Spotify as the new music medium
Media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman used a biological metaphor to explain media ecology. In biology the medium is defined as a substance within which a culture grows. When you replace the world substance with technology, the same fundamental principals apply. The medium is a technology from which human culture grows, interacting with politics, ideologies and social organisation (Postman, 1992).
Technology, as defined by Dictionary.com, “is the sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilisation” (Dictionary.com, N.d.). In this instance, I’ll explore the relatively new medium of music streaming platforms such as Spotify.
Through the development of postmodern societies, especially when considering the internet driven Generation Z, subscribing to streaming platforms for media has become more dominant than owning the media itself. Music platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music have led the way for a new media industry that has emerged from the digitalisation of the production process and the convergence of media production and distribution systems (Lozic, 2020).
What makes applications like Spotify so powerful, is not their access to seemingly endless amounts of content, but more so, their capacity too successfully deliver that content. This falls in line with with the views expressed by Marshal McLuhan (1967) in his work, “The medium is the message.” Here he believes that mediums change the scale of interaction and reshape the content they deliver.
One thing that marked a fundamental change with music streaming, was the ability for users to access music while on the go. This marked a complete change in habits of how society listened to music. (Denegri-Knott, 2015). Choosing and listening to music is now possible in everyday activities such as work, travel, exercise and socialising. The consumption of music has become a personalised activity and musical taste is now separated from any class affiliation (Wright, 2015).
Through their choice of music, individuals are now able to sync their musical experiences to moods, emotions and real life events. The move towards mobility and choice reflects a modern trend towards using technology to mediate and manage everyday experiences (Fassler, 2020).
On the flip side, having this ability can encourage individuals to disconnect from the outer world and turn their attention inward. As Michael Bull writes, “the transformation of subjectivity through the use of new communication technologies potentially decreases the capacity of subjects to disconnect from their intoxicating use” (2007, p9). Applications like Spotify can therefore blur the lines between subjectivity and media (Fassler, 2020).
By providing unrestricted access to a vast on-demand catalogue, Spotify does seem to democratise society’s relationship with music, which may align with the ideology surrounding the Critical Theory of Technology, where the goal is to promote moral values, equality and social justice (Paulson, 2015). We must also consider however, the design and technological capabilities of Spotify also tethers the users identify and experience directly to the medium.
Although users can access music for free, to have ownership and control over their library they must subscribe to the premium service. When that subscriptions ends, or the user changes platform, the archived material is gone. In his piece on book collecting, Walter Benjamin (1931) suggests that ownership is key to creating an attachment to your collection (Deeb, 2015). The digitalisation of music never truly allows you to own your catalogue like we use to with a physical product.
From the content creator point of view, there is also much debate about this technology. In recent times prominent artists such as Taylor Swift and The Black Keys have begun speaking out about this service, some even withholding their music from the service entirely, explaining that the payment model for creators is unfair (Tiffany 2009). Other artists praise the service for its ability to deliver a legal alternative to piracy, where artists can capture valuable information about their listeners and are compensated on a per-play basis (Swanson, 2013).
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek commented in 2020 that “some artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape, where you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough” (Randall, 2021). Needless to say, a vocal number of independent artists didn’t appreciate career advice from an executive who accrued his $3.4 billion in wealth by monetising their art (Forbes, 2021).
Spotify is owned, in part, by Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music, whose continued growth is tied to the success of the streaming giant. In 2020, overall music revenue increased 9.2% over 2019 to $12.2 billion and streaming accounted for 83% of U.S. recorded music income (Friedlander, 2021).
For some artists, this is a controlled environment, where power structures are still very much at play. A Technocratic model of control, designed in isolation from the community and privileging authority and expertise (Paulson, 2015). For others it’s a democratic model of communication allowing independent artists to share their music to larger audiences than ever before. Is Spotify moral? That decision may well lie in the hands of the user.
For the consumer it may represent choice, freedom, immediacy and convenience. For others it may feel like been cheated and bluffed into a never ending algorithm, pushing suggested musical choices to our devices on a daily basis, all for the small sum of $11.99 per month. You can be rest assured however, that on average, between $0.00318 and $0.00783 is going to the content creator every time you play their song (Fitzjohn, 2021).
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Fassler, A. (2020). Soundtrack your life with Spotify: music as a technology of the self in the age of affective algorithms (Doctoral Thesis). Retrieved from https://digitalwindow.vassar.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2051&context=senior_capstone
Fitzjohn, S. (2021). Streaming payouts per platform. Retrieved from https://producerhive.com/music-marketing-tips/streaming-royalties-breakdown/
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Randall, R. (2021). Does Spotify pay artists a fair rate? Here’s what musicians, managers and Apple Music have to say. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2021-04-19/spotify-artists-royalty-rate-apple-music
Streaming Royalty Rates. [image]. (2021). Retrieved from https://producerhive.com/music-marketing-tips/streaming-royalties-breakdown/
Swanson, K. (2013). A Case Study on Spotify: Exploring Perceptions of the Music Streaming Service. MEIEA Journal, 13(1).
Tiffany, K. (2017). A history of Taylor Swift’s odd, conflicting stances on streaming services. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/9/15767986/taylor-swift-apple-music-spotify-statements-timeline
Wright, D. (2015). Understanding cultural taste: Sensation, skill and sensibility. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.