Free From The Shackles of Algorithm: Au Revoir, Spotify

After eight or nine years of the streaming giant Spotify taking over my musical selection and informing me of discoveries, I have finally given into personal ethics and fatigue by cancelling my subscription and leaving a partial vow to not look back. 

Over almost a decade, it has led me from subculture to subculture; from an angry youthful individual seeking out the latest in the American hardcore scene, to Spotify’s final years of usefulness: aiding my own need for new jazz and electro tracks. The site shaped my image, helping hone my music taste to a somewhat extensive degree. However, in recent years, Spotify has become somewhat humbled and less focused on the unearthing of artist’s albums.

It has become more fixated upon its need to fulfil the market demand for quick singles and easy listening. Through this, it has produced background noise en masse, playlists to fit particular moods, and half-arsed algorithms designed to adapt to a listener’s musical consumption. My own experiences with these playlists are this: the artists have a lack of intrigue and dynamic range, artists are not necessarily representative of my current music tastes (imagine being bludgeoned with recommendations to listen to Parquet Courts every day, every week and every month), and have a lack of personality. Listening, too, became easy. I was seduced into a technophile world where discovery did not matter too much, one where I was bombarded with suggestions that had little personal value, nor meaning. 

This split – or divorce – from the app is more of a personal direction. It is quite understandable that in the age of streaming and ease of access, many persons are not so involved with the arts, preferring to receive much rather than discover. The New York Times culture editor, Gilbert Cruz, recently published a conversation with one of the publication’s music critics, Jon Caramanica, where they discussed – albeit briefly – how ease of access has disrupted the chain of musical production.

As awful as it sounds, an album is simply a data dump now… The minute albums hit streaming services, they are sliced and diced and the songs are relegated to playlist slots, and everything after that is a crapshoot. The truth is that albums worked as a medium only because everyone was a captive. When you look back at your favourite older albums now, I’m sure you see the weak spots that you’d happily have programmed out if you had the technology then.

Whilst Spotify’s algorithms have made it easier to discover new music, its “data dump”-style AI selects music that, while it can be personalised and adhered to each individual, tends to derive from artists that lack musical consistency. Over the years, the policy of the platform has moved away from albums to playlists, and it is at this point where mine and Spotify’s relationship began to decline. Now, Spotify’s music database has all the organisation of a spreadsheet detailing Philip Green’s accounting. 

Since last year, I have found myself delving more and more into the world of Bandcamp and NTS, leaving Spotify behind for mixtapes that have been created by producers, musicians and DJs, and, throughout this, I have found myself reconnecting with the music that I enjoy. 

The two main differences between NTS & Bandcamp and Spotify are staggeringly simple: Spotify playlists are chosen via algorithms, whereas NTS playlists are hand-selected by a resident, and Bandcamp, while still utilising playlists that are hand-selected by journalists and editors alike, emphasise discovery via broad genre filters. But then, moving away from music, the two sites carry an overt attribute that should define contemporary underground music: a sense of community.

Bandcamp continues to receive significant praise over the dropping of their fees on the first Friday of each month in an effort to support artists and record labels that are financially affected by the ongoing global economic downturn, with 800,000 fans raising approximately £29 million for artists and labels. Also notable was the support the site gave to black artists and businesses by promoting them via large spreadsheets on days where they wavered their fees, and though the primary goal of Bandcamp is to produce economic capital for their creators, in a world in which the price of art is devalued by the ease of access that streaming sites create, Bandcamps model is practically light-weight entrepreneurial socialism for its artists.  

And unlike Spotify’s AI-generated playlists, Bandcamp has moved further from the definition of a musical platform to that of a musical editorial site. One of the main features of Bandcamp that has actively contributed to the success of the website within the independent market has been its Bandcamp Daily blog, which recommends artists across various genres via podcasts and daily articles. These human adhered playlists, along with its financial and editorial support for artists across genre, race, nationality and financial lines has led to Bandcamp being referred to as the residues of the hopes for a democratization of cultural production and consumption in a report led by David Hesmondalgh in 2019. 

Likewise, NTS also focuses on its community of listeners and residents, all the while being funded by its fans and listeners via subscriptions, events, and merchandise to keep itself afloat in an industry that is moving away from collapsing advertisement revenues to that of the community economical model. When considering that Bandcamp’s support for artists and tying together of a musical community is noted as a “hope for democratization”, could we hereby add that NTS is leading how music listening should be democratised? NTS’ communal funding by its listeners, those who are dedicated to the independence of their community, shines a light upon a music industry that can thrive without commercial market interference. 

Last November, Emily Bootle wrote in the New Statesman that after relying on Spotify for eight years for musical discoveries and listening, she too found that the app was eroding her love of music due to its reliance on AI.

In the later stages of my relationship with Spotify, I found I was so overwhelmed by choice that I mainly listened to my “most played” or my “Daily Mixes” – algorithm-created playlists of songs that vaguely complimented each other, based on a couple of things I’d already listened to.”

Though Bootle announces that she simply left Spotify for Apple Music, I must admit that whilst I too am tired of AI, I crave something more. Perhaps it is my inner ideology that has influenced my decision. I crave independence: the independence to select my listening material; the independence to select the genres I would like to hear; independence to find new music – the bad and the good.  

For those who need me, I shall be listening to Hurricane Lorraine’s latest mix on NTS: Yesterday’s News. 

Photo: Spotify

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