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Spotify: merging music with social media

The social aspects of streaming services are an opportunity for listeners to promote their tastes. Flickr/Joel G Goodman

Our relationships with music are deeply personal and intimate. But we shouldn’t forget that music is also an incredibly powerful social tool capable of bringing people together to share in an experience, whether at a gig or an old-fashioned sing along around the campfire.

This is the best way to understand new music streaming services such as Spotify – as a form of social media. Through its integration with platforms like Facebook, Spotify mixes the personal with the social.

The lines between individual and social engagements with music are not clear-cut. We use music to identify and announce particular tastes, values and messages. For example, when we blast music out of our car stereos, we’re announcing what we’re ‘into’ (regardless of whether or not anyone is actually paying attention).

We allow music to speak for us, organising our “emotional and narrative lives and identities”. Similarly, when we wear a t-shirt sporting a band logo or tour details we announce our affiliation with, and affection for, that particular band.

The Web allows us to magnify those announcements by ‘liking’ a page on Facebook or tweeting the pictures taken from the front row of a performance. The Web was designed with sharing as a core characteristic, but its contemporary capacity for doing so has outstripped its early remit for sharing scientific research.

Nowadays sharing is an integral part of the Web via social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest. Facebook’s integration of music streaming services such as Spotify allows users to share what they’re listening to as well as generate playlists that can be embedded into Web pages.

Spotify and other digital music streaming services like MOG and Pandora provide vast catalogues of recorded music to their users. Emerging from the smog of pirate networks, these legitimate services provide music that is convenient, low cost and without legal and storage issues.

They have recently been the subjects of much consternation where royalty payments are concerned, however. Spotify in particular has been heavily criticised for being yet another cog in the big machine that screws over artists.

Thom Yorke, of Radiohead fame, has been a vocal critic of Spotify’s controversial method of paying artists. Angela N. via Flickr

Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich (co-conspirators in Yorke’s side project, Atoms for Peace) have been particularly vocal. Godrich argues that streaming services are fine for back catalogue material but do not adequately support emerging artists. Certainly, the numbers seems to suggest so, but it’s not my intention to delve into the complexities of music royalties here.

Rather, I’m interested in Spotify as a social tool.

The integration of music streaming services into social media platforms typifies a new approach to communication that is announced via Facebook’s ‘ticker’ (the box in the top right that informs you about what your friends are doing) and individual profiles but addressed to no one in particular.

The Spotify app updates blur the lines between personal and social engagements with music. We, the fans, have perhaps always been (at least) a bit evangelical about our musical preferences. But integrating our listening habits and social media platforms enlists our private activities as a form of recommendation.

The social aspect of Spotify is its real contribution to music. In many ways it continues a tradition of identity-building that simultaneously advertises or recommends a particular artist. Of course, promotion and being discovered are difficult for the emerging artist, but we should be careful not to appraise the new digital music ecology through the expectations of the 20th century industry model.

The physics of the media space have changed dramatically and “we shouldn’t expect the winners or even the definition of winning to stay constant”. The last decade has given artists – both established and emerging – unprecedented methods to release music and engage with fans, which is great, but it also means that we might have to reconsider what it means to be successful in the digital age.

Spotify’s true strength lies in its capacity for sharing what you’re listening to with your friends, and as annoying as that can be at times, your consumption reflects outward from you as a recommendation.

The technology that integrates Spotify into Facebook makes it easy – and free – for your friends to also check out what you’re listening to. In projecting your identity through music, you’re also helping out the artist by recommending their music to others.

Arguably, the social aspect of Spotify is its key strength, but whether or not it’s a sustainable business model is another question. As the recent history of the music industries has shown, things can change rapidly.

This is the third of our five-part series looking at the contemporary music industry. Click the links below to read the others:

Music sales are waning but don’t blame the pirates

Music streaming revenue structures stacked against artists

“Doing things” with music: the newest arm of the industry

Rage against the machine: music TV still important for the Australian industry

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