A few days ago, I read this long essay (The Problem with Muzak) by Liz Pelly in The Baffler, which took a critical look at Spotify and the growing power it has come to wield in the music industry. It is an astute article, one you aren’t likely to read in the bubble of popular media or technology press.
For Apple Music, the bottom line is selling iPhones, laptops, iPads, and other hardware. Streaming music makes those products more valuable. For Amazon Music, the motive is similar; they aim to sell Alexa devices and Amazon Prime subscriptions.
But Spotify’s worth is more ephemeral. Its value—what makes it addictive for listeners, a necessity for artists, and a worthwhile investment for venture capitalists—lies in its algorithmic music discovery “products” and its ability to make the entire music industry conform to the new standards it sets. This means one thing: playlists are king
And she continues…
Spotify’s ambition to superannuate labels is evident. In its quest for total power and control, Spotify has prioritized its own content, and it has made it notably more difficult to find albums rather than playlists. Search an artist’s name, and you’ll more quickly find a Spotify-branded compilation of that musician’s work than an album. If it isn’t clear by now, Spotify wants playlists to be the most influential feature of the platform..
As a subscriber and long-term reader to The Baffler, I know I am going to get an alternative view of technology and its major players. But I also know that in this dislike of technology, they also sometimes overlook the broader cultural context.
Blaming Spotify absolves all of us — the consumers of technology– for any responsibility. Spotify is working because it offered what people want — it can’t sell in a vacuum. Investors don’t invest in a company unless they know there is an opportunity. Why are 60 million people seeing Spotify as useful to their life, Muzak or no Muzak?
Why did we come to like playlists in the first place, instead of the compact discs or long play records? Why are playlists any different than mix tapes or burning CDs? It is a quest for personalization on our part as humans which attracts us to Spotify. Is it because of the fact that most of us don’t want to mess about with files? We all forget that tech companies are businesses, that take what we like and turn that into a lucrative addiction.
Spotify, Netflix, and Facebook — are all at fault for one thing — taking what we like — playlists, great television, and friendships and turn them into weapons of mass engagement exploitation. What Facebook does in a merciless fashion selling our attention for nano-pennies. Netflix messes with our sleep to steal more attention. And Spotify seems to make the music sound soulless.
Perhaps, that is why I felt that in some places the article was unfair, for it doesn’t notice the fact that in the past the artistic exploitation happened in the c-suites of record labels, publishers, radio deejay booths and with the music distributors. Or that artists are embracing alternatives such as Bandcamp and taking control of their destiny. Spotify is essentially a network-enabled twenty-first-century version of the old, exploitative model, where data and not some coke snorting executive is in-charge of how the music world goes around.
Now if you read this article as a reflection on the state of music, you start to see that music industry, like the written word and the visual medium, is facing the same problem of plenty, fractionalized attention, domination of the gatekeepers and most importantly the commodification of content.
Or as a rockstar notes in the Baffler piece…
“It is compulsory in our system, with the absolute commodification of everything, that [artists] become their own brand. The musician is more and more similar to the Instagram Star in that sense. Or a gambler. Someone who just creates something from their imagination, from their time and energy and hard work, and money . . . and then just, posts it, basically, and hopes for the best.”
December 23, 2017, San Francisco
Photo by Cluttersnap/Unsplash