In the beginning…
It used to be so easy. In days gone by, when I wanted to listen to the newest music I just had to turn on the radio or the TV (remember when MTV actually was about music?). It was up to the programming on your station of choice what kind of music would be played, so whatever they would play, would ‘stick’. I would consequently end up incorporating this in my musical taste, more through osmosis than through active listening. The radio station I spent a good chunk of my teenage years listening to was a pop/rock station, so my musical taste was (and sometimes still is, don’t judge me) very mainstream and pop oriented. But at that time that was good enough for me, because music was, for the most part, something to have playing in the background without paying any real attention to make doing homework a little bit easier.
Over the following years my interests in music shifted ever more towards actively seeking to discover new music and expand my musical vocabulary. So there came a point at which the weekly rotation of new songs on the aforementioned radio station no longer sufficed my desire to explore the musical world. After searching the internet for alternatives for a little bit, I stumbled upon a then recently released streaming service, Spotify. Completely blown away by the sheer amount of music available and the plethora of ways to discover and explore new kinds of music and artists, I immediately fell in love with the app. But one question kept on popping up in the back of my mind: how do they do it?
The Spotify way
For me, Spotify’s power lies in the vast number of personalised playlists they provide the user with. 6 different Daily Mixes, Discover Weekly and Release Radar are all based on and tailored to what you listen to. The latter two are refresh weekly and, if you don’t like some of the suggestions the algorithm comes up with, you can simply let it know not to recommend you songs or artists like that in the future. In addition to the personalised playlists, Spotify offers a plethora of other playlists displaying different genres, moods, top-50 charts (per country AND worldwide), user-made playlists, “radio stations” based on artists or songs that sound alike and even an end-of-year wrap-up of everything you listened to. Suffice to say there certainly no longer was a shortage of ways for me to discover new music anymore. But, as with most things, life in the Spotify-realm is not all sunshine and roses.
With the rise in popularity of Spotify (other streaming services are available), more people are getting tailor-made playlists recommending songs they might like. Consequently, the importance of grabbing the listeners attention within the first couple of seconds has become an art in and of itself. On top of that, to appear more attractive to radio stations and to increase the likelihood of getting air time, songs are increasingly becoming shorter. One thing I personally have found to be a ‘negative’ side effect of all these playlists and recommendations everywhere, is that, for nearly ten years now, I have only been listening to ‘songs’.
How to listen to music
Let me expand on what I mean with that. A while back, I was having a conversation about music with a good friend of mine and I asked him what songs he was listening to at the moment. To my surprise his answer was that his preferred way of listening to music is through listening to albums front to back of artists he likes. This is something I had not even considered to be an option. Maybe because I occasionally manage to trick people in to thinking I’m a DJ, the focus of discovering music for me had always been restricted to finding specific songs that worked to fit a specific purpose. I had never even thought to look past finding music to utilise in my hobby, and instead to enjoy a project an artist has put so much time and effort into just for the music’s sake.
At first, because I didn’t know how to properly listen to an album and was still so used to skipping through songs to find one that I could ‘use’, I got impatient really quickly and ended up skipping through the albums (old habits die hard I guess). But after a while I got the hang of it, and now I’m fully convinced that listening to an album is one of the greatest ways of getting into an artists mindset. Seeing the way they craft a narrative in a given amount of songs, taking the listener on a journey with them through whatever concept their album revolves around, has become so magical to me, I wouldn’t have it any other way. So, to my dear friend, thank you so much for changing the way I listen to music, I’m grateful for it every single day.
I have also been using Spotify for a while now. As you wonderfully explained in your blog, most people immediately ‘fall in love’ with it and can’t imagine going back to days before (I’m certainly one of them). Still, I once in a while get out of the Spotify music world and listen to vinyl records. When I first started listening to vinyl records, it was also hard not to want to skip certain songs, as you mentioned in your blog. Now the time has passed, and I am so grateful that I listened to those songs that did not capture my attention in the first seconds but still were listed by me to the very end due to old fashioned technology. But I also feel that without some very accurate Spotify recommendations, I would have never discovered certain songs that later led me to listen to the artist albums and sometimes even buy the vinyl record.
Thank you for sharing your album supportive message. From time to time, when I have played my latest playlist too many times, I also absolutely love to listen to a complete album of my favorite artists. I also really liked that you brought up the art of making a song catchy and interesting from the first second and how that has become more important with the rise of Spotify. Moreover, I also find it really interesting that now that the power and influence of Spotify on what songs we consume by putting them in popular playlists is really big. For artists it has become a big deal when their song is added to a specific playlist. For example, I know that the leading playlist for Dutch rap and hip-hop music is ‘Woordenschat’. When your song is in that playlist you know that over 500.000 people will probably hear your song. Although it is really easy to follow playlists made by Spotify, it am still digging into Spotify to find new and undiscovered songs, artists and albums.
Obviously, there is no ‘right’ way to listen to music. Still, I find it really interesting that there are different ways you can listen to music, which I myself do at different times: sometimes you really wanne get into the narrative of an album and play it front to back, sometimes you’re just vibin with the artist and listen to all their work mixed together. Spotify is great at (sub)consciously keeping your tastes mercurial through those suggested lists, and encourages you to explore your own music tastes in many diffrent ways, because of that, there is no one way to listen to music, although it is also fun to remind yourself about the era when we always listened to cd’s or vinyl front to back.
Thank you for a very interesting post! Spotify is for me still a very mysterious platform, although I have been using it for almost three years now. Before that, I was listening to music by the whole album at the time, either from tapes and vinyl or on YouTube. I actually got into the habit that I was piking YouTube videos with a full album and following the suggestions with full albums of artists that I didn’t know. From the perspective of time I regret that I never actually saved any of the titles, they were great and the experience of just dipping into unknown music for an hour or so developed my music taste. But I love Spotify, mostly because by the recommendation I found a band which becomes my favorite one since (almost three years). But I have to admit, I was very lucky with the algorithm, if it suggested to me other of their songs, I wouldn’t probably check out the band. It is actually very interesting because now I see that this song is short and catchy.
First, I think talking about Spotify’s algorithm is more unique than mentioning Netflix and Youtube’s recommendation systems; it provided me with a different example than using visual platforms such as streaming channels. Also, this made me think about my own way of discovering music too since I am not much of a person who listens to a whole album of an artist. I watch album reviews on Youtube time to time and really enjoy it but struggle to relate to the songs that I didn’t listen when the creator mentions these tracks.
I also like how you gave background information all the way from the days we were depending on radios to explore new songs and connect it to Spotify’s recommendation system. This also explains how fast we have changed throughout the years. For example, I don’t think I am able to listen to radio stations now but I remember the years when I was highly depending on them.
Thank you so much for this post. While I do not use Spotify, I do agree that listening to ‘songs’ is certainly different than listening to ‘albums’. I wonder also if this change in listening to music from the ‘album’ to the ‘song’ kind, that which you say was changed by streaming services, will result in artists themselves changing their albums as well.
Spotify is indeed fantastic, I have been using it for a while now and I don’t know what I would do without it. I have become dependent on it. However I used to listen to music in the same way you did. Listening to all the new songs on the radio. The digitization of music has made all sorts of different genres available to almost anyone. I can find 20’s music from many different countries and it is great! Listen to whatever you like and use the Spotify radio on specific songs you like! (you probably already know this)
The points you mentioned are very interesting! I hand’t even realised that songs were getting shorter because of the importance of grabbing listeners’ attention quickly, but also because artists are getting paid per song streamed instead of the album itself.
It is funny that when it comes to our music behavior, it really depends per medium how it often is used. When I was younger, when you had your MTV phase, I listened to album CD’s as that was the only way to listen to music in my room. ‘4’ by Beyonce, Rihanna’s ‘A girl like me’ or the good old ‘Kinderen voor Kinderen’ – the Dutchies out here know what I am talking about 🙂 – all helped shaping my way of listening to music. And yes, there has been a couple of One Direction fandom years as well (yes I was a Directioner, true story. Embarrassing, I know). I still prefer listening to albums instead of playlists full of songs that are not put together as a ‘whole’. Of course, I am a fan of Spotify and its countless offers playlists, but I still prefer listening to a good old album by John Mayer, Frank Ocean or Kahlid.
Thank you for your insight. I have found myself on a similar journey of reconsidering my music consumption especially as I grew up hunting for pirated tracks in dimly lit corners of the internet and spent considerable time adding the metadata and album covers myself. I realised that we get to hear so much more music in our lifetime in a much less intentional manner and, as cliche as it sounds, it sparked an interest in vinyl. I would go into vinyl stores and shop for music without looking the artist up on my phone, and listen to the whole record at home.