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On Quitting Spotify
This song reminds me of you
Every music obsessive I know hates Spotify; nearly every music obsessive I know is also on there pretty much all the time. I myself have been using Spotify for more than a decade (check out this playlist I made when I was 14!), but even though I’ve made like 600 playlists on there I’ve never exactly felt comfortable with the platform and how it has shaped my experience of listening to music.
That’s why I was so excited when Izzy Ampil pitched me this story on quitting Spotify in favor of CDs & radio. It’s a love letter to complex, friction-heavy modes of listening – of what the idiosyncrasies of different music technologies do for our appreciation of music. There is also a sick playlist at the end.
Also, if you’re in SF, we’ll be at Lit Crawl today (Saturday 10/21)! We’ll be reading at Noisebridge from 6:30-7:30pm. Come say hi!
—Jacob Kuppermann, Reboot Editorial Board
💿 On Quitting Spotify
By Izzy Ampil
In May, I burst into lunch full of ideas. I was going to quit Spotify, I told my boyfriend, because I’d finally had enough of the platform’s invasive tastemaking, the onslaught of features meant to spoon-feed me everything I could possibly want to listen to, which in reality mostly served me the latest single from Arlo Parks’ new album, which I did not like and did not want to listen to. I had done everything I could within the confines of the platform, I argued, to resist the way it nudged me toward lazy forms of discovery and listening. I turned off Autoplay and Smart Shuffle; I never listened to Discover Weekly. I researched albums through every non-Spotify avenue I could think of—Twitter, magazines, publicity releases, the occasional scroll through Rate Your Music and last.fm—and then I saved them to play on loop, no skips. But I was ready to take a more radical step. I was going to quit Spotify—and then get really into CDs.
“Wow,” my boyfriend said. “You’ll hate that.”
Every single other person in my life agreed. My beloved roommate offered, insightfully, “That’s stupid.” My dad haha-reacted to my text message and told me he’d send me streaming sites with higher sound quality than CDs. Other objections included: I would amass a lot of shit, which conflicts with my anticonsumerist values and peripatetic lifestyle; I would spend a lot of money, which is not merely irresponsible but potentially impossible on a publishing intern–slash–freelance writer’s hourly wage; if I was determined to buy CDs secondhand, which I was, I wouldn’t even be supporting any artists, unlike my Spotify-using friends who were funneling micropennies toward their favorite bands with every stream. All good points, though no match for my stubbornness. Against everybody’s better judgment, I jumped in.
Still, I did have some proof of concept: During my pandemic-stricken senior year of college, I nursed an emotional dependence on a lone CD of Elliott Smith’s Figure 8, which I played on loop in my aunt’s RAV4 as I drove across the country, visiting friends from the far ends of their driveways. In three months, I listened to it fifty times at least. And I loved it. The severely limited, unshuffleable nature of the CD led me to metabolize music differently, more physically—as one track faded, my stomach lurched into the next, anticipating the opening riffs of the song I knew was coming. On the long, serviceless stretches of I-70, pink with Utah’s desert dust, I felt totally alone: no texts trickling in, no gas for hours. I burrowed deep inside the album, noticing its nooks and crannies with a granularity I otherwise would not have reached.
Years before, I’d tried to get into Elliott Smith via Spotify multiple times, but I kept zoning out during the dense, slow ballads, moving onto something friendlier that I already knew I liked. The CD forced me to stick with it. I acquired an intimate knowledge of the album that felt almost familial: something I had not chosen, but which I could not replace.
Optimizing for frictionlessness
For nearly a decade, arguably since the launch of Discover Weekly in 2015, Spotify’s mission has been to operate not only as the host for its users’ music libraries, but as the primary curator of them. At this, it has been vaingloriously successful. According to the company’s own reports, algorithmic recommendations “drive close to half of all users’ streams.” (Although it’s true that streaming fraud—the artificial inflation of a song’s statistics via hacked accounts or bot networks—is a problem prevalent enough to cast some doubt on Spotify’s data.) This is exactly the kind of fact that alarms me, that makes me feel the need to jettison Spotify and its smug self-sufficiency in favor of music recommendation that is slower, less convenient, and riddled with human eccentricity.
I am, admittedly, prone to a form of “algorithmic anxiety,” a term coined by social computing scholar Shagun Jhaver in 2018 to name the frustration of Airbnb hosts who couldn’t attract customers. Said hosts attributed their successes or failures to “the algorithm,” the opaque system of back-end Airbnb formulas that ordered search results by relevance. They developed “folk theories” for why their listings showed up first or last, desperate to appease the ghost in the machine.
More recently, The New Yorker’s Kyle Chayka retooled the term to refer to an anxiety that afflicts cultural consumers concerned that they are buying whatever TikTok and Instagram tell them to, acquiring a wardrobe or set of interior decor that feels more avant-basic than idiosyncratic. In this version of algorithmic anxiety, consumers feel like their personal expression—the material essence of their identity—has been wrested out of their control by social media algorithms working on behalf of marketers, scraping out the strange and soulful elements of their closets and stocking them instead with rote, mass-produced junk. That is as good a description as any of what I feel Spotify has done to me.
But as Daniel Cohen, an editor at The London Review of Books, points out, there is “a tendency, when talking about a platform like Spotify … to refer to ‘the algorithm’, as if a single formula determines what each person is recommended.” In reality, streaming services like Spotify use dozens of different algorithms, some developed in-house and some licensed from third parties, to calibrate their users’ tastes. By definition, “algorithmic anxiety” necessitates an oversimplification, an unwillingness or inability to understand exactly how our attention is being measured and remodeled. Resisting such forces requires a more intimate and rigorous analysis of how these algorithms actually work.
In Computing Taste: Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation, anthropologist Nick Seaver writes about a paradigm shift in the world of music recommendation: from prediction to captivation. Predictive algorithms, which gained popularity in the 2000s, use data from a user’s history to infer what future content the user might like. But taste rarely remains fixed. The problem with prediction, in Seaver’s words, is that “projecting past data into the future may foreclose on the possibility of transformation.” Yes, I thought, that’s exactly it! Spotify’s recommendations are too limiting, too safe—they are backwards-looking, refusing to let my tastes grow out and get unruly.
But I was wrong, because as it turns out, by the mid-2010s, predictive ratings were out, and captivation metrics were in. Measurements like “dwell time”—the length of a user’s session—became the holy grail of recommender systems, which now sought to maximize user engagement as a proxy for enjoyment. Unfortunately, this created an even more insidious mode of recommendation than I expected. As Seaver writes, “Capturing attention in practice often meant encircling it and then fading away from conscious awareness, producing situations in which listeners would keep listening, no matter what else they might be doing.” From a business standpoint, background listening became the optimal form of consumer engagement. It’s why Spotify spent hundreds of million dollars on podcast acquisitions in 2019. It’s why the platform is besieged with podcasts devoted specifically to white noise—no music, no talking—that rake in up to 3 million hours of engagement every day.
But from my perspective as a music listener, it’s maddening that Spotify optimizes for frictionlessness. I don’t want legible, unobtrusive art that plays politely in the background, generating ad revenue for Spotify and positive customer retention metrics for its inventors. I want art that gives me friction. A surprising, challenging confrontation with someone else’s view of the world. An entry point into human existence I would have never discovered on my own.
So I bought CDs. But here is a problem with CDs that nobody warned me about, with apologies to anyone even a few years older than me who might find this revelation offensively zoomeresque in its naïveté: CDs skip. After a walk to my friend’s apartment, during which I heard every other word of The Shins’ Oh, Inverted World because my CD player was getting jostled in my pocket, I realized the charming inconvenience of CDs would only go so far vis-à-vis changing my listening habits. It would not, for instance, induce me to go on long walks in the park, gently cradling my CD player in both hands so it didn’t shake, in order to get my music fix.
At my desk or in my bed, I still loved CDs: the whir and rattle of them, the lovely silence after an album ended when I could let the music seep pensively in. But on the train and on the go, I turned to radio. My friend sent me the station WFMU, which immediately produced a dozen thrilling songs that did not even exist on Spotify. I started poking around NTS and the Lot, stations I’d heard of but hadn’t bothered to spend meaningful time on because I never needed to.
I loved the radio—or rather, these streamable versions of the radio, which live at the perfect nexus of old-fashioned crate-digging and contemporary convenience. I loved getting Filipino rap and Memphis phonk from a free app on my skipless phone. I loved the plush quiet of the sound booth the hosts recorded in, the crispness of their lips against the mesh of the microphone. I loved the hosts’ banter with each other and with their fans on Discord.
It was still a streaming service, sure, but it felt like the opposite of Spotify, for better and for worse. It was corporeal, communal, and served up by people whose laboriously constructed taste was irreducible. It was also actively antagonistic to the mission of saving a song. If I liked a song on NTS, I’d have to wait for a rare interjection from the DJ, and then root through the un-timestamped tracklists in search of what I’d liked eleven minutes ago.
But it was unexpectedly fulfilling to reencounter the labor of searching for a beautiful song before it slips away. Tracking down Victoria Monét’s “Big Boss (Instrumental),” nestled between old jazz standards, I felt a rush of recognition: latent in the hymnal wash were the slick grooves of “Coastin’,” the squelching bass of “On My Mama.” The fingerprints of Monét’s distinctive style were there; I only had to stop to consider them.
The serendipity of discovery—it is something only truly possible outside of Spotify, which collapses the distance between exploration and curation. Being plied with songs that I’m supposed to like will never match the satisfaction of plucking a song I like out of the ether, only to unearth its hidden familiarities. That is, after all, how taste is made: by recognizing the connections between disparate likes—and then naming them.
You Sound Beautiful
So this is what I wanted: not a total abandonment of technology but a diversification of its pleasures. Multiple modes of listening that contradicted and supplemented each other, that would show me what I was missing from the others and give me new frameworks for discovering what I loved about music in the first place. Friction that made me pay greater attention.
I’ll leave you with one more memory of music from this month. In my weeks without Spotify I went down other rabbit holes I don’t have time to tell you about—record store trawling, stoop hunting, clubbing, going to shows, recording music myself and replaying the voice memos. But the one that gut-punched me hardest was a night I spent on YouTube.
In general, I decided that streaming audio on YouTube was cheating, but hunting down music videos, live performances, covers—formats otherwise inaccessible on Spotify—counted as fair game. I watched Jeff Buckley croon “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” two years before he died, Kali Uchis cover Björk’s “Venus as a Boy” for “Like a Version,” and then Adrianne Lenker at the First Congregational Church of LA. I was, admittedly, online shopping in another tab, as the videos I queued slunk into each other in the background—then, something stopped me. An outburst of cheering, quickly stifled: Lenker had slid from tuning her guitar into casually riffing into the familiar first chords of “anything,” and the audience cried out with anticipation. Lenker smiled, cradled the guitar between her legs, hummed her fingers over the fretboard in a lush whisper. It was deft, extraordinary; I restarted the video so I could feel the shift again.
Lenker spends the first minute of the video tuning her guitar, one string at a time, nothing special. She flicks a few chords off of the strings, idly experimenting, then a few more; she slips up for a moment, playing briefly out of key, but soon enough she’s winding down the fretboard and back up, losing herself in arpeggios that recall Arooj Aftab, lingering on the last notes, plunging unceremoniously into her beloved song—Watching it again, I see it takes the audience a second to realize something has shifted, the song has started; there is a delay between the first bars of “anything” and the cheering that swells and fast subsides. But then the collective eagerness sucks me toward Lenker and her tiny altar.
The sound quality is shit, of course—this is someone’s iPhone video in illustrious 480p, and sometimes the right-side speaker of my laptop cuts out as though their hand has slipped over the microphone—and later in the video Lenker even invites the audience to sing along, which they do, loudly. This is an objectively terrible way to consume music as a music lover, and yet it is entrancing, breathless. I don’t feel like I’m there; if anything, I feel the layers of distance between me and this performance, the fact that I will never know who it is singing along, who took the video, who stood in front of them, who held their hand after the show. But I am conscious, through the friction—the background noise, the shaky frame—of the way other people love this song, of the physical and communal elements of sharing music even as I engage with it digitally and alone.
“You sound beautiful,” says Lenker, and the audience laughs, dims itself again. Lenker harmonizes with them and not the other way around. It makes me cry. It makes me notice, hungrily, all the details I can absorb: the audience member singing along in his untrained voice, coarse and unmodulated, his devoted lowing so lovely alongside Lenker’s lilting restraint; the sweeping blue apse and ultraviolet flowers on the altar; the crease of scalp in Lenker’s shaved head where someone maybe missed a spot.
I returned to Spotify last week, and I’ll admit: It’s thrilling. I’ve been ripping through recent albums I've missed and looping artists' playlists. I’ve been saving songs I read about just because I can. I’ve realized, too, that what I quit Spotify to do—diversify my taste, challenge my habits—I was already doing. Though I craved a single framework that would force me to listen better, the only real way to do so is to adopt an approach so multipronged it feels fragmented: Seek out the specialists, the roundups, the Substacks, the debates; treat every platform as its own limited space.
And when in doubt, return to music as an expression of love. While I was off Spotify, what I missed most were two recent playlists from my boyfriend, tailor-made for me over several months, according to a matrix of meaning that belongs only to us. No volume of other people’s music, no matter how diverse or critically acclaimed, could quench that particular craving. However much I rail against Spotify—its stultifying monopoly, its infuriating obviousness—I cannot ignore its fundamentally extraordinary gift: that it is a mostly free, mostly easy way of saying, at great length and from great distances, “This song reminds me of you.”
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From Liz Pelly in The Guardian: "‘There’s endless choice, but you’re not listening’: fans quitting Spotify to save their love of music"
In Pitchfork, Jeremy D. Larson delves into the Woes of Being Addicted to Streaming Services
&, of course, a multi-platform playlist for all of you:
💝 closing note
If you have an article idea about how technology shapes culture & nature, send me a pitch (jacob at joinreboot.org)!
—Jacob & Reboot team