As Spotify moves from the fringes of the tech crowd to the mainstream market, it’s worth reflecting on how the online music service has changed the way many of us listen to music.
Not long ago, we went to great lengths to seek out and purchase albums for our collections. Now, we simply search for an artist on Spotify and add their entire discography to our library. With a single click, we can listen to their songs and not have to wait for a video to buffer or a download to complete. Rather than collect our favorite songs with diligent care, we capture them using the “Like” button with pure ease.
We used to listen to music on our mobile devices in private. Now, we share our listening activities to Facebook and show our friends the song we are currently playing. If they want to, they can even tune in and listen with us. Rather than listen to music alone, we now listen together. And of course, we now listen to playlists over albums.
Indeed, what once seemed like a utopia to many listeners — having free, ad-supported access to millions of songs on your desktop and paying to take them anywhere you go — has become a new reality. How have listeners greeted these shifts, and what do they tell us about music culture as a whole? Do these changes represent a lasting evolution of the music experience, or are they simply fleeting trends?
1. Access over Ownership
Access to everything beats the ownership of some. That may be the best way to sum up why listeners love Spotify. Many of them have never experienced the constraints of ownership culture and have only known a world of unlimited access. Whether they used file-sharing services, or simply looked up their favorite songs on YouTube, the young and the digital have always had music at their fingertips.
Connected devices deliver music in an instant and make it go away in a second; there are no cultural artifacts needed to produce music in access culture. Listening to music has been reduced to an activity chronicled by Facebook. That you “listened to” music matters more than what you listened to, or if you even “liked” it.
The notion of purchasing a song to curate it into a collection is perplexing and foreign. Starring an album on Spotify is like bookmarking a website in your browser, the act is seamless and thoughtless. In access culture, scarcity lies not with the money we have to buy music, but with the time we can devote to listening to it. Thus, we must choose to access some, because we know we simply can’t listen to it all.
2. Instant over Delayed
Where the young and the digital once searched for and downloaded “free” music online, they now instantly gratify their every musical whim on Spotify. Nearly any rabbit hole can be found and explored in seconds.
Some critics worry that such access will dwindle our ability to appreciate the music we do get — that if we take the ”rituals” away from music, we’ll lose our connection and respect for it. As alarming as this claim may sound, research does support it. We have a tendency to overvalue products that we build ourselves (think: bookshelf) — a concept called the IKEA effect, after the furniture retailer — due to the time and energy that we put into assembling these products.
If you compare the practice of shuffling to a record store and buying dozens of albums over the span of years to sitting in a computer chair and adding hundreds of songs to your Spotify library in a matter of minutes, it’s clear that the young and the digital have never worked for and earned their music. However, the ease of access to music has not supplanted the slow and tedious process of discovering music, and that’s still a labor that leads to songs they love.
3. Capture over Collect
Shazam and SoundHound, two leading music-ID apps, enable us to identify a song and listen to it within Spotify. If you choose to, you can also add it to your library. In a similar fashion, a newly launched app called Covify allows you to take a picture of any album’s cover with your iPhone camera and it matches it with the equivalent album in Spotify.
We tend to think of a collection as specific albums and songs that we seek out and stow away on a private shelf. That way, we can return and play the music at will. But when we capture music with an app and send it to Spotify, it’s like dog-earring a book page that contains a great passage; we merely intend to return and listen to the music at some point.
Instant access to a nearly unlimited supply of music puts the focus on what to listen to now as opposed to what to keep. Each of us captures and curates songs from Spotify in our own way, but a “library” isn’t the same as a collection. A Spotify library is an ecology of bookmarks that we strategically place throughout Alexandria.
4. Social over Private
What music you listen to on Spotify is automatically shared to Facebook in real-time in the Ticker and chronicled on your Timeline. Your top artists, albums, and songs are listed and broken down by the number of times you have listened to them. Spectators judge your musical taste based on what you’ve consumed — not what you collect.
Unless you designate certain listening sessions on Spotify as being “private” or simply turn Facebook integration off, it assumes that you want to share your listening with friends. This creates the expectation that you should share with them. Failure to do so is likely deemed “odd” among the ranks of the young and the digital. Considering that listening has long been a private endeavor, it’s odd how social music has become and how widely accepted of a concept it is.
By sharing our Spotify listening, research suggests that, “many of us are also making clear public statements of who we are and how we should be perceived, whether we are conscious of that or not.” There are listeners that find social music to be creepy and disturbing, but it comes at a price most of us seem more than willing to pay.
5. Together over Alone
Soundrop, a popular Spotify app, allows you to join a room, vote for your favorite songs, and tune in with other listeners. Each room also features a group chat where you can chime in and discuss what song is currently playing.
Despite the initial popularity of Turntable.fm, group listening never became a mainstream product. Thus, Soundrop may not seem like a major development, but it represents a huge shift in how many of us experience music. Rather than listen to music on mobile devices through headphones alone, we can gather friends and listen together.
Facebook also introduced a feature called “Listen With” that lets friends jump into a listening session with you in real-time and open a chatroom where you can talk. By clicking on the note icon next to a song in Ticker, you can check out what your friend is playing right now, and up to 50 friends can join the session in a group chat and listen along.
On one hand, Soundrop has the potential to connect strangers who may become friends. On the other, listening with friends on Facebook can bring them closer together. After all, your taste in music speaks volumes about you.
6. Playlists over Albums
The digital revolution took control away from the DJ and empowered us to program our music ourselves. Rather than listen to albums in our library, many of us chose to cherry pick our favorite songs and curate them into playlists.
Yes, there is something to be said about absorbing in an album and taking in the experience as the artist intended it to be. But many of us are not doing this. We rely on Spotify apps to curate our music sessions for us. We are playing the “Rock Icons” playlist on Digster and sifting through the latest songs on We Are Hunted’s emerging songs chart.
If you wish to listen to an album and it for offline use, you must create a playlist. Due to this, we increasingly navigate our music through the sidebar in desktop a app and rarely visit our library. In the mobile and tablet app, Spotify has ditched the library and decided to only show playlists, radio stations, and starred songs. The library, it seems, has already been killed, and only a few of us noticed.
Certainly, there are other companies than Spotify in the U.S. and there are many more worldwide. If you think about it, it’s clear that Spotify has changed music and how many of us listen more so than any other service.
At the core of Spotify’s team, a fanatic ideal rests — one that drives them to try and make every song available through a desktop and mobile app. As they encounter the financial and logistical problems that come with making that feat possible, they also face the challenge of making those songs meaningful to listeners. The problem that Spotify solved for the early adopters of the service is different than the one it must solve for mainstream market — assuming one even exists. These listeners, and not Spotify or anyone else, will determine what solution is worth adopting and paying for.
But it would be wrong to applaud Spotify without mentioning Apple. If the Cupertino giant introduces a subscription tier for iTunes, it exposes hundreds of millions of users, with credit cards on file, to the idea of accessing music as opposed to owning it. Apple could sign up more paying subscribers to this offering in an hour than Spotify ever has. The company may be “late” to the music streaming game, but that does not mean that it won’t start playing ball soon.