Listening to music in the Spotify era
Let me tell you about how the way I think about music was shaped by how I was able to access music as a kid—and how those habits are beginning to change for the worse. The first time I can remember enjoying a piece of music as an object of aesthetic contemplation was when I was eight or nine years old and my father was listening to a cassette copy of Enya’s 1991 album Shepherd Moons. Side 2 of the cassette was Enya’s Watermark album, which I also enjoyed—and a piece by Michael Hedges (“Spare Change”). The whole thing had been put onto a tape by my father’s coworker. My dad was the epicenter of a tape-sharing network at the insurance company where he worked, and often came home with albums or mixtapes of all sorts of artists (I remember being really into Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Van Morrison, and the Penguin Café Orchestra all before the age of twelve). Musically, I had a very rich and eclectic childhood. My parents, both avid listeners, were constantly exposing me to the widest possible repertoire of the European tradition, both art and pop.
For me the appreciation of music was always artist-driven. I don’t remember ever sorting music by mood or ambience, and genre, to me, was just something the critics employed to put music into boxes. When I started buying my own CDs and records1 I mostly looked for specific artists or compositions, and the whole apparatus of genre—ambient, kraut, folk rock, alternative, heavy metal—was of limited use to me. Into what genre, for instance, would you put Robert Fripp’s album Let the Power Fall? Or Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand? It’s safe to say that my acceptance of strange and unusual music was made much easier because I was mostly interested in how any particular piece related to the career of the artist who made it, and I didn’t really care whether it fit into the critics’ boxes.
My music appreciation was heavily mediated by time and economics. I would drive into town, buy perhaps two or three albums, and then listen to them, over and over, for about a week or so before starting the process again. I spent a healthy chunk of time digesting and analyzing the music; I had to, because that was all the music I had. I wasn’t going to declare an album worthless that I’d just bought with my precious grocery store clerk wages until I’d given it a fair hearing! And if I did decide an album was a dud I could always listen to what I’d already collected: reevaluating, comparing, situating the music in my personal understanding of music as an art form, and further deepening my appreciation of the artistry exhibited by composers of all kinds, in all genres.
My experience learning about music was perhaps a little unusual, and since it’s my personal experience it’s certainly not normative; but I am one of perhaps the last generation of listeners who heard music in this way. These days, the understanding and appreciating of music is conducted on entirely different channels and with wildly different results.
Currently almost the entire musical landscape is mediated by algorithm. Spotify is, of course, the key player here, matching what it “knows” about musical genres and recommending selections based on what genre a person has been listening to. The hair-splitting that Spotify has done in regard to genre is truly an impressive feat: as of now there are nearly six thousand genres represented on Spotify.2 This means you can listen to exactly the kind of music that you want to hear, and nothing else will get in your way . . . but is that good? Spotify is very good for research: a deep dive into a particular genre or a comparison between two related genres—or perhaps an analysis of one specific artist’s work. More on that point later—but do most listeners actually use Spotify in that way?
To be clear, the average Spotify user is in a very good place regarding their potential ability to listen to and think about music. Anyone with a Spotify premium membership can listen to a nearly unlimited amount of music, and the albums or performances that can’t be found on Spotify are easily accessed on YouTube. Free from the constraints of budget and with no need to ration my time, I can assemble playlists of hours of music defined by a narrow search range. I can read a book on some obscure composer or musical movement and make a playlist corresponding to the pieces mentioned in the book; previously I had to undertake years of patient, diligent search in record stores and secondhand shops before I could listen to the full gamut of an artist’s output—if I was able to find their music at all. My dad tells me horror stories of what it was like trying to track down specific albums in the seventies: music magazines would have want ads in the back from people who were desperately trying to find some particular record that they felt they just had to hear. I would surely not want to go back to those days!
But I’m unable to shake an uncomfortable sense that I am not really engaging with new music as well as I once was. Let’s set aside the whole discussion of the shenanigans happening behind the scenes at Spotify; abler writers than myself have chronicled the extremely disconcerting manner in which the platform ignores the needs of the creators of new music, and the worrisome trend in AI-generated songs that Spotify seems to be embracing.3 What I want to discuss is how my own listening habits have changed in the Spotify era. I’m sure my experience is not out of the ordinary.
If I play an album on Spotify and let the music continue once the album is done, the program starts playing “album radio”—music chosen algorithmically to match what I’ve just finished playing. If a song catches my ear it takes only a few clicks to save the album to my library for later exploration. There have been many times when this procedure gives me, in the space of only an hour or even less, an awareness of several new albums for me to explore. If I’m not careful my library can become glutted with albums I’ve saved but which I haven’t had the chance to give close attention to. Sometimes I will have many albums I’ve never even heard all the way through. It becomes challenging to know what to think of this music, especially since it is presented to me with no context as to who the artist is, who wrote the songs, who is playing on the album, when and where it was recorded. This information is essential to understanding the careers and compositional styles of several musicians. Spotify is particularly bad at placing an artist within the context of their own work. I searched for Bill Bruford just now and only eight albums came up—despite his being one of the twentieth century’s most important rock drummers, appearing on nearly one hundred recordings.4
What if I make my own custom playlist? Does that help? Like I said, Spotify is good for research. I did that recently when I was thinking about the influence of Indian ragas on Western rock music—I searched for every name and track mentioned on this one Wikipedia page and stuck them all in a playlist. Okay, now all the music is in one place—but now I have to listen to it all. I simply can’t understand a work of music until I’ve heard it several times; if I have a multi-album playlist, how am I supposed to absorb that new music in a short time? Spotify’s playlists enable the process of years to occur within a couple of hours. I might have a wealth of new music to explore, but will I really give it the attention it deserves?
Spotify itself creates algorithmically-curated genre playlists; if I want to listen to “70s funk” or “neo-soul” or “progressive metal” they are each only a search query away. But doing so forces the definitions of genre to be whatever the Spotify algorithm says they are, and since the music on the playlists becomes genre-centered, rather than album- or artist-centered, much important context is lost. Many artists’ work spans several genres; the artist’s personal vision, communicated in the genre choices made on a particular album, is obscured when the music is filtered through Spotify’s genre playlists.
And lately, even I have succumbed to the inevitable least denominator . . . I often find myself listening to music through Spotify for the purposes of mood control. Obviously this is a totally legitimate way to experience music, with a long and rich history going back to the very beginnings of European folk culture; but here we are in the post-Sgt. Pepper times, and I would have thought that artistry was most important. I’m truly concerned when large amounts of the piano works of Schubert or Chopin find new listeners via Spotify’s “Dark Academia Playlist.” Is this really what the composer wanted? How much of the compositional talent are we overlooking when we listen to music simply for mood adjustment?
I would rather have people discover new music on Spotify than never discover new music at all. Spotify, like all methods of music distribution, has its problems; to me right now, in the mood I’m in, they seem worse than the problems endemic to vinyl or CDs or the radio or live performance. But that doesn’t mean Spotify needs to be discarded or shunned. It just means that listeners need to be aware of what is happening when they let Spotify make the choices.
If this is the case, what will the future hold? What will be the future of music in the Spotify era?
First, I predict a new mannerism to sweep the music scene. The makers of new music, desirous of placement on the most popular of Spotify’s genre lists, will begin to create works which adhere ever more strictly to a genre ideal. This can already be seen to have started with some genres—most notably with vaporwave, where the most popular songs on Spotify’s genre playlists all sound rather alike. The trend will only continue through the rest of Spotify’s genres and instead of innovation within generic form we will see derivative copies of the most popular works. Just as how composers in the baroque and classical periods of European art music would rearrange their works for varying ensembles, we will see musicians creating multiple copies of their compositions tweaked to increasingly specific genre requirements in an attempt to saturate the listener’s ears.
Second, there will most certainly be an underground movement of musicians who are dissatisfied with the terms that Spotify has to offer and who will resolutely refuse to have anything to do with the audio giant. They will circulate their works across Discord servers and Bandcamp pages, and some will even “tour” at friends’ living rooms and front porches. We will see a resurgence of local scenes as the global musical behemoths become increasingly seen as unfriendly to artists and listeners.
Even more: perhaps we will see artists who create music only for themselves. People who take the underground tradition to its logical extreme. It has happened before with composers such as Charles Ives and Conlon Noncarrow; it can happen again.
But most likely we will see a rise in tastemakers, people who proffer their services of curation with a personal touch. For serious listeners, a guide through the history of their chosen genre would be something they would be willing to pay for. The human touch will always carry more value than that of the algorithm. This is what I was doing when I was a kid, listening closely to whatever music my father was playing at the time and asking him about it. Really, that’s the best way to hear music: for it to be given as a gift. Mark my prophecy: we will come back to that in time.
Yes—vinyl. I was listening to records before they were cool. This is how ahead-of-the-curve I was: when I was fifteen I bought Yes’ Fragile, and a box set of all the Beethoven symphonies, on vinyl I found at secondhand stores.
Recently, Spotify introduced artist bios which display on the screen as an album is pulled up. This is a helpful step in the right direction and begins to give the app the flavor of the old Allmusic site, which is where I learned about much new music in my late teenage years.