Is Spotify’s over-emphasis on algorithm playlists ultimately de-humanizing artists’ work?
Apple CEO Tim Cook recently revealed the company’s streaming music service, Apple Music, has clearly surpassed Spotify in subscribers in the US, Canada, and Spotify.
Instead of gloating, he humbly downplayed the achievement.
“The key thing in music is not the competition between the companies that are providing music, the real challenge is to grow the market. If we put our emphasis on growing the market, which we’re doing, we’ll be the beneficiaries of that, as will others.”
In a recently published article with monthly business magazine Fast Company, Cook revealed his true feelings about his streaming music rivals. Taking a clear swipe at Spotify, he said,
“We worry about the humanity being drained out of music, about it becoming a bits-and-bytes kind of world instead of the art and craft.”
So, has Spotify lost the human touch?
In the article, Fast Company’s Robert Safian tackled Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s long-term plans to beat Apple, Amazon, and Google in streaming music.
Ek revealed he started the company to deal with how artists were “taken advantage of” in the music industry.
“I had a friend, a bassist, who complained to me at a party about how he had to take a second day job to make ends meet.”
Paradoxically, Spotify offers artists one of the worst per-stream rates among major streaming music platforms. After a million plays, David Crosby only receives about $4,370 from the platform. In contrast, the former Byrds singer receives around $19,000 on Napster for the same number of plays. Ek and Safian cleverly skirted the topic.
Ek also shared the company’s long-term plan. As Safian writes, Ek wants “to get the music industry so dependent on Spotify that even the doubters can’t live without it.” To make the industry dependent on the platform, engineers have created an ‘elegant’ software for popular playlists curated by both humans and algorithms.
In fact, the Spotify CEO believes its computer-generated playlists – the company’s ‘key differentiator,’ writes Safian – will ultimately help his company ‘defy all the skeptics.’
“Music is everything we do all day, all night, and that clarity is the difference between the average and the really, really good.”
Arguably, the company has found success with that strategy. The platform’s harshest detractors – namely Taylor Swift and Jay-Z – have recently uploaded their music once more on Spotify. Even Vince Staples, who openly criticized the company at SXSW Spotify House two years ago, has yet to take down his music.
Computer-generated algorithms, says Cook, dehumanize music. Safian writes that Apple believes playlists created by algorithms “erode music’s spiritual role in our lives.”
Apple Music, reiterates Cook, doesn’t use algorithms to create playlists – only real human beings. When done correctly, a streaming music platform has the potential to provide a truly sublime music experience.
“Music inspires, it motivates. It’s also the thing at night that helps quiet me. I think it’s better than any medicine.”
But will the human touch work?
It’s difficult to say. Cook first made the comments in January, months before Apple Music took first place in several key markets.
Spotify has over 84 million subscribers around the world. Apple Music around 50 million. On Apple news sites, including 9to5Mac and MacRumors, people rave about Spotify’s superior playlists.
Yet, Apple’s streaming music service has two strong advantages over Spotify. First, it pays artists a higher per-stream rate. Second, it doesn’t depend on streaming music to remain profitable.
That has proven to be Spotify’s Achilles’ heel.
Currently, Spotify doesn’t have any other offering to achieve profitability. Accordingly, Ek’s company continues to bleed money. As Safian writes, Spotify pays most of its revenue in licensing fees, forcing it to remain “tightly cost conscious.” Just take a look at Spotify’s Q2 2018 – the company has lost $548 million this year alone. By the end of the fourth quarter, it remains on track to lose over $1 billion.
So, focusing on computer-generated playlists doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t actually make money from it.
Musing about personal challenges with Safian, Ek said he’d love to try boxing.
“There’s that boxing expression: ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.’”
Now, it looks like Apple is doing the harder punching these days — and using its ‘human touch’ to score a knockout.
Featured image by Mike Deerkoski (CC by 2.0)