I'll never forget it. One minute, I'm listening to Drake's "Over My Dead Body" and getting ready to work out and the next minute, I'm kicked off Spotify. An error message shows up. I try to desperately log back in. WTF? Try it again. Access denied. How am I supposed to get through my cardio day—or the rest of my human day—without access to my music?!
The infamous incident, which was resolved shortly, sent millions of people into a frenzy. But what stayed with me most, was this tweet by engineer and mixer Alex Tumay: "Spotify being down is a great reminder that you don’t own any of the music you listen to anymore. You’re just renting it, and it could all disappear."
*Insert mind blown emoji*
The intersection between music and technology is nothing new. Since Thomas Edison's phonograph in 1877 to Berliner's gramophone and later, vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassettes, CDs and iTunes, technology has always changed the way we listen to and store music. Who can forget these classy faux leather binders that housed our physical CD collections? Or, those awesome plastic tower racks, which were both functional and a conversation starter?
Not gonna lie: It was really hard to give up my CDs. That experience of buying a tangible album was special: Paying cash at Record Town at the mall, ripping the external wrapping off—which inevitably, destroyed my nails—and pouring over the album artwork and liner notes while hitting "Play" on my Sony Discman, was a full sensory extravaganza. I didn't want to give that up but MP3 players offered convenience, especially when traveling and working out, and there wasn't the pesky "skipping" CD sound.
By college, I was all in on the MP3 game. I legit thought my Creative Zen MP3 player (coupled with a nice T3 cable modem and Napter/BearShare/LimeWire) was the pinnacle of living. But once the iPod came to town, we all became Apple converts and traded up for the iPod, then iPod Video and later, iPhone.
The popularization of streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, YouTube and Tidal in the 2000s changed the game again. I was so used to downloading music files from iTunes (or less legal means) that the idea of having a virtual library in some imaginary "cloud" made zero sense. Where did the music live? At any moment could it be taken away?
Well, fast forward to March 8, 2022 and that worst fear became real. Spotify did go down— and we couldn't do a damn thing about it.
Streaming has forever changed the music industry. The debate is still ongoing on whether streaming is good or bad, based on which side of the argument you're on. Many artists (and songwriters) hate it because of the low payouts and tendency of playlist curation to lean towards the top 1% major label artists, while record labels are living in a golden age collecting sweet, sweet checks based on superstars and catalogs. Whatever damage file-sharing did (Hi Napster), the music industry has recovered. "With a 23% increase in total revenues over the prior year, today’s 2021 recorded music revenue report continues one of the most incredible comeback stories in modern commercial history," reported Music Business Worldwide a few days ago.
Streaming economics is whole other conversation for another day. And of course, there's ongoing controversy over the politics behind digital streaming platforms (DSPs), especially Spotify.
But at the very least, the Spotify outage should have us all thinking:
My friend Aroop Sanakkayala, a lawyer and music manager, has a saying: "Technology always wins." The problems of today are likely already being worked on by some smart engineers (or artificially intelligent robots) somewhere. Don't fight technology, love it. Snoop Dogg recently announced that his Death Row Records reboot will be the "first major [label] in the metaverse." And Kanye's new STEM Player could be a possible industry disruptor (despite the establishment already grappling with its inclusion).
The next big thing is right around the corner. Or maybe we're thisclose to living in a dark and depressing Black Mirror episode and it's time to panic and go crate digging.
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