The music world continues to be exceedingly vulnerable, and there are looming questions that desperately need to be addressed. Most important: How can artists distribute and sell their work in a digital economy beholden to ruthlessly commercial and centralized interests?Enter Spotify, a platform that is definitely not the answer. In fact, it only exacerbates such conundrums. Yet for now it has manipulated the vast majority of music industry “players” into regarding it as a saving grace. As the world’s largest streaming music company, its network of paying subscribers has risen sharply in recent years, from five million paid subscribers in 2012 to more than sixty million in 2017. Indeed, the platform has now convinced a critical mass that paying $9.99 per month for access to thirty million songs is a solid, even virtuous idea. Every song in the world for less than your shitty airport meal. What could go wrong?
To understand the danger Spotify poses to the music industry—and to music itself—you first have to dig beneath the “user experience” and examine its algorithmic schemes. Spotify’s front page “Browse” screen presents a classic illusion of choice, a stream of genre and mood playlists, charts, new releases, and now podcasts and video. It all appears limitless, a function of the platform’s infinite supply, but in reality it is tightly controlled by Spotify’s staff and dictated by the interests of major labels, brands, and other cash-rich businesses who have gamed the system.
Those excerpts should give you an idea, though you should read the whole thing. I am hampered in discussing this because, as I said, I have never used Spotify or any other streaming service. There is just nothing about it that appeals to me. The closest I get to being the object of some commercial algorithm is as an Amazon customer and I find the choices they make for me to be mildly annoying. They are constantly sending me links to things I have already purchased or to authors I purchased and decided I didn't like or to things that are exactly like things I already have. I'm sure it's not just me!Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect.
So I guess all I can say about Spotify and its dangers is akin to the famous critique of democracy by Mencken: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” If what most people want from music is a soporific (euphemistically known as "chilling out") selection crafted for them by an algorithm, then ok, sure, whatever. But herein perhaps lies the reason that there is less and less creativity and originality in music these days.
Let's have something non-soporific, yet up-lifting. This is the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin: