Lightplay 016 – Music and Power

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From iTunes to Spotify, software shapes our relationship
with music. Is it time to wrest back control?

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Let’s start with the positive. By the year 2022 computers have become so powerful, scripting libraries so extensive, cloud servers so cheap, and worldwide distribution so frictionless that there are tens of thousands of folks both with and without computer science degrees who are spending their lives making powerful, useful, and maybe best of all specific software for you and me.

If you haven’t thought to notice the world of boutique software, I bet you use it nonetheless. So many apps on our phones were made by teams as small as a single person. And I, personally, use a lot of this boutique software every day: from the word processor I’m writing this on (iA Writer, on my phone) to my notetaking database (Roam) to my walk tracker (Gaia GPS) to my AI speech transcriber (Otter.ai) to the static website builder I’m teaching myself to use (Hugo). All made by small teams, all indispensable for my specific needs. Most of all, I love how each of these programs is designed for a use that more or less precisely aligns with my own needs.

Alas, some software needs to do lots of things for many different users, and requires big teams to develop, and evolves over decades. This is how we get Word and Photoshop and Facebook. Big apps run by giant companies, often unwieldy, yet found by many users to be indispensable.

The app that, when I tally it up, I’ve probably used the most over the last five years is one of this second sort: Spotify. The world’s biggest music streaming service; the biggest thing to come out of Sweden since ABBA.

When I first purchased a subscription to this service, I found Spotify’s offer—to put every song in the world at my fingertips—to be intoxicating. I could listen to anything! Someone would recommend a song to me, and I’d be streaming it literally moments later! Truly, it was the golden age of music listening.

And yet, over the years I began to sour on Spotify. I found it—not exactly hard to use—but hard not to use the way Spotify wanted me to use it, namely through potted playlists and algorithmic discovery tools. I started to suspect that as much as I was using the software, the software was using me. And as I looked inward, I realized that I had shifted from being a music nerd into, perhaps you’d call it, a music consumer.

As soon as I realized this, I hated it.

A few months ago, I decided to quit Spotify, and I began looking for a different tool that, though it might have its own flaws, would be less infantilizing and more empowering. In the sweep of world events or even of my life this was a small change, but I want to tell you about it. I think it’s a story of how a tool can end up trying to use us for its own purposes—and, just maybe, how we can resist.

The first time I ever saw Spotify in action was in 2009, in a radio booth under a Harvard freshman dorm. I had just joined WHRB, the campus radio station, and part of the process of joining was that I had to propose an orgy. Don’t get too excited; at WHRB, orgy season was the way we handled the end of each semester, when finals messed up everyone’s schedules and meant we needed to fill air time with something else. That something else was “orgies”—4- to 150-hour-long play-throughs of all the music in some singular category. A Brahms orgy set up by the classical music department would try to play every scrap of music the German Romantic ever wrote. A Blue Note orgy set up by the Jazz Spectrum (the department I was joining) would try to play every album we could find released on that famous New Jersey record label. But DJs were also encouraged to propose their own orgies, and new members were required to do so, as part of joining. So I proposed that we play the discographies of every musician who appeared in the Jim Jarmusch film Coffee and Cigarettes: namely, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, the White Stripes, and GZA and RZA of the Wu Tang Clan.

Most first-time orgy pitches were rejected, but mine was accepted and assigned a 12am-6am slot on four consecutive nights. I was surprised, and a little worried, too. Not only did I barely know how to run the sound boards, I had no idea how I would find the CDs we would need, and furthermore I had 23 hours to fill. So much airtime for one nervous sophomore!

Luckily, my two favorite juniors bailed me out. Hyper-competent Isaac—who ran the tech department, had the physical charisma of Sufjan Stevens, and who once I spotted at a street party prancing about on spring-loaded, four-foot stilts—had long ago torrented the entire Tom Waits discography. He offered with real enthusiasm to spend a night playing it straight through. He also had the full White Stripes and Iggy Pop discogs, which he loaded on a flash drive for me.

But what about JZA and RZA? The answer was less forthcoming. No one seemed to have their discography downloaded. I was far too cash-strapped to spend hundreds of dollars buying their music on the iTunes Store. And pirating was off the table, too: Harvard sent out monthly emails letting us know that we would be summarily expelled if we were caught running BitTorrent software on their computer networks.

I was well into the realm of panic when I was rescued by Tova, the director of the Jazz Spectrum, who studied astrophysics and also multiple times a week trekked out to esoteric venues around Boston to listen to music I’d never heard of. (I once tagged with her to an all-acoustic Jonathan Richman set, not having a clue in the world who he was.) Tova showed up at midnight the fourth night of the orgy with her laptop, plugged it into the soundboard, and opened up a program called Spotify. All the Wu Tang albums were right there, listed out. With a click, she began playing one. And for the next six hours we played the rest, exactly in the order we wanted, with no ads interfering, with no interruption, no problems at all. We completed the orgy. We’d been saved, as if by a miracle.

Of course I asked Tova if I could get in on this amazing software. But it was still two years before Spotify would launch in the US. If I recall, she explained to me how she had finagled an invite to the UK subscription, and she was running a VPN to mask her location. Getting Spotify was a bit of a task. And I ultimately didn’t jump through all the hoops. After all, I hardly had $10 a month to spare—and, more importantly, I was pretty happy with my big ol’ iTunes library.

My big ol’ iTunes library. I’d been building it since I was twelve. It grew through little drips, an imported CD here, a pirated album there, but also in big gulps, like the time George let me use some sketchy software to rip hundreds of full albums off his iPod, or when Abraham let me copy over his entire music library before I went off to college. (Naturally I let him copy mine, too.) When my first girlfriend Molly made me a mix CD full of Björk tracks, I promptly imported it, inputting the song titles and artist names by hand, off her handwritten liner notes. I grew my library however I could.

Getting new music was thrilling, back then. When I got something new and unexpected, I could hardly wait to get home and listen. With each new track, there was the possibility that I would fall in love all over again.

Part of what made iTunes great was its library navigation tool called the “column browser.” This let me filter my way through my library first by genre, then by artist, then by album.

Throughout middle school, high school, college, and into young adulthood, this was how I listened to music: I considered what genre I wanted to listen to, then decided on an artist in that genre and picked out an album. I’d select “jazz” as my genre and then scroll through the list of artist names. I might think, Hmm, I haven’t listened to Cannonball Adderley in a while. And I’d put on Somethin’ Else, an album I’d listened to dozens and dozens of times since my mom’s friend Glenn gave me a burned copy when I was 13 and just starting to play alto saxophone in the high school’s jazz band.

I loved listening to full albums. An album was like a portal into the world of a band and their sound and their sensibility. Some Friday nights Abraham would come over, and I’d put on CSNY’s So Far, and we’d lay on the rug in the dark, letting the whole thing was over us like an ablution.

Of course I also made playlists, and my friends sometimes gave me playlists, too. But the dominant way I listened to music was album by album. I really got to know dozens and dozens of my favorite albums, and I really did build something deserving of the name library. My music library was well-cataloged, and I, its librarian, knew my collection well. It was partly through listening to and building out this library that I developed my sense of taste.

Then I dropped it all for Spotify. The Swedish streaming giant’s software had been available in the US since 2011, but it took me till 2016 to try it out. When I did, I hardly looked by.

Spotify was amazing in many ways. Obviously the main way was simply in the endlessness of the music I could access. It was as if I had traded the CD folio in my car for an entire Tower Records. If I wanted to listen to a song, I just typed it into the search bar, and there it was, and I played it. That simple.

It also amazed me how the software helped me find new music that was similar to what I already liked. Spotify served up a customized-to-me playlist every single week with thirty songs its algorithms thought I would like. And, especially at the start, I really did like many of them. I found tons of new music. I would save tracks I particularly liked onto playlists with names like “July 2020” and “SPRING JAZZ.”

Spotify became my daily companion, and as the years went by I found myself listening to more and more playlists. I’d listen to my “Discover Weekly” but also to genre-based algorithmic playlists and playlists made by friends. My friend Axel made a great playlist called “YES COLLUSION” that I loved; I found a great mix of Brazilian capoeira music made by some random user; I listened on repeat to “Played by Jamie xx.”

By the start of the 2020s, my favorite recent music was almost all just tracks, not albums. But that was okay. Often when I went searching for the albums my favorite tracks were off, it turned out they were just singles. The album had never been released in the first place.
 

RIP – The Album – 1948 – 2013

A problem with playlists is that they shear away their songs’ contexts. And without context, it can become hard to even hold onto a band’s name.

This is how it often goes for me: A song tickles my ear, I put it on my current playlist, and it becomes part of the mood of the month. Then I tire of it and start a new playlist. Soon I only hear that song if I go back and play an old playlist. The song fades from memory. And all of this happens without me ever even really noticing the artist’s name or wondering who they are, what else they’ve done.

This problem is exponentially worse when your mechanism for discovering new music is no longer music blogs or record store clerk recommendations or friends’ playlists but instead, playlists generated “for you” by a Fortune 500 company’s algorithm. At first, it’s amazing—how did you never know of these songs that sound so much like the songs you love? But there are diminishing returns. The algorithm runs out of things to recommend that sound similar to what you already like. It starts recommending the same songs over and over. And slowly you realize that it has been pandering to your taste, rather than expanding or challenging it.

That’s bad enough, but this fall I learned something much worse: Spotify has been auctioning off spots on its algorithmic playlists. Spots on its “made for you” playlists are being sold to the highest bidder. (Read more in this great WIRED article.) This dystopian remix of the old payola system where labels paid radio stations to spin their songs goes further than the original, making a promise to me that it will provide recommendations customized to my taste while in reality furnishing my ears for sale to a paying record label.

This all on a service that, I remind you, I pay for.

It’s like that meme:
         In Soviet Russia, TV watch you!

Spotify’s version is both lamer and more dystopian:
         In late capitalism, music software sell you to record label!

I don’t know about you, but this kind of corporate chicanery makes my blood boil. It’s so disrespectful of my time. And it’s such a breach of the deal I thought I was making with the company I pay. It’s bullshit.

So I decided to quit. Which forced me to go looking for another music streaming service. I checked out Tidal and Qobuz. But for now, the service I’m using is actually a modern take on an old friend: iTunes reborn as a streaming service, now known (tragically) as Apple Music.

The best thing about Apple Music is that it is designed in such a way as to encourage you to use the library metaphor. Just like in the old iTunes. Except that here you have unlimited access to basically all music ever made. You browse through this unending catalog in the “Apple Music” section of the app. But unlike with Spotify, in this software when something catches your fancy you click the little “+Add” button, and it then appears among the albums stored in the “Library” section of the app.

You’re not forever wandering the Tower Records, trying to remember what you liked. Instead, you just take what you like and add it to your collection, your personal library.

Additionally, the column browser is back! For me, this is the ultimate tool for navigating a big, personalized library of music. And after all, a serious librarian needs to have a good card catalog.

I’m much happier with the switch than I thought I would be. Ultimately, I feel like it’s put me back in control of my music habits. I’m listening to full albums a lot more. I’m returning to artists I loved long ago. And now when I set out to find new music, it’s easier to keep the artists I find close to hand in the days and months after discovery. I find that I have a much better chance of really getting to know them.

Another small thing: the default setting is that albums end when they end. There’s none of this “Spotify will keep playing similar music forever and ever” garbage. Instead, throughout my day I now find myself in that most blissful of states: deep silence. And if I consciously decide that I want more music, I just take a minute and pick something else out to put on.

Of course nothing is perfect, and this software has its flaws. It’s weirdly sluggish, especially with search. It’s impossible to enlarge album art, and when you try to do so by double-clicking the art, you trigger the mini-player, from which it’s then difficult to switch back to the full-size player. Playlists insist on sorting alphabetically. Non-user-generated playlists can’t be nested in folders. The logo is ugly.

But these are small problems compared to my problems with Spotify. Ultimately, I want software that empowers me. Apple Music does a better job of that than any other streaming software I’ve tried.

This whole process has reminded me of another epoch in my relationship with recorded music. This was a single summer when I was an awkward thirteen-year-old living for the school vacation with my dad. I really wanted to explore music, so I tried to convince him to give me money to buy music off iTunes. I think he gave me twenty bucks. I blew it on a subpar Sublime album and one song by Gorrillaz.

I wasn’t satisfied, so next I tried to convince him to let me download LimeWire, the successor to Napster, on the family computer. If I couldn’t buy music, maybe I could steal it.

He refused. He wanted a DMCA summons no more than Harvard did.

We settled on a middle ground: a sketchy iTunes Music Store clone hosted on a Russian URL and called something like cheaptunes.ru. Its catalog wasn’t as extensive as the original, but it was pretty darned big. And it had one main differentiating factor on its side: every song cost $.10 to download. This, we both more or less knew, was because we were dealing with criminals. But for whatever reason we couldn’t resist it, and I spent the summer buying albums for $1.50 a pop on his credit card. It felt amazing, every time I added a new album and listened to it. It was ownership and at the same time it was supremely affordable. It was like being rich.

I remember downloading the Magnetic Fields’s big album off that Russian website, and the entire Modest Mouse discography, and Sting’s Brand New Day. I listened to those albums over and over and over. As I listened, though, I sometimes felt pangs of remorse. I knew I’d done a bad thing, I’d stiffed these bands I loved. I felt like a jerk.

And here we are, not twenty years later, using streaming services that pay the labels only a small fraction of what I once considered highway robbery. When I stream a song, Spotify pays $.0032 per stream, while Apple Music pays only $.0056. Even on the more generous of the two, I have to play a song twenty times before they get a single dime. It doesn’t seem right.

Writing this all out, the conclusion I’ve come to is that one profoundly flawed system has replaced another. Today, an amazing riches of music is available to everyone, but artists, especially smaller acts, get royally screwed. I think of Tamaryn, at the beginning of the pandemic, taking a job at an Amazon warehouse to pay the bills.

That’s where we’re at as a society. The people walking away with the money are Spotify (worth $40B) and Apple (worth $3T). Meanwhile, most artists work day jobs, creating this whole thing out of love and ambition and passion and sheer willpower. And often they give up. Or are too tired to go on. I can’t help but imagine how much richer our musical culture would be if tens of thousands more people could afford to be musicians full time. It’s not like our society—the richest in the history of our species—couldn’t afford to do it. (And hell, we basically did, a generation ago, at the height of the CD, and that despite the labels taking home the lion’s share of the money.)

I have to believe that something better is possible. A decade from now, I hope we have a new streaming platform. I imagine it would be a platform worthy of the name. Collectively owned and truly customizable, software geeks could build all sorts of apps on top of it, artists could use it to truly connect with their listeners, and niche communities could find ways to flourish and mutate and grow. Rather than a few companies dominating, there would be an anarchy of different players and approaches.

Until then, though, I doing the least I can: I’m canceling my Spotify account. For now, I’m using Apple Music, and I recommend you do the same.

(Thank you to Hunter Gagnon for helping edit this essay. This essay was originally featured in Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive Lightplay in your email inbox, subscribe here.)