The defining characteristic of the last six years is that rather than a burst of innovative new features or clever experiments from the billion-dollar platforms, there’s been a convergence. Spotify continues to set the tone for all other streaming platforms. This might explain why Spotify receives the most public scrutiny, even though the industry’s current worst practices were established by YouTube’s early agreements with major labels and Pandora’s endless attempts to avoid properly paying artists. Spotify’s aesthetic vision–if not its economic one–for how one should consume digital music is still dominant.
The best example of this would be its Discover Weekly feature. Apple Music’s original push into streaming was centered on Beats Radio 1, now Apple Radio 1, which was supposed to encourage more traditional (rather than algorithmic) gatekeeping. It was even rumored that there might be Beats Radio 2, 3, 4
, you get the idea. Instead, Apple and nearly every other major streaming platform ended up creating their own weekly personalized playlist
. Streaming’s imagination was stifled by Spotify’s self-declared playlist success. The imagination of streaming stifled by Spotify’s self-declared playlist success.
When YouTube launched YouTube Music in 2018, it was hard not to notice that its user interface pulled heavily from Spotify. I wrote about this for Gizmodo in 2018
Lifting the Spotify aesthetic might have been forgivable if YouTube Music built upon its competition’s feature set, but instead, YouTube brings almost no new ideas to the table. Even YouTube’s curated playlists mimic Spotify: RapCaviar on YouTube is Rap Star Status, Clout Culture becomes Clout Rising, and Viral 50 morphs into Blogged 50.
The copycat nature of the industry led to nearly every platform adopting a playlist-first promotional method, despite there never being a clear path for artists to build a career via playlists.
The trend of limited imitation extends Amazon buying up billboards
explicitly to advertise their playlists with the help of major artists. I covered this last year when writing about Billie Eilish; but Apple, Spotify, and YouTube all brought out the red carpet marketing treatment
for the teenager’s debut album. The entire industry rather suddenly converged towards a playlist-first, highly personalized music streaming experience, where the “curation” serves major labels and big indie priorities. A rather stark contrast to the diverse landscape of only seven, eight years ago.
The flatness of music streaming might explain the increased attention around two music-adjacent platforms: Twitch and TikTok. Twitch isn’t a new player in the realm of music, as a number of electronic labels saw early potential value in the platform a few years ago. However, the arrival of the coronavirus this year only heightened the platform’s interest in doing more with music. And while right now the company is embroiled in a back-and-forth with major labels and the National Music Publisher Association
, this signals that Twitch may be a new player in this domain. The same is true of TikTok, whose popularity skyrocketed in 2020 and is seen as a key growth vector for the record industry with the stagnation of streaming subscriptions.
I’ve written previously about Twitch
, and I’m typically a bit more “kind” towards the platforms because it’s useful to think of digital music outside of the boxes of streaming platforms. What’s interesting about many of the cultural, not monetary, critiques around contemporary streaming is that they’re relatively new (see: Liz Pelly’s piece on streambait pop
). Concerns over digital payouts are now decades old, but the centralization of these larger streaming platforms is a more recent phenomenon. This is what Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon have advocated for on their podcast, Interdependence
(I know, I mention it all the time). The point is that the current streaming paradigm not only wasn’t created with artists in mind, but as it matured it’s only further calcified into favoring established artists and encouraging isolated music listening. Perhaps more folks can get behind attempting to buck that trend as we look to a new year.