Spotify promises musical freedom through infinite choice and perpetual availability. So why do I feel like it’s a trap?

Recently I’ve started to wonder if certain friends of mine aren’t receiving kickbacks from the social music streaming service Spotify. I’ve started calling these friends the “Spotivangelists,” and have jokingly insisted that recruitment bonuses are the only reason they could possibly have for being so intent on getting me to sign up. What I’ll try to examine in this post, however, is not why my friends are so intent on getting me to join Spotify, but why I’ve been so intent on resisting. By rights, I should be some kind of Spotifanatic; music is a huge part of my life, and I discover almost all of my new music through friends. So why am I still holding out?

For the uninitiated (which included me until about a month ago), Wikipedia describes Spotify as “a Swedish music streaming service offering digitally restricted streaming of selected music from a range of major and independent record labels.” Spotify offers a free service that includes “radio-style” advertisements (and a monthly usage cap of 10 hours per month for users outside the US), as well as a paid “premium” service that does not include advertisements. Perhaps the biggest difference between Spotify and other music streaming services, however, is its “social” component: Spotify is deeply integrated with Facebook (in fact, Facebook accounts are mandatory for Spotify users outside of Germany), which enables Spotify users both to send music files to their Facebook friends via an ‘inbox’ and to broadcast their listening habits on Facebook through so-called “frictionless sharing.”

Alternatively, the Spotify website describes Spotify simply as “all the music, all the time”—and indeed, the service’s vast catalogue was the first selling point a Spotivangelist friend emphasized to me. I insisted that some of my favorite bands were too obscure to be included in Spotify’s library, but as we played Band Go Fish, a majority of the bands I named turned out to be in there (even a long-dead Boston band that “isn’t easily pigeonholed”). Spotify users can also upload their own “local files” into Spotify, so that they “never again need to switch between media players.”

To me, this seemed less like a perk and more like a sneaky way to chain me both to Spotify and to my computer. “But I want my music even when I don’t want the Internet,” I protested, “and sometimes I drive where there isn’t cell phone reception!” My friend informed me that Spotify’s $10/month ‘Premium’ service not only eliminates advertisements, but also includes offline access to any saved playlists. Temporarily out of points to argue, I started to think about joining Spotify (albeit grudgingly).

The Spotified dog was left to lie until a few weeks later, when my iPod caught a terminal case of hard drive failure. Nothing stirs cloud-fanatics to action quite like hardware-induced data loss, and the Spotivangelist choir came out in full-force SSATB crescendo to sing Spotify’s praises. One friend explained that he uses Spotify primarily for music discovery, and still buys or downloads his own copies of any newly discovered music he likes. Another stated that he uses Spotify anti-socially, and has delinked Spotify and Facebook as much as possible; this friend agreed with me wholeheartedly when I said I had no desire to ‘perform’ my listening for others. Still another told me that the failed hard drive was “a sign that you just need to get a Spotify account and give up on ownership,” and added, “I almost never push products, but Spotify is just that good.”

These conversations were striking examples of the ‘viral marketing’ success to which any “social” application aspires: ordinary Spotify users—people with no financial stake in the company, and who receive no direct reward for recruiting new users—were putting a surprising amount of effort into trying to get me on this service. (Though one might argue that users are incentivized to recruit friends because their own experience of using Spotify is better when more of their friends use it, I doubt any of my friends are that anxious either to know what I’m listening to at every moment or to share music with me in ways that don’t involve co-listening or mailing flash drives.) While all that effort has not (at the time of writing) led me to crack and join Spotify, it has led me to spend a fair amount of time thinking about the reasons underlying my reluctance to do so. My tentative conclusion, at the moment, is that it mostly boils down to issues of control.

In his book Edited Clean Version: Technology and the Culture of Control, Raiford Guins examines ways in which users of newer media technologies are offered “empowerment” through “control,” which in turn is made available through arrays of choices. Though Guins’s project is examining censorial practices in newer media, many of his ideas are applicable here as well; he explains that control technologies are “designed to advance an ethos of neoliberal governance,” and draws on both Deleuze’s work on control and Foucault’s work on governmentality to show that “choice is imagined as an active, autonomous action… an enabling action for regulated and disciplined freedom: the paradoxical logic of choice in the era of control.” Choice functions as “a preferred surrogate strategy in neoliberal societies for the presumed limitations and restrictions of regulation,” and exercising our ‘freedom of choice’ encourages us to see “regulatory practices of self-management as licensed freedom, not as dominating.”

In other words, when we are offered a choice and a vast array of options, we are encouraged feel both free and empowered (not just a choice, but so many choices available for us to make); we are discouraged from paying attention to what has structured the choice itself, and this fits in well with a political ideology that asks us to believe that we are all autonomous individuals with no one but ourselves to blame (or credit) for our failures (or successes). To borrow Deleuze’s highway metaphor, we’re encouraged to see the lone car on the empty road as a symbol of freedom and self-direction; we’re not encouraged to think about how the range of possible routes is pre-determined, because the car can only go where the state has decided to build roads. We can choose from what has been made available to us, and we’re encouraged to see that choice as “freedom” without thinking about what isn’t available to us and why.

Spotify promises “Millions of tracks, any time you like… Just help yourself to whatever you want, whenever you want it”—a seemingly infinite array of musical choices, the ultimate in musical freedom. The website further states, “our dream is to have all the music in the world available instantly to everyone, wherever they are.” All the music, all the places, all the people; what a vast utopian soundscape! But of course, it’s not that simple: ‘all the music’ is really just the combination of Spotify’s (admittedly large) catalogue plus whatever you’ve chosen to upload as “local files,” and the catalogue piece of that equation disappears as soon as you cease to be a Spotify user.

Ultimately, this is the piece that really gets me. Sure, I could use Spotify the way one of my friends does, and judiciously track down my own copies of any music I encounter on Spotify and subsequently come to love. But I know myself; I’m neither sufficiently organized nor sufficiently disciplined to make regular time for Spotify File Duplication. I would become complacent; I would assemble a collection of music to which I’d become significantly attached, an array of playlists that would come to capture memories I’d be distraught at the idea of losing. And at that point, a part of me would thereafter be at Spotify’s mercy, held hostage by the synergy between my emotions and sound.

Good luck driving off-road.

What if one day, after months or years of using the service, I decide I want to leave Spotify? Maybe I’d be sick of paying for their service; more likely, perhaps they’d do something policy-wise that made me angry, and I’d decide to stop giving them my money and my participation as a result. In that moment, I would suddenly be trapped between principle and passion; I would be forced to “choose” between betraying either one or the other. My ‘choice’ would be to keep driving down the corrupt Spoti-Highway, or to total the car by trying to drive off the road. Even in the hypothetical, this feels like an awful choice to make; far from freedom, it feels like being trapped.

My relationship to music may be incredibly social, but it is also profoundly private and personal. I suspect this is true for a lot of people who care about music, and I think Spotify understands that; I think the saved, offline-available playlists that can accompany a Spotify user anywhere she goes—yet which also disappear the moment she cancels her subscription—are part of the service’s subscriber retention strategy. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se; implicitly holding a few playlists hostage is not the same thing as holding (say) someone’s first born child, or their right kidney, or their cat, and technically speaking there’s nothing to stop a disgruntled user from using her Spotify playlist as an acquisition to-do list before she quits the service.

But there’s a time price to rebuilding a music library, and frequently an economic price as well (as I am presently all too aware, thanks to that hard drive failure). Though I realize my relationship with music is already at the mercy of hardware manufacturers, software developers, and others (to say nothing of vinyl pressers, turntable cartridge makers, electric companies and the power grid and all of that), I’m wary of getting into a position from which I might have to calculate what either my love of music or my sense of right and wrong is worth in currencies of time, money, or frustration. In the end, I’m still clinging to “ownership” because for me, having files on my hard drive does a better job of preserving illusions of freedom and control.


Open highway image by Hilde Vanstraelen from

Spotify logo from

Edited Clean Version cover image from

Beartooth Pass photo by Whitney Erin Boesel. Used with permission.