I don’t know whether it began after a controversy broke out over the comedian Joe Rogan’s podcast on Spotify early this year, or after I watched The Playlist, a mini series on Netflix, but for the past several months now I have been wondering how much I am losing out by being dependent on Big Streaming for much of the music I listen to. It’s paradoxical, really, because in theory the major streaming platforms can give you almost anything you want to listen to. I will try to explain what I mean but first, a bit about Rogan and The Playlist.
The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, which has an estimated 12.8 million subscribers, got into controversy when Rogan showcased and seemingly endorsed anti-vaxxers during the covid-19 pandemic; during some other episodes, he allegedly used racial slurs too. Many musicians, notably Neil Young, decided to pull their music from the streaming platform but Spotify did not cancel Rogan. Personally, I find the podcast by Rogan, a former UFC commentator, extremely low-brow, bordering on the inane—that probably also explains why it has such a huge following.
The Playlist, on the other hand, is a Swedish Netflix series that is a semi-fictionalised account of how Spotify was founded, the controversies over its attitude towards paying artists. Its finale, set in 2024 and 2026, highlights the potential dangers of near-monopolistic music distribution that can leave millions of musicians poorly paid, unheard or undiscovered.
For me, the Rogan controversy and The Playlist were triggers leading to a reassessment of the most common way I listen to music. I subscribe to three music streaming platforms—Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited—and I find my listening habits have changed, not necessarily for the better, with each.
Streaming services are like fire hoses when it comes to finding music. You turn on that faucet and there is a deluge. That might not be a bad thing. Or is it? Is it a problem of plenty? Like many people who have grown up listening to music on physical formats—vinyls, cassettes, CDs—and moved on to streaming because of its convenience, I have found that Big Streaming platforms have their cons.
First, the algorithms they use. All of them throw up playlists that are ostensibly based on your musical tastes (read: the frequency of what you have been listening to). Often, what they suggest is ridiculously mismatched. The other day, a 1990s Mix, purportedly “made for” me, kicked off with Yo La Tengo’s excellent, downtempo, fuzzy and warmth-radiating Moby Octopad. But the second track on the playlist was the Pixies’ Allison, a tribute to American jazz and blues pianist Mose Allison, delivered in the Pixies’ trademark punk rock-meets- surf rock style, a vibe that is significantly different from Yo La Tengo’s. And then, for the third track, the non-human tastemaker (otherwise known as Spotify’s algorithm) chose to serve me Silver Jews’ Random Rules, full of the band’s frontman (the late) David Berman’s melancholy sadness.
Make no mistake, all three bands are on the list of my favourites. I love the self-effacing shoegazing of YLT; I adore the loud-quiet-loud shrieks and growls of the Pixies; and I sometimes like to wallow in the pool of sadness the Silver Jews never fail to offer. But would I like to listen to one song from each of them back to back? Hell, no!
The other problem with Big Streaming is that it can make you feel afflicted by a severe case of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In theory, you can listen to an album in full on a streaming site but how often do you do that? The ease of switching from song to song can urge you to switch not only albums and artists but genres too. That can be annoying.
So what’s the solution? One definite trend is the resurgence of physical formats. In 2021, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (Riaa), CD sales in the US, the largest market for music, increased for the first time in two decades; vinyl sales have been on the rise for at least 15 years.
The biggest advantage of streaming over physical formats is that you can get any music anywhere if you have an app, a phone and headphones. But there are solutions emerging that can enable you to access your own music on CDs or LPs in digital formats anywhere, at any time. If you convert your physical collection to digital formats, Navidrome is a piece of software that allows you to listen to your own digital music in the same way as Spotify or Apple Music. Instead of Big Streaming, you can have personalised streaming and even share your music with others. As for portability, Navidrome is compatible with mobile phones and can be used in the same way as Big Streaming apps.
Of course, there are other alternatives to Big Streaming. One of them is YouTube, the platform of choice for Gen Z listeners. YouTube has two advantages. First, there are videos, including full-length live concerts of your favourite bands. Second, the algorithm doesn’t try as hard as Big Streaming sites—so the element of surprise and the potential for new discoveries is high.
As a jamband enthusiast, I listened to (and watched) two recent gigs: by Phil Lesh & Friends at Westchester, New York’s Capitol Theatre, and another by the American band Goose at the Radio City Music Hall. Both were a) excellent and b) not available on Big Streaming. Unplug yourself from a non-human tastemaker and try other things. It can be like a breath of fresh air.
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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.