Music Consumption in the Age of Spotify

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 

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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.”

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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.

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Yelp, for what it’s worth

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The New York Times | AUG. 27, 2014

Why? Because the options are totally endless. When there’s too many places to go and only two stomachs to pack full of food, you have to act strategically. His first choice may not be what I had in mind, and then you have to factor in wait time, parking, and travel time among many other things. I think you get the gist of it.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, we always went to the restaurants we knew and loved, or those that popped up in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and my mom thought we should try. For the most part, we didn’t have lists of hot new places to hit or specific dishes to get once there. If we decided to visit (or avoid!) a restaurant based on a friend’s suggestion, it was certainly not because it had a rating out of out of 5 or seemed like the time of place we should be seen. That all changed a few years before I came to Emory.

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Henry Jenkins et al. describe Web 2.0 as a platform for creativity, collectivism and per production. In 2004, long before I was aware of its powers, Yelp began crowd-sourcing reviews of local businesses. The platform not only covers restaurants though; you can get the DL on nightlife, fitness and health services, shopping, etc. The idea being, instead of just hearing a few people’s thoughts on new restaurant A in Virginia Highlands, you can get 500 opinions.

In the restaurant sector, which appears to be the site’s most are of expertise, people upload photos, they give you recommendations on what to get, some restaurant pages even have their full menus on the site. Now there’s even a new Q&A feature!

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The bottom line is this: the whole shebang is centered around a business’s rating. It’s simple: the closer any place’s average rating is to 5, the more people are going to go there. And then of those patrons, some are bound to take the time to write a review. It keeps going on and on and on… and the whole cycle revolves around consumer choice.

As a sociology major who is fascinated by different populations and their behaviors, I must admit to thinking regularly about who is most likely to write online reviews and which businesses are most likely to benefit and suffer from this practice.

Alice Marlick and Theresa Senft & Safiya Umoja Noble discuss in their articles the ways in which belonging to a certain group or falling under a specific category can change the ways in which people interact with media.

In my own observations, I have come to think that those most likely to review a place on Yelp have either A) just had the most amazing experience ever! and cannot wait to share each and every detail with the World Wide Web or B) like the Dos Equis man in the meme above feel so strongly about a recent experience that they will stop everything to inform the public of the indecencies inflicted upon them at said restaurant or whatever.

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Additionally, in December 2016, Yelp released a factsheet highlighting its community, posts, visits, etc. by the numbers. I found the section above “US Demographics of Yelp Users” particularly noteworthy. As you can see, Yelp users tend to fall into a few categories: the 18-34 age bracket, college level of education, and $100K+ earned income.

The users are on the younger end, which I think is to be expected. But it is interesting that the numbers of 35 to 54-year-olds rating local businesses is nearly as much as their younger counterparts (37.7%).

The education percentages are crazy! Those posting on Yelp are really on the higher end of things. Nearly three-fourths of users are college educated or more.

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But then again, everyone’s thinking about rankings and ratings and scores these days, especially but not limited to Lacie from ‘Black Mirror’ Season 3, Episode 1! So much so, that Yelp’s of this and Yelp’s of that are popping up in alternative markets. Think Sweat Concierge for fitness classes and Leafly for marijuana just to name a few. There’s even RateMyProfessors 😉!!

A lot of people have weighed in on this so called, reputation economy, including Times reporter Maureen Dowd. It is such a 180 from the era of Michelin, whereby securing a star was determined by anonymous, secretive food critics. Now anyone, even my 8-year-old cousin, has this power.

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Yelp is not just about finding new places to eat or sweat, but knowing what to expect upon arrival. If you’re not into surprises, you can really use Yelp’s website and app to your advantage. You can even decide what to order before you’ve even been to a restaurant.

Expanding upon the works we read, I can’t help but wonder if restaurants that cater to and attract what danah boyd terms the “always-on” millennial crowd have a leg up when it comes to this business of rating. What will this mean for older, traditional spots? Are they going to be able to sustain the same amount of business in the long-term?

I know for my brother and I it has just made the process for restaurant selection an even harder one. Because if a place only has a 3.5, is it worth it or maybe it would be better to hit up somewhere else… A place in the 4.5 and up echelon where you know you’ll be treated well and leave happy.

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What other things has Yelp triggered since its humble 2004 beginnings? There’s a whole lifestyle out there filled with food Instagrams and Tasty videos. If you didn’t take a pic, I don’t know if it really counts to eat these days. Just kidding…

And so are Aziz Ansari and Jimmy Fallon in this video as they read “Bad Yelp Reviews.”

 

“All the news that’s fit to…”

The other day in class we were discussing what it means when news editors and other gatekeepers are no longer confined to publishing what fits in a given issue or paper. That is, what happens when we must no longer abide by the  The New York Times‘ famous motto “All the news that’s fit to print?”

Havoc, chaos and mayhem happen, that’s for sure — especially when it’s become increasingly difficult to discern the real news from the fake. Janet Murray wrote, “The computer can contain and transmit more information in humanly accessible form than all previous media combined, ” and she wasn’t kidding.

These days it’s not about whether you know what’s going on in the news, it’s about how and where you’re getting your 411. When there’s so many sources and modes for consumption, it’s easy to get lost in it all.

That’s where theSkimm and Quartz come in: to curate the best of what’s happening in our world and feed it to us on a neat, silver platter (or straight to our inbox and smart phones respectively)! What each company does isn’t that different. It’s the way the content is delivered and presented that changes the game and makes each one so noteworthy.

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So let’s start with a breakdown of each news service:

TheSkimm is a daily (Monday through Friday) news briefing delivered right to your inbox around 6AM. The idea is, you read theSkimm, and you’ve got all the news and info to start your day. What’s more, it’s sassy and entertaining with a healthy dose of links to full stories and teeming with hip lingo.

The two co-founders (Danielle Weinberg and Carly Zakin) realized when talking to their young, professional friends that there is simply too much news out there and not enough time to take it all in. The solution: “[They] read. You Skimm.”

And clearly people are buying that. As of November 2016, more than 4 million people receive the Daily Skimm to start their day.

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Meanwhile, Quartz is a self-proclaimed “digitally native news outlet… built primarily for the devices closest at hand: tablets and mobile phones.”

Born in 2012, they originally focused on the iPad. Since then they have expanded to the computers and mobile apps — launching their first a year ago (February 2016). What I find so fascinating is the Quartz app.

Designed to mimic the iOS iMessage interface, “you get messages that read like texts from a friend—if your friend were a news-obsessed but reliable source with an irreverent tone of voice,” wrote one Wired reviewer.

The way it works is you receive notifications throughout the day or if there is a breaking story. Then upon entering the app, you’re presented with a news topic (a couple explanation sentences and a graphic or two to give you the overall gist). From here you are given a choice: tap on some relevant emojis to learn more or move on to the next topic.

Both Quartz and theSkimm are digital adaptations of the newspaper (or a news program on TV). But being digital media, they allow (or should I say afford) a little bit more.

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TheSkimm set out to solve the problem of accessibility. Because the encyclopedic capacities of the Web are endless, it became nearly impossible to read and process all that’s out there. And what Weinberg and Zakin came up with really has a participatory feel to it, in the sense that it’s light and conversational.

The way it’s organized and presented is worth noting too. As one NYTimes writer said, theSkimm is “focusing on the least sexy of media: email.” They capitalize on the fact that people check their phones for messages and emails as soon as they wake. So now, young (and old!) professionals are starting the day with theSkimm instead of the Today show.

Visually, the email is neat and clean with the signature turquoise accents. Plus it’s meant to be consumed in minutes, which I really think makes people more inclined to read it.

Since I personally subscribed to theSkimm a few years back, I have noticed the proliferation of other news sources that have followed suite with their own Daily Email Briefs. I think what sets theSkimm apart is that they’re not trying to promote their own stories, but rather aim to educate and share the most worthy stories.

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Quartz, on the other hand, isn’t only a morning thing; the app interacts with you all day long. I find it particularly cool that they notify you when the markets close, and provide a brief snippet of the day’s goings-ons.

Like theSkimm, it’s not personalized or tailored to your interests. I think this is cool as it provides users with a better sense of all the news that’s out there rather than just what they might personally read. As one TechCrunch contributor said, “I was fed a random, Hail Mary topic on something I only opted to learn more about 20 percent of the time.”

It really taps into Janet Murray’s participatory affordance. In order to choose “tell me more” about a particular topic or hear about something else entirely, the app requires participation. And unlike your friends or family who may take minutes or hours to respond to your texts, once you decide which route to take, Quartz gets back to you instantaneously. Today when I received a text-like notification from Quartz, I was reminded of a line from Murray’s chapter: “the responsiveness of digital media… excites our desire to do something, to see what will happen.”

If you can’t tell already, I think both theSkimm and Quartz are exciting modifications to the way we consume the news. I too desire to know what will happen down the road for this field.