In November, just a decade after it was launched, Spotify announced it had reached 87m Premium subscribers (up 40% from the previous year) and 109m ad-supported users, sealing its reputation as one of the music industry’s major gatekeepers. This dominance is only set to increase, with 61% of Gen Zers citing it as their primary source for frequent listening. But as the press embraces CEO Daniel Ek’s utopian vision of unlimited access, are they being unwittingly complicit in their own demise?
Up until recently the media filled multiple roles within the music industry – aiding discovery, providing criticism and telling the stories of artists through interviewing and profiling. The first of these roles has already been monopolised. By controlling the algorithms that dictate which artists are to be given coveted playlist spots (Today’s Top Hits has over two million subscribers), and through the personalised Discover Weekly feature, Spotify is fast replacing the press as a conduit for discovery.
The art of criticism, formally the reserve of influential journalists and angsty failed musos, is also being squeezed out of our lives. In an attention economy where content abounds and time is increasingly precious, why not let a Spotify algorithm chose the ‘best’ music for you? Just hit Today’s Top Hits and cut out the middle man.
According to a report by MIDiA Research, 74% of all 16-19 year olds listen to single tracks and playlists rather than albums, compared to 55% of all consumers. This is worrying. By re-defining our relationship with music – one where listeners connect less with artists, but instead with the genres or moods manifested in playlists like Rap Caviar or 90s Baby Makers – streaming stunts the demand for storytelling. If you are more interested in the musical echo chambers offered by these playlists than the actual artists featured, or the development of those artists over multiple album releases, it seems less likely you will want to hear them interviewed, or find out who their influences are – or what their favourite colour is.
And for those who remain interested, there are plenty of Spotify Original Podcasts (Dissect, Are & B, Mic Check…) to keep you glued to its interface…
It looks increasingly likely Spotify’s next move will be to sign artists directly – in doing so removing the role of the record label. Already Spotify hosts suspected ‘fake’ artists who’ve racked up millions of streams without any external internet presence. Data from ChartMetric in August showed that just two of the 72 tracks on the ‘Ambient Chill’ playlist were credited to legitimate labels. And, whilst the replacement of one gatekeeper for another may not seem so dystopian, one has to be wary of a singular platform with so much influence. Music requires a spectrum of gatekeepers and risk-taking managers to keep it from becoming reactionary. But by endorsing Ek’s brave new world, we endanger its development.
Surely the music industry should be wary of a platform capable of cannibalising its market? Yet labels continue to use it for distribution; Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, BBC Music Magazine – some of the biggest names in music media – all host playlists, upload podcasts and embed songs into online ‘listicles' using Spotify, thereby bolstering its influence.
A further layer of irony can be found in the existence of a blog post condemning Spotify’s monopoly, written by an aspiring music journalist who links readers to its website in the first sentence. Shit.