Culture Society Technology

Everything Now: How Spotify Changed Music

By Adam Bennett

Neil Young has never been one to suffer fools. 

The iconic Canadian’s approach to his career is perhaps best described as ‘uncompromising’. Whilst a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, he refused to be filmed during live performances of songs he didn’t rate – once informing a cameraman that “if one of you fuckin’ guys comes near me I’m gonna fuckin’ hit you with my guitar”. 

In more recent times, Young’s legendary ire has been directed towards the streaming giant Spotify. Specifically, he has taken exception to the platform’s hosting of The Joe Rogan Experience – a hugely popular podcast for which Spotify bought exclusive rights for $100 million. Across multiple episodes of said podcast, host Joe Rogan expressed doubt over mainstream scientific consensus regarding Covid-19 vaccines. On one occasion Rogan expressly claimed that “young people” should not be vaccinated against Covid, and on another he provided a platform to the cardiologist Dr. Peter McCullough. McCullough has argued that vaccines are “experimental”, and that the coronavirus pandemic was “planned”. 

“I don’t know if this stuff is true”, noted Rogan in the same episode, “I’m just asking questions”. 

But according to Neil Young and others, some questions are so foolish as to be best left unasked. In January 2022 the singer-songwriter took the unprecedented step of demanding Spotify choose between losing his entire back catalogue, or the Joe Rogan Experience. “You can have Young or you can have Rogan”, he wrote, “but you can’t have both”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Spotify opted to side with their titanic podcast investment. Young’s complete discography has since been removed from the platform. 

Zoom out, however, and the situation begins to look stranger. With 172 million paid subscribers (to say nothing of those who listen to the ad-filled free service), Spotify is now humanity’s primary gateway into music. Its closest competition, Apple Music, is reported to have 98 million subscribers as of last year. Even YouTube Premium, owned by tech behemoth Google, has an audience of 50 million as of 2021. Spotify, then, is undoubtedly the market leader and a platform without which the modern industry would be unrecognisable. 

And yet, despite being the biggest name in music streaming, Spotify has unflinchingly sacrificed the work of an all-time great for the sake of a podcast. 

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Young’s protest, this dynamic tells us an awful lot about the state of an industry and an art which Spotify has, for better and for worse, utterly remade. 

Embracing The Lesser Evil 

To understand the extent to which the music industry relies on the grace of Spotify, it’s worth considering how the platform first emerged. In the early-to-mid 2000s, the industry was bleeding at the hands of software such as Napster and Limewire. These dubiously-legal programmes, which essentially allowed users to download any song they wanted for free, were running riot. An entire generation had absorbed the idea that music was not something anyone seriously paid for anymore. Against such a backdrop, record labels and artists hit the panic button so many times it was beginning to wear out. Gimmicks such as deluxe box sets and remasters of classic albums helped to shield established artists, but did little to alter the greater trajectory. 

That was the landscape in which Spotify was born. Its central idea was to concede – unlike iTunes – that the notion of paying for one-off songs and albums was dead. Spotify’s founders (Swedish entrepreneurs Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon) posited that people would, however, be willing to pay a small subscription fee for access to an enormous library of music at their fingertips. This was essentially a battle of convenience – the only thing easier than not having to pay, Spotify believed, would be to have access to everything with absolute immediacy. There was no need even to download music, provided users had an internet connection. Anything you wanted, or would ever want, was a few taps away. 

Spotify’s biggest competitors today – Apple Music, YouTube Premium, and others – are essentially imitators of this great trick. Spotify’s model was successful, not just as a business proposition but as a cultural phenomenon. Downloading music for free online felt like a genie that had been forever released from its bottle, but Spotify crammed it back in. 

People were paying for music again. And for an industry on its knees, that was a miracle. 

The Hand That Feeds 

Leaping into the arms of Spotify, however, was always going to be a Devil’s bargain. 

We may be paying for music, but we aren’t paying much. On average, an artist will earn $0.004 per streamed song. For the industry’s leading lights, those pennies add up; 870 artists made over $1 million from Spotify alone in 2020. But that doesn’t tell nearly the full story. 

Consider, for example, how an artist might get ‘discovered’ on Spotify (and, with lockdowns playing havoc with live shows, there aren’t many other places to be discovered). Realistically, there’s only one option: playlists. Spotify serves up several to its users, some curated by genre and others personalised through algorithms. Discover Weekly, for example, provides listeners with a selection of fresh music deemed to be appropriate given what our previous listening habits have told the app about our tastes. We’re then free to add those we like to our libraries with a satisfying tap of the heart icon. 

This is the first way in which Spotify has rewritten the rules of music. 

A study from Ohio State University shows that, from the period of 1980 to 2017, the average song intro had shortened from 20 seconds to just five. Of course, pop music has always sought to grab our attentions with immediacy, but this study applied to all music. In the context of playlists there’s a logic here – when the ‘skip track’ button is just a tap away, there’s not much time in which to make an impression. And, from the listener’s perspective, impatience becomes a virtue when there’s a world of music waiting beyond the current track. 

The extent of Spotify’s influence, though, runs far deeper – and is far more insidious – than that. 

The platform’s algorithms, through which those playlists are compiled, are a particular source of controversy. Spotify has never revealed precisely what data it feeds into its algorithms, however some researchers have been able to take an educated guess. Paul Lamere, formerly the director of the music intelligence platform Echo Nest, discovered in 2014 that knowledge of listeners’ gender was “vital to the functioning of Spotify” and was listed by the brand as information which it shares as part of its ‘privacy policy’. Curiously, Spotify went on to buy out Echo Nest later in 2014, neutering its capacity to research the brand any further. On top of that, the Spotify app is able to discern your location and nationality by tracking your IP address. Resultantly, the company is equipped to make a reliable guess at your socioeconomic status and, perhaps most troublingly, your sexuality. 

Anyone doubting Spotify’s ability to do this should consider the story, from July of last year, of how a priest was outed as gay thanks to his phone tracking his location. Jeffrey Burrill, one of the Catholic Church’s top officials, was recorded by his smartphone as having visited a number of gay bars and nightclubs. If your phone knows where you’ve been, it’s a near-certainty that Spotify knows, too. 

But, listeners might decide, so what? Spotify isn’t a hostile government or the FBI, it’s just a way to listen to songs. All this data and information, however nefariously collected, is designed only for the purposes of serving up potentially enjoyable music. And, when we close the app, that’s the end of it. 

Or is it? 

While You’re Here…

Why not take a moment to subscribe to The International’s free monthly newsletter? It takes seconds to sign up, and you’ll stay up to date with the stories shaping our world at a pace that won’t overwhelm.

We Are What We Hear 

In the Winter of 2017, Spotify hit viral gold. As subscribers began to clock off work for the holiday season, an electrifying notification flared up on their smartphone screens. It was an invitation to check out their Spotify Wrapped.

Initially launched in 2015 as Year In Music, the new-fangled and beautifully branded Wrapped has wasted no time in becoming an international cultural touchpoint. Like Santa driving a lorry full of Coca-Cola, our Instagram stories lighting up with Spotify Wrapped has become an intrinsic part of the festive ritual for millions. 

Its appeal is easy to understand. For as long as music has existed, fans have sought to make it part of their identity. From mods vs rockers in the 70s, to Beatlemania, to the online fandoms of today, music is a deeply embedded part of both who we are, and who we want to be. Wrapped provides a fleeting, yearly chance to share our identity with the world backed up by empirical data. The person who is in Taylor Swift’s top 1% of listeners can say, with unprecedented authority, that they are a Swiftie. 

But the nature of algorithmic-based streaming changes that equation. Music as part of our identity is one thing when we’re flipping through records in a hazy independent store, gazing over CDs in HMV, or syncing up our iTunes library with an MP3 player. But when it’s served up to us by data and algorithms, it becomes something else. Musically, we are who Spotify wants us to be. 

All of which brings us to Spotify’s central deceit, which is that the platform isn’t really about music at all. If it were, they probably wouldn’t have removed the discography of a living legend in order to avoid an awkward conversation with Joe Rogan. Rather, for Spotify, it’s about you. Knowing you, engaging you, and keeping you hooked. 

After The Gold Rush

All of which brings us back to the war of words surrounding Rogan and Young. Of course, podcasts are also a central pillar of Spotify’s success. Finding out whether someone listens to Queerology, the Guardian’s Politics Weekly, or the Joe Rogan Experience is an effective way of getting to know them, after all.

But their decision to protect Rogan doesn’t tell us much about Spotify’s politics, or even its stance on vaccines. If Neil Young’s back catalogue had as many listeners as The Joe Rogan Experience in 2022, they probably would have sided with the musician over the podcast host. That’s not the point. 

The point is that, for the world’s biggest and most powerful music platform, music itself is an afterthought. 

For those many who have long celebrated Young’s sprawling and storied career, one hopes that his legacy and his music might outlive the streaming model which Spotify has spawned. Yet even if it doesn’t, it’s easy to imagine that Young himself won’t care. 

It’s better, after all, to burn out than it is to rust.

Adam Bennett is the editor-in-chief of The InternationalYou can find him on Twitter here.