Where Is the Social Side of Music Streaming?
8 min read

Where Is the Social Side of Music Streaming?

Hello, another week of thoughts about the music business from your faithful author! My continued appreciation towards all of the new readers that sign up every week and I certainly encourage you to check out the back catalog if you haven’t yet. The best way to support my work is to recommend the newsletter to someone or via Patreon. I’ll be taking next week off as I’ll be traveling for a wedding, so I’ll be back on March 4th. Now, let’s chat about the social side of music streaming!

I’d like to give a little shout-out to Mariana Carvalho, one of Penny Fractions’ copy editors, for this particular idea. She suggested the topic last year and I’m finally getting to it. I’ll also admit this was written with a slightly more forward-facing interest, rather than tracing a complete history of social digital music listening. Yes, this means I’m not gonna talk about Twitter’s short-lived music hashtag, Facebook and Spotify’s long intertwined history, services like last.fm, or even MySpace today. One good reason for this is that most of these examples happened pre-2015, which with the launch of Apple Music and Tidal signaled the modern era of music streaming. Thus, while I can and have looked back at some of these earlier examples, the current norm of music streaming is where I wanted to focus.

The Status Quo

The social aspect of music listening is something one could be forgiven for forgetting even exists within contemporary music streaming. The neoliberal, endless personalization of Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlists and YouTube’s recommendations algorithm can make it feel like all music listeners are happily trapped within their own filter bubbles. This isn’t exactly true but the perception, in this case, isn’t too far off from reality. The mobile experience of Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, and YouTube Music (not regular YouTube) are all built in a way where unless one seeks out playlists created by friends, it’d be easy to be completely oblivious to their own musical tastes.

What little fragments of leftover social features exist are primarily afterthoughts at this point. Sure, one can leave a comment on a YouTube video and there are some fairly fun meme formats in those comments, but it’s not a feature that YouTube even acknowledged when creating its latest stand-alone streaming platform. That’s still a step up from Amazon Music, Apple Music, or Spotify, where there is no way to know what friends are listening to, much less if they’re enjoying the latest album from your shared favorite band. (I’ll note that Spotify, outside of mobile, does allow people to follow what music a friend is listening to but feels like a feature from a different era of the product.) Now, I want to make a quick hypothetical guess as to why, with so many music streaming platforms, we’ve arrived at a fairly flat and isolated way of experiencing music.

(The sameness of music streaming platforms becomes less remarkable to comment on with each passing year. Most updates that happen on streaming platforms reflect attempts to achieve parity with the competition rather than push towards new ideas. YouTube Music, the latest major new streaming platform, copied-pasted from Spotify. Apple Music’s biggest changes last year have been purely aesthetic. Pandora, though losing listeners quarter over quarter, keeps leaning on rehashed ideas like playlists, making it easy to forget about its smaller ideas like letting artists provide commentary in playlists. Spotify’s most recent push is with podcasts and videos, which are only novel because they weren’t on the platform five years ago.

The limited imagination for new ideas is something I’d blame on the combination of both the music streaming platform space and the decades-long shrinkage of the record business. The consolidation of major labels into an oligopoly effectively makes it so that all music streaming platforms conform to a certain framework, either through direct or indirect pressure from labels. The endless music library, the playlists, the way major labels are given premium slots for advertising... if one could imagine a streaming service didn’t carter to those whims then perhaps all of these platforms wouldn’t look the same. However, to even attempt to license music without being sued to hell and back must involve working with these labels eventually. The final result is that any idea for something new must be filtered back through a capitalistic oligopolistic beast.)

Any New Ideas Under There?

Mariana’s original suggestion was about the idea of joint or shared playlist listening, which in a way is reimagining radio. This is certainly something that wouldn’t be hard to imagine in simply syncing a couple of accounts to play music at the same time but the more interesting version would be the ability to leave additional comments throughout the playlist or mix, which would venture much closer to an audio-only version of Twitch. This kind of functionality already exists on a number of online radio sites like London’s NTS Radio or New York City’s The Lot Radio. In a way, this kind of listening experience can feel a bit more novel in 2020 due to how isolating most music streaming platforms have become over the last decade. (YouTube has dipped into this by allowing song premiers and 24/7 live streams.)

The other obvious example of social music streaming would be short-form video apps like TikTok and the certainly far less popular (even though its press releases say different) Triller. In fact, the former’s outsider status among the current highly financialized record industry allows a bit more flexibility for what it can offer to the music streaming space. However, even that more ephemeral existence for TikTok ran into limits when Bytedance showed an early version of its own music streaming platform, Resso. The uninteresting music app speaks to just how confined a view there is of what is even possible within music streaming when playing by the established rules.

Last year, when the app sleuth Jane Manchun Wong came across an unreleased feature by Spotify called Tastebuds that would allow fans to go through the accounts of friends and scope out what they enjoy, it showed the limits of Spotify’s current product. The ability to see what your friends are listening to and simply add tracks to playlists is already informally offered by the likes of YouTube and SoundCloud, so it’d be hard to imagine this being an exciting feature. Even if it was exciting, it hardly represents anything fundamentally different about how people engage with music or their friends on the platform.

An assumption I increasingly make is that the record industry is gleefully stagnating with ideas because as the business continues to grow after years of decline, there’s little reason to try new things. This fell into my front of mind after reading the most recent startups funded by Techstars Music Accelerator and just how boring and inessential all of them felt (so many music startups about data, as if musicians are all holding down side-gigs doing data entry). The end goal of these companies appears to be to just be bolted onto a major label or tech company rather than to develop a fully sustainable idea. If there’s going to be a new way to expand the social aspect of digital music I doubt it’ll arrive out of such litter. Still, beyond that, there appear to be few incentives to envision any real social features emerging out of a major streaming platform. Though, if there is one upset to such flat ideas, it is that if one is successful, the rest will surely follow.

Unheard Labor

The American Federations of Musicians, Local 47, based in Los Angeles, California voted to endorse Bernie Sanders for President. The union noted that this is a rare move, as historically the union has stayed out of electoral politics but the move represents the first musicians union to make an endorsement in the 2020 Democratic primary.

I can’t help but also make a small historical note that back in 1940 when James Petrillo became President of the national American Federation of Musicians, it was partially due to his willingness to be combative with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who members thought was too close to former AFM president, Joseph Weber. Petrillo’s antagonism paid off in a number of success of union strikes in the 1940s that were done against Roosevelt’s own pleas to end them.

Last week Spotify announced a beta for songwriter pages. Before anyone lumps any praise on these pages, the fact that Spotify aren’t themselves doing the work to fully populate these pages just pushes excess labor onto songwriters to fill out these pages with the benefit only accruing towards Spotify. The other obvious point, which Billboard called out, is that Spotify over the last couple of years has been actively resisting a Copyright Royalty Board ruling that would’ve required them to pay out more to songwriters. So, I view this and their semi-yearly songwriter awards as just public relations exercises to obscure their own attempts to suppress songwriter wages, not unlike the original anti-union origins of the Oscars.

One last bit of news is that Kickstarter United won their National Labor Review Board election, as they voted to join the Office Professional International Employees Union Local 153. This is the full tech company union in the United States and beyond just being amazing news, so many congrats to the Kickstarter employees who’ve fought so many months for this!

Why Warner Music Is Going Public Now & How No One Saw It Coming - Billboard

Did you see WMG going public? According to this headline, no one saw it coming, so please don’t lie to me and say that you did. However, what interested me most in this story were the last few graphs about trying to pay back the record labels' nearly three billion dollars in debt. Certainly do let me know if I’ve missed it but I don’t think I’ve ever read about how much debt WMG was in or any concerns about lack of payment.

Universal Music Group Revenues Pass $7.7 Billion in 2019, IPO Planned By 2023 - Billboard

Universal Music Group is huge but obviously, it’s the second part of this headline that caught my attention. I spoke on it earlier but it’s hard to imagine much innovation within the current music industry as it continues along in this highly consolidated path.

The Court Let T-Mobile Buy Sprint Because Sprint Completely Sucks - The Verge

This is kind of here as a personal bookmarker to see what’s up with the investment Sprint put into Tidal a few years ago. Otherwise, I can’t say I’m too shocked that a Bill Clinton era appointed judge essentially green-lit the fact that there are only three telecommunication companies in the United States. The Clintonian era of media deregulation just keeps chugging along.

Music Videos Were Facing Extinction — Then YouTube Happened - Rolling Stone

Normally I’m skeptical of most accepted music industry narratives...but the one about YouTube providing a second life for music videos post-MTV is pretty solid. This is a nice dive into just how video returned to prominence in the record industry.

Copyright could be the next way for Congress to take on Big Tech - The Verge

I know that when I wrote about copyright and patents last year I got some minor, and major, details wrong but I’m still fascinated about this topic and especially if there is any real federal level reevaluation of it in the context of the internet.

Why YouTube and the Music Biz Are Getting Along Better Than Ever - Billboard

I’m loath to include extensive interviews with executives because they spew pablum. However, Dan Rys is a sharp enough reporter to include a few interesting details about YouTube’s business and record label concerns, even if most of this sounds like a broken record since before Lyor Cohen took over. (I’d regret not mentioning the near graph that Cohen spent describing the word “sustainable”. Pure gold.)