependency of Spotify and the listener seems to increase with each new feature developed by the program. It gives its listeners music and then allows them to organize it in whatever order they want. The structure of an album has never been so malleable to the point where it could even be considered irrelevant. Users can send their music to their friends and create collaborative playlists. It serves as both an encyclopedia and vendor, providing artists’ biographical information, announcing nearby concert dates and selling merchandise. It televises to a user’s followers what they are listening to, both in the past and in that very moment. People’s musical lives have never been more public. 

Spotify recommends music to and curates playlists for its users based on their past streams. Genre-based playlists are constructed by employees with impossibly authoritative titles like “Global Head of Rock Music” and “Global Head of Dance & Electronic Music.” In this sense, could it be argued that in this feedback loop of streaming that informs future suggested streaming, it is ultimately defining users’ tastes for them, and on its own terms? And now, under the pretense of “Spotify Sessions,” it even records music with artists on its own label, moving the platform into the realms of creation itself. 

In its heavy handed presence, Spotify has become a commodifier of the practice of listening to music. In allowing users to follow one another’s playlists and accounts, there is a number assigned to their musical clout. They can stack their musical prestige against that of their friends, so that even the act of listening is not immune to the social hierarchization defined by followers and likes. This formula for success, one that is based on a kind of quantified standard of influence, affects even the artists themselves. Unlike the sales of downloadable music, which are situated around a fixed price, the royalties generated by an artist for their streamed music on Spotify is proportional to the number of streams, with rights holders receiving an average of $0.006 to $0.0084 with each streaming. The revenues of music are now no longer based on the preeminent judgment of a label, but are a product of the activity of the listeners — which has been determined, at least in part, by Spotify itself. Spotify has assigned to music listening — one of the most intimate and personal of acts — a public and explicit social ranking. This also raises questions of performative listening — if users know that others can see what they’re choosing to listen to, do they in turn modify their choices? 

The platform’s dominance was never more apparent than when it introduced “Spotify Running,” a feature that matched music to one’s running tempo. This was removed in March of 2018, but for a brief time, Spotify had reached its all-encompassing hands beyond just the rhythm of people’s music, and into the very physical movement of their lives. One of the only places where the chink in Spotify’s armor shows is when it hasn’t been granted access to a portion of or the entirety of an artist’s discography. It wasn’t until Christmas Eve of 2016 that Spotify finally won over The Beatles, and it has yet to obtain Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” a glaring absence noted by a blurb at the top of her artist’s page that reads “Beyoncé’s album ‘Lemonade’ is not currently available on Spotify. We are working on it and hope to have it soon.” This serves as a reminder that music has a life beyond what Spotify chooses to show its users. It prompts people to be conscious of the ways in which platforms can dominate what they are supposed to be delivering. So maybe, despite the fact that I can’t listen to “Hold Up” or “Freedom” with the same ease that I listen to the rest of my music, I should be grateful for Beyoncé’s resistance. She is one of the final holdouts in a battle for our musical lives.