In my 21.5 years of life, I have witnessed and taken part in a ever changing array of music consumption practices. My earliest days featured the likes of cassettes and CDs, most likely blasting Sugar Ray and Hootie & the Blowfish.
I remember my mom taking me to pick out a purple boombox that played tapes, discs and did AM and FM radio… kind of like John Cusack’s in Say Anything, but more high tech. It doesn’t seem long ago at all that I had my own portable CD player, which gave me some street cred on the bus to day camp.
Then there was iTunes and iPods (RIP Tower Records).
Whenever I was lucky enough to get my hands on an iTunes gift card, I scoured the Top Charts lists and played the 30-second preview so many times until I was absolutely certain that a song was worth the 99¢ that Apple charged. There was always that internal struggle over whether you really liked a song, or just liked it at the moment and would be over it by week’s end… who was to say?
A little further down the road, my family got super into SiriusXM radio. To be completely honest, we still are. This was kind of a fresh take on the whole radio scene, and really seems to be one of the only things keeping it in the game.
Why is that, you ask? Because of streaming services. On-demand music services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Napster (previously known as Rhapsody), SoundCloud, Tidal, I could go on and on, have taken over the world of music listening.
Each one has its own little perks and quirks. For example, SoundCloud is known for having one of the “most diverse indie libraries online,” according to Digital Trends. And TIDAL, owned by Jay Z himself, apparently has the most high-end, quality sound for true music connoisseurs.
So much of the talk surrounding streaming services has to do with whether or not Spotify et al is good for the music industry. By this, I mean the record companies and the artists. In short, those on the production side of the content.
We all read (or read about) Taylor Swift’s open letter to Apple Music. Everyone is up in arms over musicians getting a fair share of the profits generated by digital services like Spotify– especially when new research from The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has found that “for the first time ever, streaming music platforms generated the majority of the U.S. music industry’s revenues.”
There’s a lot to talk about here. The bulk of the problem, it seems, stems from a lack of understanding of what services like Spotify are aiming to do. They aren’t trying to be a digital record store like iTunes. I think it’s best to think of them as as an intermediary.
John Seabrook of The New Yorker wrote in 2014, “Spotify doesn’t sell music; it sells access to it. Instead of buying songs and albums, you pay a monthly subscription fee ($9.99), or get served an ad every few songs if you’re on the free tier.”
But what about the music listeners? I’m interested in how streaming is affecting consumption practices. And, quite frankly, I think there needs to be more research focused on how this technology is transforming music reception and discovery.
I’m a huge fan of Farhad Manjoo’s 2015 piece, “Spotify Wants Listeners to Break Down Music Barriers,” from the New York Times. It is packed with a bunch of information I didn’t know. Who knew that “the Billboard charts now count plays on Spotify and YouTube in their calculation of the country’s top hits?”
When planning what to play on radio stations, programmers look to these services for clues as to what they should add to the queue.
In the Sociology of Music senior seminar I am currently taking with Dr. Dowd, we have discussed how radio stations typically only add a few songs into their rotation each week. In other words, radio is considered a very homogenous medium, and has been known to narrowcast.
This whole dynamic must be in flux now that the power’s in the listener’s hands. Through conversation with pop critic and pop chart analyst Chris Molanphy, Manjoo learned that “Internet plays are pushing quirky new acts to the top of the charts faster than ever.”
I love the example of Lorde (And I just love Lorde in general). I mean who knows when or if she would have been found if it weren’t for Spotify. She was only a teenager in New Zealand! Legend says that when Sean Parker (of Napster/ Facebook fame) added her single “Royals” to his Hipster International playlist, an “immediate reaction [was felt] around the world.”
Spotify claims that this is what they’re all about: music for everyone and everything. There are playlists that use an algorithm to curate new music weekly for you, Discovery Weekly. They’ve got party playlists and workout playlists, even some for when you’re feeling sad or need a pick-me-up.
Here, you won’t see 50 songs by the same artist or even necessarily from the same album. But if you’re looking for some fresh tracks, the weekly collection Spotify puts together for you may fit the bill. And who knows, maybe you’ll find the next ‘Royals’ in there.
These playlists may even produce the flow that Benjamin Brojakowski refers to when it comes to binge-watching TV. We all know those people who get so pumped to see what Spotify puts together for them each week.
I’m curious to see if these trends lead to more omnivorous tastes in the long run. A lot of scholars, including Manjoo, have likened Spotify to a buffet. That is, “we sample widely, and when we find something we like we binge,” says Manjoo.
Will this make us cultural nomads, he asks? I look forward to finding out.