It is no secret that I am a big fan of BBC/National Geographic’s reality TV show, Life Below Zero. It is now in its twentieth season. As someone who didn’t have a cable television account, I used to buy the season from Apple’s iTunes store. I paid for the first fourteen seasons. I didn’t mind because it is a guilty pleasure and allows me to get my “Alaska fix.” 

However, things have become harder since it is no longer feasible to buy the “season passes” or watch the most recent episodes. You can buy one season at a time, and even then, you can’t watch the 19th or the 20th season. Frustrated, I decided to sign-up for Disney+ with Hulu (without Ads) and ESPN+. I canceled my ESPN+ account and signed up for the whole enchilada. Given that one of the perks of my American Express credit card is a $ 20-a-month credit for digital streaming, it felt like a win-win proposition. 

Let’s say that signing up was the easiest part — it was so challenging to get everything to work seamlessly. Disney Plus had a pretty clean sign-up flow, and so did ESPN. On the other hand, the Hulu sign-up was a mess and needed a different sign-up flow. And after some hits-and-misses, I was able to sign in to the Hulu service. 

I was super excited to catch up on Life Below Zero (Seasons 19 and 20.) It was a rainy, dreary weekend in San Francisco, so this was a great way to spend quality time at home. I was in for major disappointment — Hulu apparently won’t allow me to watch the shows because I don’t have the right “TV rights.” In other words, since I am not an idiot who pays cable companies’ monthly fees, I can’t watch the only show I want to watch on Hulu.

The whole experience had left me so frustrated that I couldn’t help but think of that time in 2007 when I called Hulu a ClownCo. My skepticism came from the fact that the company had many masters, which in turn, limited their opportunities and potential.

The subsequent rise of Netflix, which banked on simplicity, ease of use, and a streaming-first experience, only proved my original skepticism about Hulu, which hasn’t be able to find its place under the sun. At present, Hulu, is owned by Disney and Comcast, which owns a third of the company. Its future is up in the air, much like it has been through much of its existence.

This my weekend misadventure only reinforced the problems with Hulu and, by extension, all other streaming services that still are knee-deep in shit called cable. They are so addicted to cable revenues that they don’t create a great user experience. 

They need the handouts from the cable companies. Paul Kedrosky shared a chart today that showed that every media company but Netflix posted higher losses in the first nine months of 2022 compared to 2021. Disney lost $3.42 billion vs. $1.21 billion in 2021. The losses for the entire 2022 would be even higher.  

As for me, since I couldn’t watch Life Below Zero, I decided to cancel the whole shebang. I don’t much care for what Disney has to offer — I am not into Star Wars or whatever else they are peddling. I will sign-up for ESPN when the Indian Premier League kicks off and sign off when it is over. As for Hulu, if I can’t see the one show, I want to see, then what’s the point of subscribing? 

Stepping back and looking at the current state of streaming, it feels like we have retreated to the past. Instead of making things simpler and easier for consumers, media giants are making this complicated because they can’t give up on the past and don’t know how to embrace the future. 

Netflix is keeping things simple, and so does Prime Video. Apple’s approach of less is more works at $ 5 a month. These companies serve only one master — themselves. I am back to using Prime Video (part of my Amazon Prime subscription) and ad-free YouTube Premium. Whenever Netflix has a decent show or two, I sign-up for a month and cancel my subscription once I have watched the series. Instead of Life Below Zero, I binged on British Bakeoff and Chef’s Table (Pizza). They were worth the money. As for Disney Plus, it was Disney Minus, and I wouldn’t even spend my freebie Amex dollars on them. 

December 5, 2022. San Francisco

Way back In 1935, genius musician Duke Ellington in an effort to placate two ladies, placed each of them on two sides of his piano, he composed and played a song — In a Sentimental Mood. Such is the magic of the song that nine decades later I can’t stop listening to it — in fact, it was the second most listened to song on my list of the 2,492 songs I listened to on Spotify in 2022, according to their annual musical data story — Wrapped 2022.

There are quite a few nuggets from the story — that are kind cool and amazing to be made aware of — for instance, the artist I listened to the most in 2022 is Eric Hilton, the one half of Thievery Corporation, which has been my most listened to bands for a few years. I guess, I know what I like. In 2022, I tuned more to jazz classics, ambient electronica and ambient classical music for nearly 30,000 minutes. In comparison, in 2019, I listened to 17,126 minutes of music on Spotify. I guess the pandemic and isolation made streaming music a bigger part of my life.

Spotify Wrapped 2022

Spotify’s Wrapped is a data story done right. It is one of the reasons why every year it arrives with much fanfare. Though, in 2022 it seems that its arrival has been superseded by the actions of a growing army of tech’s bad boys. Lars Mensel, a Berlin-based designer, writer and photographer, when writing about the Wrapped notes:

The unveiling is a rare moment of synchronicity: On some arbitrary day towards the end of the year, millions of people are shown their listening behavior at the same time. The experience is communal—and the reaction predictably the same: There’s some knee-jerk sharing, some eye-rolling about the obscure micro-genres, and some complaining about Spotify being the behemoth that it is. It’s kept me from changing to a different service, and though I’m not proud to admit it, I dread “distorting the statistics” by listening to music elsewhere.

Lars Mensel

Well, I hadn’t thought of data as a lock in, but I have to admit that is the only thing I will miss about Spotify. Wrapped is the only vaguely personal feature about Spotify, apart from ability to follow artists, or create playlists. Spotify, in fact, has come to symbolize the new “app reality” – the consumer has a perception of control, but almost everything is controlled by the app-masters and faceless algorithms.

After being a Spotify member from its very genesis, I have quit using the service. I got tired of the dealing with an app (and a platform) that shoved podcasts and audio books in my face, despite having no interest in them. Spotify to me was about music, and ability to interact with music and artists, and then personalize that experience. I loved their recommendation engine, but that is not enough for me to put up with a decidedly dowdy app that exists not to delight its customers but instead meet the growth objectives of its stock market masters.

Spotify isn’t alone — a growing number of services are deprecating user experience in favor of their urgent financial growth needs. Uber and Door Dash, are good examples of companies cramming nonsense down our screens. And let’s not forget Apple and its App Store: putting ads in there is ruining what was essentially a wonderful editorial space and a directory that enhanced the experience of owning an iPhone.

Spotify, often likes to complain about Apple and its App Store Tax — but I wonder if they will ever allow Audible to sell books on their platform? Or an independent podcasting platform to use the Spotify platform? Just as Facebook won’t let others access Oculus marketplace for free. Deep down all these companies want to do one thing above all — maximize their revenues, though they like to use the argument: we are doing it for the consumers.

But back to Wrapped 2022. I am a little sad that it will be my last.

I have switched to Qobuz. It is a French streaming and downloading service — and for $10 a month, I get to stream music in pristine FLAC quality into my BluSound Node, which is plugged into my Hegel amplifier, that power my speakers. Node is an additional step — since Spotify is directly integrated into the amp, and I have to use the “BluSound” app to manage the listening experience. It isn’t that amazing, but it is a minor issue than having to deal with “podcasts” and “books” being shoved into your face every time you opened the Spotify app.

I was able to transfer all my playlists from Spotify to Qobuz using Soundiiz. There are a few songs that are missing in the playlists, but not enough to be a cause of concern. I can stream music, I can download and save tunes for offline listening. The music sounds exceptional on my custom in-ear headphones, as I found out on my flight to London.

What about the recommendation engine? Qobuz isn’t good, no two ways about it. However, what it lacks in algorithmic recommendations, it makes up in great editorial content. It is like reading liner notes and a magazine mash-up. And I have a little hack for recommendations: I pay for YouTube premium (to avoid ads) and it comes with YouTube music for free. I have transferred my Spotify playlists to YouTube Music as well — and I can tell you, YouTube recommendation algorithm is way superior.

Given, the most of my music discovery is analog — through friends, magazines and music blogs, I don’t rely on recommendation engines as much. Both my favorite song of the year and fifth most listened to artist, Hania Rani, came to me from a pianist friend in Iceland.

I guess, that’s a wrap.

Random Spotify Fact of The Day

Just 21.6% of artists on Spotify today – around 1.7 million of them – have a monthly audience on the platform greater than 50 people. Or, yup, to put it another way: Nearly 80% (78.4%) of artists on Spotify today – around 6.3 million of them – have a monthly audience on the platform smaller than 50 people. Music Business Worldwide

black smartphone showing time at 12 00

Even though we like to blame the shortening length of music tracks on TikTok, the fact is that songs have been getting shorter ever since we started to live on the Internet. Just as written content went from being longer to more ephemeral tweets, the same has happened with music, and TikTok has made things worse — much like how Twitter impacted the written word. 

“Just as more blog posts or tweets get more traffic and attention, shorter songs get more attention on streaming services. Did you know the average “top 100 pop song has shed 40 seconds, dropping from 4:10 in 2000 to around 3:30 in 2018?”

“The portion of sub-three-minute top 10 hits ballooned from just 4% in 2016 to 38% so far in 2022,” reports Billboard. In the sixties, you had sub-two minutes songs that hit the top 40. TikTok, like Twitter, has made things even shorter. An 83-second song just made it to the Too 100! 

“Streaming has, of course, changed our relationship with music,” writes Hanna Kalhert, a media analyst, “turning what was once a thoughtful, attention-intensive activity to a primarily ambient background media format.”

Streaming and how it pays out is partly to blame. If a song plays for 30 seconds on Spotify, it means a royalty payout. Shorter songs equal more streams, which in turn means more royalty. Of course, there are shorter attention spans — a song is good for only 15 seconds on TikTok! 

I don’t have an opinion, but it is clear that, like bloggers before, artists are (and will be) chasing virality to boost their chances on TikTok and, thus, on Spotify and other streaming platforms.

I can’t reconcile how big investors buy catalogs of older artists, and their music keeps generating money on streaming platforms. Seriously — it seems like there are two internets: one for those with Z&M postcodes and the rest of us! 

November 28, 2022. San Francisco

Today is the day of the Oscars — Academy Awards that celebrate excellence in the art of movie-making. There was a time when this was a red-letter day on my calendar. I have not paid much attention to this made-for-TV spectacle since I cut the cord. 

I am not the only one who has become disinterested in the Oscars and its television broadcast. In the 1990s, Oscars ceremony broadcasts would get about 55 million viewers in the United States, and in 2021, it was 9.85 million. ABC pays $100 million a year for the rights, and ad revenues have been around $130 million, making some wonder if they have peaked. 

Looking at the lack of ratings, meaningless broadcast, and movie stars losing their star appeal, LA Mag asks the all-important question: “Are the Oscars over?” 

Read article on LA Mag