illustration: The Rites of Diablo, 1958
In an apparent triumph of the viralmarketing success to which all social services aspire, certain friends of mine have put a surprising amount of effort into trying to get me on the social music-streaming service Spotify, which describes itself on its website simply as “all the music, all the time.” They have no financial stake in the company and receive no direct reward for recruiting new users, yet they are pushing it on me as though they’re receiving kickbacks
Spotify is free if you are willing to put up with occasional “radio-style” advertisements, they tell me. It facilitates music discovery. It has a vast catalog—I thought some of my favorite bands were too obscure to be in Spotify’s library, but when I played musical GoFish’ with a friend, a majority of the albums I named turned out to be there. And of particular relevance to me, music on Spotify isn’t lost if your hard drive fails. When my iPod broke, the Spotivangelist choir came out in full-force SSATB crescendo to sing Spotify’s praises. (Nothing stirs cloud fanatics to action quite like hardware-induced data loss.) The failed hard drive, I was told, was “a sign that you just need to get a Spotify account and give up on ownership.”subscribe to TNI for $2 and get Vol. 9 today
Spotify itself doesn’t mind if you want to own music; in fact, in the event that “all the music” doesn’t include all of your music, Spotify users have the option of uploading local music files to create personalized libraries even more vast than the one on offer by default. Spotify trumpets that if you join its service, you will “never again need to switch between media players.” If you put all your music in Spotify and accept Spotify as your one true source of sonic stimulation, you too can be delivered from the darkness of juggling devices and applications.
Switching back and forth between VLC, iTunes, and my record player has never made my list of major frustrations, however, so this seemed less like a perk and more like a sneaky way to chain me both to Spotify and to my computer: Do not step away from the screen … there are no songs outside its soft glow. My friend countered that, for $9.99 per month, Spotify’s “premium” service both eliminates advertisements and allows users to stream music from their smartphones. “But I want my music even when I don’t want the Internet,” I protested, “and sometimes I drive where there isn’t cell-phone reception!” Ah, but Spotify had already thought of this; the “premium” service, my friend informed me, also includes offline access to saved playlists. It seemed resistance was futile.
But why was I resisting? By rights, I should be some kind of Spotifanatic. Music is a huge part of my life, and I discover almost all my new music through friends. And perhaps the biggest difference between Spotify and other music streaming services like Pandora, Rhapsody, or satellite radio is its “social” component. Spotify is deeply integrated with Facebook, which enables Spotify users to send music to their friends via an inbox and to “scrobble” (broadcast) their listening habits on Facebook through so-called frictionless sharing. By default, Spotify posts automatically to users’ Facebook profiles each time they create a new playlist in order to “save them time” (so Spotify says). “Otherwise you’d have to manually publish each new playlist you create.” (I would?)
Music has always been social in the obvious sense that we generally create, perform, and listen to it with other people. Even in an age of recordings and personal music players, music remains language, community, affinity, identity, currency, and certainly cultural capital: You are what you listen to.
Yet in Spotify, music becomes “social” in the Silicon Valley sense; it becomes something to drive the free labor that fuels all Web 2.0 machines, the spark that keeps a startup in eyeballs and eardrums, in attention and income (from both advertisers and subscribers). Music is “social” because it can be harnessed to inspire networks of people to keep supplying clicks and credit cards and to make sure their friends keep doing likewise. Those saved, offline-available playlists that will accompany a Spotify user anywhere she goes—yet which disappear the moment she cancels her subscription—are part of Spotify’s subscriber-retention strategy, a last hook in users should network effects and peer pressure fail.
Arguably, the Spotivangelists are incentivized to recruit friends because network effects improve their own experiences of using the service, but I doubt any of my friends are truly that anxious to know what I listen to at every moment or to share music with me in ways that don’t involve file transfers or co-listening. I’m also not that eager to broadcast what I listen to at every moment. When I told one Spotivangelist friend that I had no desire to perform my listening for others, he agreed wholeheartedly. He claimed to use Spotify “antisocially” by turning off automatic publishing and by delinking Spotify and Facebook as much as possible.
I later wondered what he’d meant by that, and poked around Spotify’s settings to see how much “delinkage” can be accomplished. In doing so, I found a lot of boxes to uncheck: No, don’t show what I listen to on Facebook. Don’t automatically publish my new playlists, and don’t publish my Top Tracks or Top Artists. Don’t share my activity on Spotify Social (which Spotify’s FAQ unhelpfully defines as “all the features of Spotify that help you share music with friends”)—but as soon as I unchecked that one, Spotify warned me I would no longer receive recommendations from my friends. “Are you sure?” it asked, and suggested I try listening in “Private Session” mode instead. That way my antisocial tendencies will expire once I log out of Spotify or after six hours of inactivity. It seemed Spotify would grudgingly allow me to keep my guilty pleasures from my friends, but not without trying to stir up a little self-doubt and guilt in exchange.
So if Spotify doesn’t necessarily entail hearing advertisements, being chained to a computer, depending on Internet access, or perpetually performing my musical tastes—from the pretentious to the perfectly disgraceful—in some kind of Bourdieusian hell, why have I remained intent on resisting? It mostly boils down to issues of control. In Edited Clean Version: Technology and the Culture of Control, professor of digital cultural studies Raiford Guins examines ways in which users of newer media technologies are offered “empowerment” through “control,” which in turn is made available through arrays of choices. Though Guins’s focus is censorial practices in newer media, many of his ideas are applicable to Spotify as well. He explains that control technologies are “designed to advance an ethos of neoliberal governance” and draws on both Deleuze’s work on control and Foucault’s work on governmentality to show that “choice is imagined as an active, autonomous action … an enabling action for regulated and disciplined freedom: the paradoxical logic of choice in the era of control.” Choice functions as “a preferred surrogate strategy in neoliberal societies for the presumed limitations and restrictions of regulation,” and exercising our freedom of choice encourages us to see “regulatory practices of self-management as licensed freedom, not as dominating.”
In other words, when offered the ability to choose from a vast array of options, the freedom and empowerment we feel in making a choice discourages us from paying attention to what has structured the choice itself, and this fits well with a political ideology that asks us to believe that we are all autonomous individuals with no one but ourselves to blame (or credit) for our failures (or successes). To borrow Deleuze’s highway metaphor from “Having an Idea in Cinema,” we’re encouraged to see the lone car on the empty road as a symbol of freedom and self-direction. We’re not encouraged to think about how the range of possible routes is predetermined because the car can only go where the state has decided to build roads. We can choose from what has been made available to us, and we’re encouraged to see that choice as freedom without thinking about what isn’t available to us and why.
Spotify promises “millions of tracks, any time you like … Just help yourself to whatever you want, whenever you want it”—a seemingly infinite array of musical choices, the ultimate in musical freedom. The site further asserts that the service’s dream “is to have all the music in the world available instantly to everyone, wherever they are.” All the music, all the places, all the people: what a vast and beautiful utopian soundscape!
What more could I want if Spotify is offering me everything? Spotify promises the world of music at my fingertips, as well as the ability to seamlessly give, receive, and circulate music with my friends, and all this without having to track down albums, organize files, or engage in any other drudgery that comes with maintaining a music library of one’s own. Why duplicate the labor? What sense does it make for me and all of my friends and so many more strangers to carefully curate the same albums over and over again when Spotify can do it all once, and our music-labor can be limited to typing in one credit-card number each? Why take up space on each of our hard drives and why each bear the risk of loss in the event of file corruption or hardware failure (and poor backup strategy)? Ownership is a burden, but access is liberation; music is safe in the cloud. Spotify offers freedom not just from labor but also from loss, the promise that music will never again be taken away by the vicissitudes of technology. All the music, all the time, always, no matter what.subscribe to TNI for $2 and get Vol. 9 today
But of course, it’s not that simple: “All the music” is really just Spotify’s (admittedly large) catalog plus whatever one has chosen to upload as local files, and the catalog piece of that equation disappears if one makes the choice to stop using Spotify. This looming threat against leaving is a problem for me, because it highlights the ways in which Spotify’s infinite array of choice offers not empowerment and control but the forfeiture of those things. Far from freedom, it feels like being trapped: You can leave, but you can’t take it with you. A part of me would be at Spotify’s mercy, held hostage by the synergy between my emotions and sound.
Technically speaking, there’s nothing to stop a disgruntled user from using her Spotify playlist as a file-acquisition to-do list before quitting the service. But there is a time price to rebuilding a music library, and frequently an economic price as well. Though I realize my relationship with music is already at the mercy of hardware manufacturers, software developers, and others (to say nothing of vinyl pressers, turntable cartridge makers, electric companies, and the power grid and all of the rest of our modern infrastructure—and musicians!), I’m wary of getting into a position from which I might have to calculate what either my love of music or my sense of right and wrong is worth in time, money, and frustration. I’m still clinging to ownership because for me, having files on my hard drive does a better job of preserving illusions of freedom and control.
What would happen if one day, after months or years of using the service, I decided I wanted to leave Spotify? Maybe I’d be sick of paying for their service, or perhaps they’d do something policy-wise that would anger me to the point of no longer wishing to support them (with money or with attention). In that hypothetical future moment, I would find myself trapped between principle and passion; I would be forced to choose between betraying either one or the other, and both seem too important to sacrifice. My “choice” would be to keep driving down the spoiled Spoti-Highway or to total the car by driving off the road, the missing albums and broken playlists like so much twisted metal and shattered glass.
In a certain technoutopian view of the future, we are headed toward a postproperty world. The shift from ownership to access is supposed to liberate us, enable greater sharing of resources, fuel human creativity, create more prosperity, and lead to greater equality. What we so often forget to ask, however, is who controls access? Who builds the highways?
The “more” I want, and that which Spotify can’t offer me, is this: I want to have (and hold, and send) my music files without contingency, without ongoing dependence on an intermediary. I want to share music with all my friends, whether or not they’re on Spotify; I want to share all my music, whether or not it’s on Spotify. I want to take that album I just discovered and copy it to a flash drive and send it across the country, and I want my friend who receives those music files to be able to share them, remix them, convert them to a different format if he so desires, keep that music in circulation. I want the band that recorded the album to pile into a decrepit gearpacked van, tour into my friend’s town, and find a cluster of people eager to come to their show, buy their merchandise, offer them crash space. I want us all to be able to build our own roads.
Many people would call this anarchistic circulation of music files “piracy,” which is precisely the sort of behavior Spotify is supposed to curtail. The story is that listeners get increased ease of use and musicians get paid for their work. Everyone wins. But the title of a blog post by Dan Reitz says it all: “Spotify? Not much better than piracy. Sorry.” And as self-identified “blue-collar musician” Derek Webb points out in his essay, “Giving It Away: How Free Music Makes More Than Sense,” Spotify offers him neither meaningful revenue nor meaningful connection with his fans. It’s relationship over time, Webb says, that generates most of his income from music. If as few as 20 percent of the people who now receive his music free of charge purchase subsequent releases from him in the future, he’s done quite well for himself. Spotify, however, inserts itself as an intermediary in the relationship between Webb and his fans: The fans pay Spotify for access to Webb’s music and so feel as though they’ve done him no harm, but Webb receives a paltry sum from Spotify and, more important, receives no information about who or where his fans are. “So please buy my music … or take it for free,” Webb says, “but this only works if we work together.” In this sense, Spotify is music made antisocial. The highway connects listeners to Spotify, but Webb walks on the shoulder without a map.
A few days ago, I took the plunge and signed up for a free 30-day trial of Spotify Premium (ironically, for the purpose of this essay). In that time, I have indeed discovered two bands I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise; I’ve discovered a couple of others through looking at what my Spotifriends are listening to. But where I’d feared being dangerously tempted, even hypnotized, by the shiny veneer of Spotify’s too-perfect world, what I’ve most been struck by is everything that isn’t a part of Spotify. It turns out that in the Spotilibrary plus local files equation, the local files are the more significant piece. Local files are the second-class citizens of Spotify Nation: You cannot send them to your friends, and you cannot scrobble your local listening habits with them. Social though Spotify may be, you must enjoy your outcast songs alone.
Though Spotify promises to make musical community—and social capital—so easily available, these perks are only accessible when you stay on the Spoti-Highway. You’re welcome to pull over and go for a hike through the wilderness (if you really want to), but you’ll be going on that hike by yourself.
Being on Spotify also isn’t as social as I’d imagined it would be. Joining Spotify does not automatically trigger an inbox full of tracks pinned to excited messages about how awesome an obscure new band is, even when your friends have spent weeks pushing you to sign up. It feels neither like receiving a flash drive in the mail nor like taking turns at a turntable for hours on end. I thought succumbing to Spotification would be like walking onto a digital version of that summer porch where my favorite friends listen to (and argue about) music late into the night, but it’s more like lurking outside some of my friends’ windows to peep at what they’re playing, and then quietly skittering off through the bushes. The truth is that while Spotify may be “social,” it’s not very personal.
One friend says that scrobbling is “donating your taste to a generalized other,” but I still feel like a creepy stalker every time I click on his (or anyone else’s) activity in my feed; social discovery sans dialogue remains deeply disconcerting. Perhaps I’m thrown, too, by the experience of becoming a “generalized other”—one of many who will weed through someone’s stream of songs, rather than a specific friend to whom particular albums are sent. It feels as though Spotify stands between my friends and myself, just as it stands between Derek Webb and his fans.
There is something to be said for sharing music, to be sure. But there’s also something to be said both for the labor of sharing intentionally, and for the range of possibilities enabled by scattered, messy, redundant local storage. Spotify makes music social, but on its own terms. It offers enough music to keep us sated and docile (and paying), pacified by infinite variety and miraculous ease of use, while it builds highways that ultimately serve its own interests—by connecting all of us to itself rather than one another. There is nothing surprising about this; Spotify is a business, after all. But a business is not a utopia, and it is not a substitute for direct connection to the people and places that make the music you love. I still prefer to cobble my own roads in the world outside Spotify’s garden.
And I know, I know: There’s an irony here. I cling to the chaos of my local music (both analog and digital) in much the same way that analog purists cling to the messy, dirty authenticity of their vinyl-only collections. In some ways, I refuse to give up local ownership of my digital music files for the same reason others once railed against digital music most generally.subscribe to TNI for $2 and get Vol. 9 today
For me, digital and analog have never been mutually exclusive. The house I grew up in had a turntable and also a cassette deck and also a CD changer, all stacked atop a giant speaker cabinet powerful enough to turn any of these formats into window-rattling walls of sound. (Thanks, Dad.) What records and tapes and CDs—and yes, even local mp3 files—have in common is that, for all their different aesthetics and affordances, they are formats that leave me in control of how, and when, and with whom I use them. A record doesn’t complain if I loan it to a friend (any friend) for a weekend; an mp3 is happy to be emailed or copied to a thumb drive or even burned to disk so that it can be played through an older car stereo. Music files in any of these formats will do what I ask of them until the physical media that hold them degrade or until the digital encodings that carry their messages become corrupted. I am in control.
But files in the privatized, corporate cloud are different. Just as local files can’t get on the Spoti-Highway, Spotify files can’t get off the Spoti-Highway. Spotify remains in control, no matter what—and in doing so inserts itself not just between musicians and fans, and not just between individual music enthusiasts, but between me and the music itself.