Stop listening to Music on your Computer

There’s a problem with how I listen to music. For a long time I hadn’t noticed it, I just accepted things the way they are and carried on enjoying the fruits of artistic labours. The problem is probably being ignored by you right now, if, like myself you’re prone to being caught up in the opportunities offered to you by new technology. At one point I became sick of the limited music I could access with just my own music collection. I greedily wanted access to everything, to an infinite pool of music, so I primarily rely on Spotify now. I just can’t shake the feeling that something’s been lost along the way.

Spotify LogoI first signed up to Spotify a few years ago, before the free service limited the amount of plays on each track. Initially, I remember scoffing at the amount of music they had available, so deleted the program and went back to using my iTunes. After a while, I started to hear reports from friends that it was definitely worth giving Spotify another chance, and I haven’t looked back and thought about it until now.

The more I’ve stared at my computer screen, trying to find some inspiration on what to play, the closer I’ve got to realising what’s wrong.

As of July 2011, the Spotify catalogue comprises over 15 million songs. That’s a lot of music by anyone’s reckoning. It’s starting to become a little overwhelming.

Before a friend sent me an invitation to join the free service, I was the proud owner of a vast and diverse hoard of mp3 files, collected over years from a variety of sources. There were artists I’d discovered by myself; ones I’d been recommended or forced into buying and random files that I swear turned up out of nowhere… Most importantly it was my collection, and I could go through it and tell you all sorts of uninteresting stories about how a majority of the files ended up on my hard drive. My iTunes is still a treasure trove of musical interests, tracks I didn’t even like and would hardly ever listen to, but I granted them a permanent place purely because they were a bit interesting, and I rarely delete anything, I’m a digital music hoarder.

The mp3 files I’d collected there were given pride of place, taking up most of the screen. The lists of songs and albums are a representation of me, mostly organised and aligned with the correct artwork. Once upon a time I drew on it to provide music for parties, pre-club drinks and any other number of random occasions where I happened to have my laptop available.

iTunes ScreengrabI even became obsessed with buying music from the iTunes store, back when they only just started offering films, and made a few simple apps available that could be played using the iPod’s click wheel. It was just so easy to keep clicking, adding individual songs or whole albums not just to my computer’s memory, but also to my identity as a person. My collection was a part of who I am. Perusing it, you could make an educated guess at the magazines I read, the instrument I played, the people I mixed with and any other number of small influences that were a part of my life.

One day, I lost touch with my collection. It had swelled to the point where it no longer resembled me; it was more just a dump for every passing thought or musical whim that had passed between my ears over the past year. Musically, I was starting to bury the important stuff under reams of garbage. There were too many tracks added because they were “interesting” and not enough pruning.

Now though…I use Spotify.

I use the service, (or is it a program…or maybe an app?) for almost all of my listening, occasionally defaulting to YouTube for a track I can’t find, and rarely falling back on my iTunes library to rediscover a lost gem or a new CD I bought physically. I’ve been a happy customer for years now, initially upgrading my subscription to their £5 a month ad-free version, eventually finding the justification to pay for the full £10 a month service, mainly for the ability to add the app on my mobile.

Spotify ScreengrabI’ve begun to take it for granted, I was absolutely confident that this new way of providing legal access to the music people want to listen to for very little cost had the best chance of succeeding. It’s quicker and cheaper to use for me then iTunes, stops me impulse buying everything and accumulating too much crap in my life that gets in the way of what I want to listen. I just create playlists for songs I’m confident I’ll want again, and anything which really grabs me gets bought and added to my ever-expanding iTunes library.

Maybe the problem is I just don’t care about playlists. They don’t feel culturally significant – they don’t matter to anyone except me. An album is something that we can all enjoy, songs in the same order, placed in a very specific arrangement by the artist. Playlists feel at best like compilation albums – Top 25 grooves of soul, the best guitar album ever ’98 or whatever, they just lack any significance. The songs taking up most of the window aren’t my tracks, they belong to someone else who owns a far away bank of servers filled with 1’s and 0’s.

There are critiscisms of Spotify’s user interface (UI), comparing it to a spreadsheet. The problem isn’t an aesthetic one though. To mess with the UI too much might reduce functionality, which Spotify does very well. The presentation isn’t great; it lacks the fluidity and colours of iTunes’ cover flow, but showing more artwork isn’t going to solve the problem I see with the service – artwork looks nice, and is a part of the final musical “product” but just showing more of it, or showing it more often wont make Spotify less inorganic.

Spotify has implemented several UI improvements; the app certainly looks a bit more “alive” now then it did before, but they’re still missing the mark. They’ve proved that it is technically possible to implement a music delivery service that gives us access to all those songs quickly, easily, legally and at a reasonable price. This part is great, it works and I still love it. It just doesn’t feel human, it’s a long way from music discovery that feels natural or organic and therefore, it still sits awkwardly in a cultural uncanny valley. Music is culture, and art and style. Music expresses the human experience better than any other art for me, and if any music service wants to stay relevant, and be remembered fondly, it needs to conjure up good feelings, not the irreverence you feel for a computer program.




In other, recent news, Spotify has implemented a new play button. Maybe this will give some context to music discovery on the service?

Introducing the Spotify Play Button (Spotify)

Spotify introduces ‘Play Button’ widget for websites (Wired UK)