Thursday, October 18, 2012

Spotify: making music fun again

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Spotify has changed my relationship with music, in a way that's as significant as the introduction of the MP3 player did. Back in the day, when you learned about new music, new artists on the radio, and the recommendation of friends, I had fun listening to music, finding new artists. But radio has become more and more homogenized, as the quirky independent local stations that mixed up intriguing playlists, and participated actively in the local music scene, were gobbled up, one by one, by the nationals, big monsters like ClearChannel, that programmed the playlists from the corporate mothership. I started to lose interest in finding new music, and became tired of hearing the same songs played over and over again. Even the new music of that time, rap and hip-hop, seemed to be rifling through bins of old vinyl, reusing the best riffs from the old stuff, often looping the samples in mind-numbing monotony. Some of these rap tunes were little sonic metaphors for the entire music industry, it seemed, the same stuff, repackaged, played over and over again, until any spirit of originality and excitement was stripped out by sheer repetition.

Don't get me wrong -- there's lots of great rap and hip-hop, and I love it, and it was all very fresh and exciting when it first came out. But like every other musical genre before and since that attracted a large audience and the corresponding piles of cash, rap was milked and exploited until it became a shallow parody of itself. Plus, it was a genre that was based, in large part, on literally lifting snippets from existing recordings to reuse in the songs. Now, music has always reused material, riffs, ideas, and themes, and artists have covered, remixed, and redone songs from the past. But when musicians have to play the music, by learning the chords and the licks, instead of just playing back a recording, something happens: each musician puts their own unique stamp on the music, their own unique interpretation. That doesn't mean you can't do the same thing when you splice together a track using pre-recorded bits and pieces from other songs -- it's just much harder. It just makes what the rappers and DJs who have done this and made something new and original all the more impressive. But it's also rare.

iPod 5th Generation white. 日本語: 第5世代 iPod(白)。
iPod 5th Generation white. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When the MP3 player came out, ultimately reaching its apotheosis in the scroll wheel iPod, something interesting happened, for the first time in a long time: suddenly you became the DJ, or the remixer. You could take your library of music, and fit most of it on your iPod, and reorder and tweak and shuffle the music, in ways that just weren't possible before. You weren't stuck to the old model of the album, where you had to listen to the same songs in the same order, or the radio playlist, where you had to listen to the music someone else wanted you to hear. Instead, you could make your own playlist, or if you were feeling adventurous, you could just set the thing on shuffle and see what came up.

Also, let's be honest: it was easy to download tunes to your library from, let's say, "unauthorized" sources; or to rip CDs from your friend's library, especially if you were kind enough to trade. Obviously, no one got paid when that happened. I never felt any pity for the record companies, who have been screwing artists and fans from the start, and continue to this day, but musicians should be paid for their work. Once I started making enough money to cover rent and have a little left over at the end of the month, I stopped stealing and bought my music through iTunes.

It's too bad the music industry didn't realize this sooner, or maybe they could have made some cash, instead of losing as much as they did by pursing fans with lawsuits and other heavy handed tactics. iTunes was great because so much music was available in one place, instantly. Also, the iTunes Store lets you browse related songs and artists, and listen to snippets -- try before you buy. You can see what everyone else is listening to, what's hot, or find that song that you loved back in high school. There's iTunes radio, and instead of being stuck with the handful of local stations in your broadcast area, you could listen to hundreds of different stations, from around the world.

After that, services like Pandora took the radio idea and improved on it, using the same kind of recommendation engine that Amazon or Netflix uses to find other stuff you might like. Apple's "Genius" feature brought something similar to iTunes, but Pandora showed us that it was pretty cool to access a huge library of music without having to pay for every single track. Again, as with the introduction of Shuffle on the iPod, music became even more surprising and interesting.

Spotify takes us to the next logical step: you can actually select the music you want to listen to, instead of having to listen to what someone else thinks you might like. Plus, you can check out what your friends are listening to, in a way that's smoothly integrated into the app, not tacked on like iTunes' ill-fated Ping. Spotify connected with Facebook very early, tapping into another social network of like minded fans.

There are so many ways to explore music in Spotify. When you are listening to a song, you can call up the rest of the tracks on the album, or all of the tracks by that artist. Or, you are one click away from hearing related artists. If you are feeling lucky, you can start your own radio station based on what you like or what you listen to, just like Pandora.

But best of all, it's free to try, on your computer, if you don't mind the ads. If you want to pay $5 or $10 a month, you can make the ads go away, and even listen to any track you want on your favorite mobile device. If you make a playlist (just like iTunes, except your music library is literally every song you can think of) you can even download it so you can play it back on the go without having to stream the music on the fly. And since you are paying a modest amount per month for this service, artists can get paid for their work again, despite the scuttlebutt to the contrary.

Has Spotify finally come up with a model for listening to music that fans enjoy, and also pays the artists? Leave a comment below and tell me what you think.

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