10 Years of Talking to People About Spotify

I’ve been working on research in some capacity since 2012. I started doing research in the first place because I had questions, and the questions I wanted to answer largely had to do with music, how we listen to it, and what we spend on it (or don’t). As someone who started buying CDs and then records relatively early in life (I proudly bought my first Interpol album in seventh grade), I wanted to know what compelled others to buy physical records and what associations they had with the physical elements of music fandom.

Initially, though, I focused on how publicity worked to get attention to artists; how does the corporate machine help people find music or not? My hypothesis was that people had to learn about artists in meaningful ways to want to buy physical copies of records. But right when I started doing this research in 2012, something else happened: Spotify became widely available in the US, and it was available for free (despite an initial threat that free users would only get to listen to a maximum of 10 hours a month, lol). It quickly became apparent that Spotify was going to change music listening — and my research questions. Almost instantly, it became a matter of accessing music, not owning it. One quote that still sticks with me, from the earliest days of these interviews: “Whether digital or physical, you still have a collection of music. As long as it is accessible, I don’t care.” The question, for many consumers, has never been about what an artist gets; it is all about the consumer benefit and, most notably, the consumer convenience.

That’s not to say that ownership of music wasn’t a consideration for some of my participants. In those early days of streaming, people I interviewed were grappling with what it meant to be a fan who accessed music only through digital means, a fan who could not refer to a large physical media collection. People would try to draw comparisons between the hardware (their computer, their iPod) and a CD. That comparison, though, just never works. Instead, people came back (and still do) to what the technology itself affords them. This meant, and still means, convenience and speed. In 2013, a respondent said, “Everything is instant. You want music now, just like everything else.” Music was (and is) something else that, with the growth of the internet, felt like it should be instantly available and available with little effort.

Another key contextual piece here is that Spotify came out just beyond peak Napster/Kazaa/Limewire — and with P2P file-sharing, people had had their first taste of that instant, free music that Spotify seemed to be offering. And Spotify offered it without the risk of viruses or legal action. In the interviews I’ve conducted more recently, people are still dealing with the fact that, essentially, Spotify has not really turned out to be an improvement over Napster, at least not from an ethical consumption standpoint. Now, in most cases, the (major) labels are making money off of the music — but the artists still aren’t.

One of the things that stands out the most from my more recent interviews is the people who wonder if we should have just kept using our Limewires and our Kazaas. In that instance, quite a few people have reasoned, we’d still be screwing artists, but at least we wouldn’t be pretending to pay them or benefit them, the way we often do now. In many ways, according to my participants, Limewire was a purer version of what Spotify has become.

Another aspect of this we have to consider is Spotify was also introduced as a competitor to iTunes (not Apple Music): People didn’t want to pay $0.99 for a song or $9.99 for a digital album. Apple still uses a $0.69 strategy to promote some songs, but people I interview would consistently rather pay for access than ownership. In part, this is because there is no real sense of ownership of a digital file. Spending a single dollar for something that exists online-only or through a piece of hardware just isn’t the same as having a physical CD, even if that CD has only one song. It’s why the hardware vs. object comparison never works. Why spend $9.99 for a single album (with no physical component and therefore nothing to show for it), when that same amount gets you access to everything and then some on another service?

This is also why, in my opinion and from my research, NFTs are almost certainly never going to take off for a general public (or it is going to take a very, very long time to get there). We want to touch the things we own, especially when we spend large sums of money on those things. My interviews suggest this over and over again. When people bought songs off of iTunes, they didn’t feel like they owned them. Of course this meant they were going to turn to something like Spotify, which was open about the lack of ownership. Spotify never tried to convince anyone that you owned anything. Convenience is the true good for sale.

These interviews have changed drastically over the years, especially in the last year. As I’ve revisited this research question more seriously, people I interview now always have a lingering sense of guilt. Nearly every person I’ve interviewed in the last six months has made some mention of knowing Spotify is bad for artists — but they also admit they don’t know what else to do. Can your everyday consumer realistically buy every album they want to own? Most of the people I talked to seem to feel defeated in this and accept that, if they want to listen to music, they’re going to stick with what they know — or choose an option that is hardly more ethical (YouTube, Pandora, Amazon, etc.).

One way people do try to mitigate their feelings of guilt is to spend money in other ways. It is interesting to see how consumers have bought into the idea that merchandise and physical sales can overcome the deficits Spotify creates, especially in the wake of COVID-19 and fewer live shows (and therefore ticket sales). This was a trend when I did my initial interviews in 2012 — people would buy the shirts, posters, whatever was offered by their favorite bands (I personally am a sucker for this — I have almost an entire wardrobe just from bands like Soft Kill and Drab Majesty; I also preorder vinyl all the time). The people I talked to knew that paying for shirts and tickets was a way to support the bands they loved. This trend remains the same today, but supporting one band doesn’t counter the nonstop, essentially free streaming on Spotify.

It is also important to point out how Spotify is smart with how it interacts with and engages consumers. What other platform has given our data back to us in a way that feels so shareable and interesting? We want information on ourselves; we’re selfish, and Spotify gives us what we want. But we forget this social nature of Spotify — it’s really another social media platform, and one that collects incredible amounts of information from us. Every time you pay your premium account, you are also consenting to a massive amount of data collection — and the bands you love are aiding in that data collection without profiting from it at all.

Streaming has never been and can never be a long-term solution for music consumption. Neil Young can switch from Spotify to Amazon, sure, but we can’t be fooled into thinking Amazon is any more righteous or forward thinking as a platform. Is Amazon really going to pay a fairer amount per stream? But Amazon, Spotify, Apple, Pandora — they are catering to the consumers, not the artists.

A lingering question: We can attempt to cancel individuals, but can we cancel entire platforms? Artists can move from one streaming service to another, but we have already seen that individuals have bandwidth to subscribe to multiple platforms. Students in my mass media analysis class always marvel at the fact that television streaming is essentially cable (when you combine your Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime and HBOMax and so on) — and I don’t see, from the interviews I’ve conducted, that individuals have any reason to commit to only one music streaming platform when they are capable of managing multiple media subscriptions. In fact, many people I’ve spoken with are already doing this: They have Pandora subscriptions and Spotify Premium, or they have Spotify Premium and Apple Music. At the end of the day, a lot of listeners will go where the music is — and for now, much of that music is going to stay on Spotify unless the listeners themselves demand more for the artists.