The Problem In Spotify's Grand Experiment
  • THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 13, 2014

  • Posted by: Austin Price

I regard Spotify with a cock-eyed glance. It's a convenient, easy, cheap service that allows one remote access to their own musical library, but it's also becoming an authority and that worries me.

Much has been made of the isolating effects of internet culture -- we're so much the masters of our digital domains that with the click of a button we can block unsavory commentary, unwanted websites and even individual words from our browsers-- but little has been made of its great leveling ability, of how easily it might push a kind of cultural hegemony (even if it doesn't mean to). Spotify is absolutely primed to do such a thing: it's a central, massive and most of all, popular musical repository that has quickly become the source of new music for its 40+ million users. Given their control and reach, they are, whether are not they would accept it, a taste-maker: support from them not only makes or breaks some bands, it makes or breaks opinions.

Their recent decision to go and classify different musicians as either "headphones" (an artist who is played a number of times disproportionate to the amount of "likes" they receive on facebook) or "shirts" (an artist who is 'liked' on facebook far more than they are listened to), then, strikes me as deeply unsettling. The connotation is that 'headphone' artists are somehow more authentic, or at least have more authentic fans, than these t-shirt artists, whose fans only seem to enjoy them as kind of a fashion statement.

Now while it's true that there's no shortage of people who feign their love of a genre or artist in order forge a weak social bond with the rest of the world, and while it's also true that there are more than a few artists who are clearly in the game to sell their image and make money, the fact is, Spotify's reductionist little experiment doesn't merely marginalize fans (reinstating all of those decadent kinds of elitism that rotted subcultures like punk from the inside out), it marginalizes artists as well. It's a fun enough experiment for now, but there's an air of implied causality here that makes it seem as if those musicians who are talked about more than they're listened to are, somehow, inferior to the other artists. The T-shirts are fashion icons, completely dismissible, while the headphones are true artistes: even the imagery chosen by Spotify's staff implies this. Headphones imply an artist who can be listened to and not only that but listened to with all of the intimacy that headphones provide. A t-shirt, well, they exist to be displayed, seen rather than heard.

The truth, though, is a little more complicated. Because while, yes, there are more than a few wretched artists numbered as "T-Shirts" a number of supremely talented voices err on that side, as well: throw out the dirty bathwater of LFMAO and MGMT and you'll also be throwing out Johnny Cash, Queen and Snoop Dogg. Meanwhile, it's hard to believe that anyone could sincerely argue for Bruno Mars or Lana Del Ray as essential to the canon of pop; is the simple generica they churn out really worthy of the close listen that only a fine pair of headphones can provide?

I'm not entirely certain what it is that Spotify is trying to accomplish with this experiment. I'm not suggesting that they honestly want to shape musical tastes with a chart like this but they should be aware, given the iconography and terminology used, as well as how insanely combative and territorial music fans are, that this kind of pseudo-scientific "analysis" is a tad irresponsible. Spotify is a megolithic entity on the music scene now and it's only going to grow bigger. It should not, I think, grow more callous.

Thanks to Spin for creating the infographic used above.

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