The Problem with Spotify

The last CD I ever bought was the Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not back in 2006. Long time ago now. Then like many people I went digital and spent far too much money buying music on iTunes to listen to on my iPod and later my phone. And then a couple of years ago, again like many people, I switched to streaming services and settled on Spotify as my service of choice.

I love music streaming. Most of us do, despite our guilt about the economic impact on artists. I love being able to find new music, listen to an album or a song as soon as I hear or read about it, and explore the back catalogues of my favourite bands. I even love the Spotify algorithms that suggest artists I might like, and give me a nice playlist of new releases every week (more on this later). There’s no question that I listen to more music, and a wider range of artists and genres, in the age of streaming than I ever did when I had to pay $1.99 for every song. In fact, I’m listening to Spotify as I write this, ‘Dogs in the Daylight’ by Jeffrey Martin, an artist I hadn’t heard of until Spotify suggested him.

So what’s the problem?

Music streaming embodies many of of the joys but also the dangers of the digital age.

First, music streaming provides an overabundance of choice that can become overwhelming. Choice should be liberating but it can also be debilitating. When I had to buy music, I was limited to my budget. I could only buy so much music, so I had to pick carefully. I tended to buy songs or albums I had heard on the radio or from friends, or maybe read about in a music magazine. And I tended to stay within a pretty narrow range of genres, mostly indie rock, some folk and blues here and there.

Now with music streaming, there are no such constraints. I have access to pretty much any album or artist I can think of. Of course this is very appealing. I recall having a lot of fun with friends one night as we talked about music we’d grown up listening to, and being able to play those songs, and then remember and play other songs as the night went on. (This temporarily gave Spotify a bit of a hangover, as by the next morning it was recommending playlists ‘just for me’ like ’80s Hair Metal.)

But here’s the downside — so much choice can paradoxically make it hard to decide what to listen to. Classic Rock? Classical? Jazz? Blues? It’s all there. Why not explore it? In the past, if I was reading a book that mentioned, say, Thelonius Monk, and think ‘I should check out some of that jazz music some day’ and then move on. But now I can stop reading, bring up Spotify, and listening to Monk… and then look up related artists and jazz playlists… and then found I’ve spent an hour or two not reading my book, not really listening for long to any particular music, but fiddling with my phone.

While it’s great to be able to discover new music, and explore other genres, the cost is that searching for new music can become yet another digital distraction, another source of digital anxiety. This leads to the second danger of music streaming (like a lot of digital technologies) — it encourages seeking rather than experiencing, breadth over depth.

Before music streaming, I could only listen to what I owned. And so I listened to those albums over and over again. As an 11-year old I pretty much wore out my cassette tape of The Police Synchronicity. As a teenager, as I discovered Dylan I listened to Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited over and over again, to the point where to this day I could tell you which song comes next. The same is true of the Tragically Hip and Spirit of the West albums from the 1990s — the same CDs were playing on my stereo, at parties, in my car and my friends’ cars. So they became a soundtrack to a certain periods in my life.

Think about creating playlists — which I often do so I can download a collection of songs to listen to in the car or at the gym. As kid I did spend countless hours creating mixed tapes. (Way before the fixation on new phones, there were portable stereos. I had a sleek red stereo with double cassette that was pretty sweet.) But even then, I could only use as source material the songs I could find on the radio, or the tapes I could borrow from friends. And then once I had created a mixed tape, I listened to it over and over again. It became a work of art in its own right. Now, any playlist I create today I can update, change or delete tomorrow. And there’s probably just one more song that should be on it…

Now we can listen to new music any time we want. So why listen to the same album over again? And really why listen to an album at all, when you can just put together a playlist of songs? So then rather than listening to an album from start to finish, I listen to a few songs, and then jump to ‘artist radio’ and find some other artists I like, listen to a few songs, then jump to a playlist, and so on. Rather than listening, really listening, to the music, I’m flitting between different songs.

Isn’t that very similar to so many digital experiences? We read less deeply with e-readers than we do with printed books. We have more superficial connections with people on Facebook then we do in face-to-face conversation. I can spend an hour scanning my Twitter feed, getting a broad sense of the news of the day, but not really gaining much new understanding. I might get a greater diversity of perspectives, but it’s ultimately superficial. The same might be true with music streaming — we might be able to explore a much wider range of music, but we might also enjoy it less deeply. Superficial scanning replaces meaningful experience.

Finally, it’s worth thinking about how our listening behaviour is influenced by algorithms. It used to be that I would discover new bands or albums from hearing songs on the radio, from friends, or seeing a concert. So music discovery was personal — it was woven into my life, and that of my friends. Now Spotify recommends albums it thinks I would like based on my listening history. Of course I love this. The auto-generated daily mix playlists ‘just for me’ are really convenient, the weekly playlist of new releases helps me avoid missing new songs I like, and I’ve found many new artists that are ‘related’ to others I like.

But by relying on algorithms, we also lose control of the process of discovering new music, and maybe its joys. Recommendation engines can also channel us into a narrower and narrower path of listening — more songs like the others we like, and then more songs like those, and on on. Much like the tailored news feeds of Facebook or Twitter can create an ‘echo chamber’ where we lose sight of other perspectives, so too music streaming recommendations can artificially constrain our discovery of music.

I just finished the book Irresistible by Adam Alter that explores the rise of behavioural addictions, especially related to technology. The book examines the way otherwise harmless activities — checking Facebook, sharing photos on Instagram, tracking steps on a FitBit— can become ingrained habits that without our noticing can change our lives in ways we don’t expect or necessarily want.

I’m still an avid Spotify listener. But it is worth thinking about how music streaming services affect how we listen to music, and how digital technologies are changing how we experience the world and interact with each other.

Happy listening!