Has Spotify Changed How We Listen to Music?
Review by Lily Jamaludin

Like many people, my music listening history can be categorised by the technologies that were available to us to listen and discover music. For me, it was the MTV music video years, then the MySpace and Limewire CD burning years, the years of the iPod, and then, finally, the Spotify years.

In those CD-burning years in which I came to be a teenager, I remember finding obscure indie bands through their MySpace pages and scouring forums for post-rock recommendations. I downloaded albums the same way many kids did, first using Kazaa! and Limewire, and then eventually graduating to learning how to Torrent like the big kids. And then, after pouring through artists’ discographies, I selected my favourite songs, and carefully arranged them on a Winamp playlist, before burning them onto CDs I would label with a permanent marker.

It was truly an era.

I made CDs for roadtrips, for moods, for friends, for family members. I’d play the CDs on my Sony Walkman – which was silver and blue, and certainly the most up-to-date technology at the time – hooked up to a pair of ridiculously oversized headphones that had been discarded by a family member. The CDs got scratched up and some of the tracks skipped over themselves, and after listening I would slide them into a soft felt album full of other CDs I’d burned.

The iPod era soon followed, which I attempted to avoid in an act of teenage anti-mainstream resistance. It was hard not to fall in love with the iPod, which eventually came out in bright candy colours, and whose delicious scroll wheel sounds foreshadowed Apple’s mastery of the touchpad. But most importantly, the iPod signaled a new chapter: the beginning of the instant personalisation and portability of music.

Then came Spotify.

When I first learned about Spotify, I was impressed. Sleek, black and green, it offered music on-demand, almost free and it was legal. Music at the tip of your fingers. Whole tracks, whole albums, an entire discography – yours for the taking. You didn’t have to wait the minutes – or even hours or days – it took to download an album.

It took a few years before Spotify became available outside of Sweden, and then it took over the way we listened to music quickly and certainly, as if nothing had existed before it. Now, I use Spotify all the time. It’s probably the app I use most on my phone, playing music or podcasts while I work, drive, walk, exercise or clean.

But it’s worth thinking about what happens to us when a large company – indeed, a surveillance capitalist company – dominates the ways we access and listen to music.

The “Spotify Sound”

A few years ago, I remember asking a friend, “but when was the last time you listened to an album? I mean a whole album, from start to finish.”

He smiled at me and said, “something I still do it. I put on my headphones and lie down on the floor and listen to a whole album.”

I was impressed. When was the last time I played an album as it was made to be listened to? I couldn’t remember, because it had been years since I’d done that. Not since Spotify.

Since Spotify, I listen to playlists – ones that I’ve made, that friends have made, that strangers have made, or that Spotify has curated. When I find a new artist I rarely play their entire discographies and albums to find my favourite songs – instead, I look for their top 5 songs on their Spotify artist page, and choose something from there. More often, I play Spotify’s “Focus music” or some sort of mood-aligned playlist as I try to get the mood right for whatever I’m doing.

It's this emphasis on playlists that sets Spotify apart from other music streaming platforms. The playlist is Spotify’s key currency. Over 30% of streaming on Spotify comes from its curated, algorithm-generated playlists – and because of Spotify’s payment structure, artists are incentivised to land a spot on playlists.

Spotify currently pays an average of US$0.00437 per stream, meaning that it would take over 66,000 streams per month for an artist to earn the Malaysian minimum wage. It’s unlikely that an artist would ever reach this amount of streams without getting on a playlist. Playlist spots mean an artist could get access to millions of streams. Listeners don’t even have to listen to the whole song – Spotify pays an artist once the listener has played 30 seconds of the track.

So it makes sense of course that artists would try to adjust their music to get better paid. This has led to what some music critics have labelled “The Spotify Sound.” It means that artists have shortened their songs and frontloaded them with choruses and catchy hooks. Think Major Lazer’s Lean On or Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road. Tightly sequenced albums are less financially incentivised than having many songs on a single album. More songs, of course, means that there is more potential for more streams. Not only that, there’s also no incentive for putting out longer songs anymore. According to Quartz, for example, the average length of a song on the Billboard 100 in 2013 was 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In 2018, the length was 3 minutes and 30 seconds.

As entertainment writer James Shotwell says, “The more financially informed approach would be to record more material that is shorter, thus earning more money. A five-minute song earns as much as a two-minute song, but listeners can play multiple two-minute songs in the same amount of time, which means they can earn more money.”

This may be one of the ways that Spotify has changed music: through changing its actual sound.

But perhaps there’s also something a little bit more jarring: Spotify’s use of user data. After all, the thing to remember is that you’re not just listening to Spotify. Spotify is also listening to you.

Stay tuned for part two.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Lily Jamaludin is a writer with the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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