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.)