iStock (iStock/iStock)
Pop music critic

For listeners, the world of streaming music should feel a little bit like utopia — a magical place where we can access millions of songs instantly and effortlessly. So why is everybody so freaked out about it?

Our anxiety seems to surge in waves. The first big one came a few years back when we learned that a single stream on Spotify earned our favorite artists mere microns of a penny. Last year, a second wave of worry began to crash — the nagging hunch that streaming platforms were impoverishing our listening, transforming us into passive consumers who no longer gave unfamiliar sounds the time they needed to bend our brains.

A third wave came last month when Spotify filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange, confirming the Swedish company’s dominance as the most-used streaming platform, with 159 million active users, including 71 million paid subscriptions at the end of 2017, according to the New York Times. But Spotify has always seen itself as something bigger than the world’s premier music library. In 2014, founder Daniel Ek explained his company’s philosophy in the pages of the New Yorker like so: “We’re not in the music space — we’re in the moment space.”

It’s distressing to be reminded that the world is filled with corporations that will work relentlessly to monetize every moment of our lives — especially because those moments are finite. And I think this is where our underlying angst over streaming originates. Listening to music on streaming platforms ultimately reminds us that there are lifetimes upon lifetimes of recorded sound that we won’t live long enough to hear.

And unlike us, our most beloved songs no longer require a physical form. Music used to be something we owned — discs or cartridges that we could touch, collect, swap and treasure. Now, having ascended into the digital cloud, recorded music has become something we experience. The act of streaming transforms music from a noun into a verb, a thing into an activity.

Through all of this, it’s still important to remember that Spotify isn’t the same thing as streaming, just as consumers are not the same thing as listeners. And as consumers, we have every right to be perturbed about how this new mode of music circulation only perpetuates the worst practices of the music industry — especially when it comes to Spotify.

We already knew that Spotify’s royalty rates were objectionable, and we knew that its algorithm-generated playlists often feel like mix tapes made by bots. Then, in December, thanks to an outstanding article in the Baffler by the music journalist Liz Pelly, we suddenly knew a lot more. We learned that Spotify games its search function so that it’s easier for users to find the work of certain artists on a Spotify-branded playlist than it is to locate the artists’ actual albums. We also learned that major corporations have been adding songs to their branded Spotify playlists without the consent of the artists and without compensating them.

Pelly came up with the perfect phrase for that second tactic: “the automation of selling out.” And she’s right to ring the alarm over it. The fact that multinational corporations such as Nike and Starbucks can use a musician’s work to legitimize their brands in exchange for nothing other than exposure is exploitative and unconscionable.

What I’m less worried about, however, is the mounting concern over Spotify’s favoritism toward anodyne sounds, and how the platform populates its playlists with non-disruptive styles of music to keep listeners from logging off. “Spotify loves ‘chill’ playlists,” Pelly writes. “They’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect.”

Yes, that’s gross, but isn’t that how the music industry has always done business? In a marketplace shaped by corporate interests, blandness always thrives — from Muzak to corporate radio to MTV to Spotify.

Knowing that, we as listeners always have the option to break away and find alternative platforms that better suit our ethics and our aesthetics. (Many fans have found refuge on Bandcamp, an artist-friendly streaming site where the musicians set their own prices and get a bigger slice of the profits.)

The point is this: If you’re an intrepid listener, the endless array of brain-chilling playlists promoted on Spotify aren’t being aimed at you. Streaming numbs only consumers who have paid to feel that way.

Plus, the harder Spotify tries to get us to zone out, the greater the opportunity we have to sharpen our attention, to cultivate the intimacy of our listening, to better discern whether we’re being switched on or marketed to. That might seem like a lot of extra work for listeners who already feel overwhelmed by the infinite choices that streaming platforms provide, but it’s simply a continuation of how we’ve always lived. We used to turn on the radio and wade through an ambient slush of bad songs in hopes of catching the good one. Once upon a time, we were hunter-gatherers, roaming the landscape, trying to figure out which berries wouldn’t kill us.

I like how people talk about the entirety of recorded music as if it were a valley, or a forest, or a jungle, or an ocean — an unmapped terrain, waiting to be explored. But I think it’s even more apt that our music now lives in a “cloud.” The word evokes an unmappable three-dimensional space, as well as a meteorological event. Tech types brag about our transition into this space as an advance, but for listeners, streaming music from the cloud can feel like a grand return.

Because before we had the machinery to record it, and the factories to mass-produce those recordings, and the infrastructure to distribute them across the land, we had no choice but to encounter music where it truly lives: in the fleeting present.

It’s good to remember that every recorded song you’ve ever known — whether it was broadcast on a radio wave, etched into a disc or streamed on the little computer in your back pocket — has always disappeared into the irretrievable past. When we stream music, we allow music to return to that original state, an unknowable vibration of air that vanishes as quickly as it appeared.

Disclosure: The writer has made music in various bands that are available on the platforms mentioned in this article.