What is Spotify's Place in Music Listening and Distribution?

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Back in 2011, I had a subscription to Apple’s early attempts at a music subscription service; iTunes Match. The premise was simple; for a small, yearly fee, all of my music – even non-purchased tracks - would be uploaded to Apple’s servers for downloading onto my other devices. Any tracks available on the iTunes store were replaced with that version, and the rest were stored as-is. It blew my mind at the time. A few years later, I was messing around with more permanent and dependable music storage options, and had also discovered Pandora, a streaming service more like a DJ than Spotify, except that the DJ didn’t take requests but learned what you like over time and played more of it. I had no further use for iTunes Match.

Fast forward to 2018, and we now have a plethora of choice re: playing music. Spotify is probably the first thing that comes to peoples minds, but there also YouTube, Apple Music, buying from iTunes (my personal go-to), ripping from CDs, ripping from YouTube, Spotify rivals like Tidal, and of course, the always dependable piracy.

Though how good are these options, really? Is streaming (paid or free) any better than buying music from iTunes? Is iTunes any better than downloading for free from YouTube or other sources? Why would anyone even bother with getting music in any other way if premium streaming subscriptions offer unlimited listening and unlimited tracks, with no ads, whenever and wherever you want it? I guess if you’re as shallow as a puddle and your critical thinking skills begin and end at believing whatever the company’s marketing tells you, then yes, it is an excellent deal and you should switch your entire collection over right away.

However, if you’re looking for any sort of dependability in your music collection, then Spotify should be a secondary channel at best. In fact, any streaming service is an unwise choice as a primary personal music repository. The reason is twofold; exclusivity deals (leading to content fragmentation), and licensing issues (leading to a lack of permanence) – though the two aren’t unrelated.

Mega pop star Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify a few years ago due to a disagreement with the company. Anyone wanting to listen to her music alongside other tracks on Spotify was sorely out of luck for the few years that she was absent from the service. It might sound like a non-issue if you aren’t a Taylor Swift fan, but her (or her labels) decision to pull out from Spotify affected millions of fans worldwide, fans who just wanted to enjoy her music. So if Taylor Swift could do it, why couldn’t any other artist? What, exactly, is keeping your or my favorite artists from pulling their music from Spotify?

Related: What is Spotify's place in music listening and distribution?

You’re not buying, you’re renting

This might sound obvious, but when you pay for a subscription service, you aren’t paying for item x, y, or z. You’re paying for access to that service, no matter what it actually contains. If the service one day doesn’t contain one of your favorite things, then that’s too bad. You aren’t paying for access to that thing specifically, so there’s nothing you can do about it. This isn’t much of a problem with video streaming services like Netflix or Hulu or Amazon, since users can easily switch between them to watch the content they want to watch. Further, it’s unlikely that most people want to watch most movies or TV shows more than a handful of times. By contrast, music is often played dozens or hundreds of times over many years.

Switching between apps to play 3-5 minute tracks, also, is a much bigger deal. Who wants to put a stop and switch between apps to hear a certain song or album? Who wants to do that possibly multiple times in a 10 minute period? I’d wager very few people would be okay with living that way.

You’re not buying, you’re renting - part 2

Just like you aren’t guaranteed access to any particular artist or song, the streaming service isn’t guaranteed, either. Streaming services of all kinds rely on content licensing deals, which are far from absolute. Once a licensing period expires, then it’s up to the content owner to either continue their partnership with a streaming service, or pull their content from the platform. Just like in the Taylor Swift/Spotify case; once that happens, customers lose access, no matter what they do. Anyone relying on a streaming service to give them access to any kind of content is relinquishing their agency to a person or company who not only does not care about them, but does not even know that they exist. More likely than not, these decisions are done in the interest of profit. No customers interests are represented here. We’ve done quite a bit of writing on the topic of companies not caring about customers interests, which you can read here.

Related: Regain control of your life - with a home NAS

Spotify’s Place in music

So what is Spotify’s place in streaming music? Taking into account that you are guaranteed access to nothing, that any track can be pulled at any time, and that music streaming services in general often don’t even have every song one might want to hear, I’d keep Spotify around for nothing more than secondary listening activities. It is suitable for nothing more.

Unless you’re someone who only cares to hear a track a handful of times before moving on, keeping a primary collection on something more reliably permanent is something I’d recommend.

I almost exclusively use Spotify for its shareable curated third-party playlists. Sharing music with friends is a snap and I love using them when gaming on PS4.

However, I manage my primary collection on my home network server, controlled only by me, and synced onto my smartphone via a music app. If a service shuts down, a licensing deal falls through, or an artist simply changes their mind, I am unaffected. The music file is under my personal control and there is nothing the artist can do about it.

I’m not a fan of relying on outside services for something that’s so basic and important to me, and this is one of the ways in which I exercise that belief. My music is originally purchased through iTunes, before being moved to my server, so the artist is compensated in any case.