You choose the routes, but Spotify builds the roads.

A little more than a year ago, I wrote on Cyborgology about how I refused to join the Social music service Spotify. A little less than a year ago, I wrote an expanded version of that essay for The New Inquiry (TNI). In between those two essays, a funny thing happened:

Yeah, I joined Spotify.

I swear to you though, it wasn’t my fault (“fault”). Rob Horning (@marginalutility), who was my editor for the piece, had some very reasonable questions about the finer points of Spotify’s privacy settings, and try as I might, I couldn’t answer them by poking around the Spotify website. Getting answers was going to require starting an account and going in there to see what I could and couldn’t change in the settings; there was simply no way around it (other than maybe trying to contact Spotify to ask someone to explain these things to me, but that approach was [perhaps unsurprisingly] far less intuitive; in fact, I only just thought of it now). Besides, Spotify was offering a free one-month trial of their premium service, and….

Yeah, a year later, I’m still on Spotify.

As I wrote in the TNI version of my essay, figuring out Spotify’s culture took some doing. To use vocabulary Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) and I developed a few weeks later, being on Spotify was much more Social—and much less directly social—than I’d expected, and that threw me for a loop. Yet over time I developed a decent sense of what the norms on Spotify are, and found where I could fit comfortably into them; over even more time, where I fit comfortably into those norms started to shift. I wasn’t expecting that, and that’s what I want to explore in this post: how my feelings about being on Spotify have changed during my first year of Spotification.

To recap, here were my objections in the original Cyborgology essay:

  • I didn’t want to depend on my computer, or on mobile Internet access, to listen to music.
  • I doubted my ability to faithfully acquire my own copies of albums I enjoyed, and feared therefore becoming hostage to Spotify (keep paying or lose the ability to hear all that music).
  • I feared I would make playlists and get attached to them, and therefore have my emotions held hostage by Spotify, too.
  • The scrobbling thing freaked me out: I had no desire to perform my listening for others, and later likened scrobbling to “perpetually performing my musical tastes—from the pretentious to the perfectly disgraceful—in some kind of Bourdieusian hell.”

It’s that last point I want to revisit, because believe me: I am as floored as anyone by what some combination of Spotify, documentary vision, and I myself have done to my brain. I sometimes get cranky now when I can’t scrobble, and though as a scholar I understand how this has happened, I still don’t really understand how this has happened. Never in a million years would I have imagined that I’d be more afraid of losing potential cultural capital (by not sharing my awesome musical tastes) than I am of “losing face” or losing already-accrued cultural capital (by sharing my less-than-awesome musical tastes), but there you have it.

It started out innocently enough, I suppose. I joined Spotify on a 30-day trial of Spotify Premium in September of 2012, in order to determine just how much one can “delink” Spotify from Facebook—fair enough. And then, since I had Spotify, I figured I might as well use it. My original inclination was to disable all of the sharing functions, but Spotify warned me that if I turned off “Spotify Social,” I’d miss out on recommendations from my friends (I’m still not 100% sure what Spotify Social includes beyond the broadcast stream that makes scrobbling possible, but since interacting with my friends was part of Spotify’s sweet, shiny promise, turning off Spotify Social entirely didn’t seem like a good idea). I settled for turning off “share what I listen to on Facebook,” and for turning on “Private Session” every time I used Spotify.

Turning on “Private Session” every time you use Spotify, however, gets really old really quickly. And no, Virginia, that’s not coincidence; that’s affordance! Like any other designed object, Spotify is designed to make its intended uses seem easier and more intuitive; like any other Social website, app, or service, Spotify is designed to make “sharing” information easier and withholding information more difficult. Accordingly, Spotify’s features include not only “frictionless sharing,” but also a nice dose of friction should you choose not to share.

So I started leaving Spotify in public mode, but only when I listened to Spotify radio. I’d noticed that one friend in particular listened to a lot of Spotify radio, and I noticed that I knew this about him because—in the scrolling “Activity” bar where each track each of my friends listened to popped up—it said “using Spotify Radio.” I figured using Spotify Radio publicly was safe, because if I unknowingly listened to something discrediting, it clearly wouldn’t be my doing. It would be Spotify’s fault! I often clicked back into Private Session when I listened to albums, though, and I always clicked into Private Session if I checked out something my friends were listening to (because, as I explained in the TNI essay, checking out my friends’ music without actually talking to them made me feel like a creepy stalker).

unnecessary-spyingBy October, I was also tentatively leaving Spotify in public mode when I investigated things my friends seemed to be listening to a lot. It helped that I was only broadcasting on Spotify, not Facebook; the fact that there was no persistent record of my exact listening habits meant that someone both had to be on Spotify at the same time as I was and had to be looking at their activity bar at the right time, and the odds of that seemed pretty low (especially given that I still lived three time zones behind the vast majority of my Spotifriends). There was also the part when a certain social-media theorist friend not only made fun of me for feeling like a creepy stalker, but also called me “cyberasocial“—and man, them’s fightin’ words. Ok, fine: I’ll “donate my taste to a Generalized Other.” Sometimes. Maybe.

By mid-October, it was time to cancel my Spotify membership to avoid being billed. Something else was going on, though: I was preparing to travel to Reykjavík for Iceland Airwaves 2012. When I’d attended Iceland Airwaves 2010, all I’d had to go on for choosing which bands to see which nights were the one-paragraph descriptions in the official festival guide; now I had a festival guide and Spotify, and something like 60-70% of the bands I thought I might be interested in seeing were on there. I made a playlist called Iceland Airwaves Homework, and—inspired by three other Spotify users I didn’t know who had done something similar—I left the playlist public. I even listened to it publicly, except for when I encountered something awesome that I wanted to hear again right away (5 or 10 or 29834287534687345 times in a row); on those occasions, I went back to Private Session.

Making the Iceland Airwaves Homework playlist exposed me to a lot of really great music (including a bunch of albums I now own on vinyl). But it did something else, too, something almost magical: I got into one particular band (that I really like) months before any of my Serious Music Enthusiast Friends did. For at least three or four of those friends, I was the first person they knew who’d said, “Hey, this is good; you should check it out” (and, yes, I did this by sending files on Spotify). This “firstness” pretty much never happens, and I was maybe a little giddy when January 2013 rolled around and that band was suddenly popping up all over my friends’ listening in the “Activity” bar. Nevermind what anyone else thought; I was awarding myself cultural capital like nobody’s business. I felt so cool! (Look at me, I get to be cool now.)

Even though I didn’t consciously connect that giddy-making feeling of having discovered that I sometimes have Undeniably Good Taste in Music to the fact that I was on Spotify, in retrospect this is probably the moment when Spotify and I cemented our long-term working relationship.

January 2013 became February 2013, and I began the cross-country drive to move back to MA from CA. When I’d done my first cross-country roadtrip (the one that took me to CA from MA over August of 2008), music had played an important role: I’d asked my friends to make me mix CDs for the drive, and I’d meticulously catalogued (by which I mean: scrawled illegibly in my Moleskine while driving) everything I listened to for the entire 5,200 mile journey—date, trip odometer, album artist and title (or mix title and creator), and nearest city or town on my GPS (which, for a couple of albums on the WY day, was simply “I-25,” because no matter how far I zoomed out on the GPS, I couldn’t pull a town into view). For my return home, it seemed as though something similar was in order; yet, most of my close friends were still 3,000 miles away, and that makes it a lot harder to turn up at a going away party with a CD in hand. Instead, I asked people to send me Spotify playlists—and then I did something radical: I turned on “Share my activity and what I listen to on Facebook.” I had two reasons for doing so: first, I thought it might be nice to have my roadtrip music records record themselves this time; second, I thought it might be nice for my friends who had made me playlists to watch me listen my way through them. Obviously I’d turn Facebook sharing back off once I got to Cambridge, but these were special circumstances.

highway-nightThen, on 2 February 2013, something funny happened. A much-anticipated album (which I, personally, had been anticipating with particular intensity) was finally released. A tidal wave of fan enthusiasm crashed the servers selling it, but a friend managed to get a digital copy and put it online so that I, too, could download and listen. I was in the interstate middle of nowhere at the time, but I pulled off the freeway and into a McDonald’s and sat in the parking lot for an hour, eating French fries and positively vibrating with *squeeee*, as—packet by packet—that album trickled into the laptop perched on my dashboard. After what seemed like forever, I imported the complete album into iTunes, and from there got it onto both my phone and my iPod (just for good measure). I hooked up one of those i-devices to my auxiliary port, pulled out of the parking lot, and—as I accelerated to speed on the interstate onramp, heading back into the late-night winter darkness—finally, finally upon finally, got to press “play.”

That opening song was the perfect soundtrack for that moment, and I was so excited to be doing that first listen-through, and I knew that a number of my friends either were or soon would be having their own versions of that moment as I was having mine; even far away from everything and surrounded by nothing, I felt connected, felt a part of some kind of awesome networked collective effervescence. And then I realized:

Nobody knew.

I may have been driving on the interstate, but as far as Spotify was concerned, I’d gone off-roading: these were local files, and local files don’t scrobble.  As I’d written for TNI, “Local files are the second-class citizens of Spotify Nation: You cannot send them to your friends, and you cannot scrobble your local listening habits with them. Social though Spotify may be, you must enjoy your outcast songs alone.” That had been true then, and it was still true now, but it had never mattered to me on a personal level. Four-plus months of using Spotify, however, had augmented my documentary vision: I’d internalized not only the idea that “sharing what I’m listening to in real-time” is a possibility, but also the idea that “sharing what I’m listening to in real-time” is a desirable thing to do. I’d come to understand my listening as something that could be broadcast, and to understand that particular moment as the sort in which my listening should be broadcast, but the “broadcast” option wasn’t available to me—and this sparked a palpable tension, a strange anxiety that made me feel all the more ill-at-ease for feeling it in the first place. I was disquieted because I couldn’t scrobble? Seriously?

Sure, everyone would know I was listening to the album soon enough; I’d pull in somewhere for the night and post about it on Facebook just like a dozen or more people I knew, and I’d discuss my first impressions of the album over SMS, and blah blah blah. But there was a distinct difference, it suddenly seemed, between merely talking about something—even via a persistent medium like Facebook—and actually documenting it. The imagined traces of my would-be scrobbling seemed like photographs for sound: scrobble, or it didn’t happen. Spotify’s affordances made it a Snapchat[i] moment, when what I wanted to be using was Instagram. My thwarted documentary desire condensed like moisture from my breath on the driver’s side window, and ran down in rivulets as a quiet but undeniable agitation.

As I would later say of a similar but less intense moment, what I eventually called “documentary frustration” is like Jurgenson’s “documentary vision” plus Jenny Davis’s (@Jenny_L_Davis) “fear of being missed” [or FoBM] all rolled up into one, combined (of course) with a little tongue-in-cheek metavexation over the fact that I care in the first place. But it’s true: somehow, at some point over those first four months of Spotification, I became the kind of person who’s bothered more by the idea of not being able to broadcast my listening habits (when I want to do so) than by the idea of my listening habits being broadcast (when I don’t want them to be). It’s still true now, and that still strikes me as somewhat strange.

(Instagram moment)
(Instagram moment: my Welcome Home snowpocalypse, February 2013.)

I did turn off broadcasting to Facebook when I arrived in Cambridge, but not for long. Facebook started doing this thing where they make a newsfeed item of it if two or more of your Facebook friends (publicly) listen to the same artist or album on Spotify within a few days of each other, and I kept seeing these items in my newsfeed. Friends who know each other would sometimes listen to the same things, which was unsurprising; friends who don’t know each other would sometimes listen to the same things, which I thought was kind of neat. Sometimes, though, I’d see those newsfeed items (especially the ones that combined friends who don’t know each other), and I’d think, “Hey! I listened to that album too!” …except, again, nobody knew. Hello, FoBM, how are you? I wanted to be included; I wanted people to know. And so I did it: sometime last spring, I turned ‘broadcast to Facebook’ back on.

All spring and all summer, I pretty much only clicked into Private Session for annoying repeat listening or for listening to my “gym sessions and non-leisurely bike riding” playlist. Then, at the end of August, I got a new app to track my biking speed and mileage via GPS, and having to tap and swipe my way through both turning scrobbling off and turning GPS tracking on turned out to be so offputtingly involved (especially when I’m running late) that half the time, I don’t even bother to turn on Private Session for that anymore. I give up: the affordances of Spotify have worn me down. Yes, that playlist is half Good Music and half Guilty Pleasures. Yes, Erasure cozies up to Exitmusic and Lady Gaga hangs out with Lush; at present, shuffle might throw Jawbreaker into Charli XCX into Screen Vinyl Image into Florence + The Machine, and that’s just how it goes. I’ll even tell you that I listened to this one Presents for Sally song on repeat for like half an hour this afternoon, and I listened to this one old James song for longer than that around three in the morning last night. I guess I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with public nudity when it comes to my tastes in music.

To be fair, of course, the underlying attitudinal shift—that I now prioritize potential cultural capital over accrued cultural capital, at least in certain contexts—isn’t just due to Spotify; it also coincides with a series of much larger changes over the past year, changes that have occurred as I’ve started to assume more of a public life. Slowly but surely, I’m acclimating not only to the process of becoming more visible generally, but also to new kinds of visibility; I’ve also learned to see potential social- and cultural capital in a lot more places, and to see my failures to engage with those potentials as “losses.” Academic Twitter, for instance, started out as a lifeline; now I recognize it as something I should be making time for even though I have other sources of intellectual and social support, because it’s an important part not just of my job as a public sociologist, but also of my professional development. This is not, of course, to say that I’ve jumped on the ‘Look At Me’ paradigm of Mandatory Visibility for All bandwagon, because nothing could be further from the truth; it’s important to note that I’ve chosen the contexts in which I’ve become more visible, that I’ve done so more-or-less on my own terms, and that while some of my choices have undoubtedly been influenced by the affordances of the apps that I use, I have not been unaware of those influences. Yeah, I’m not sure how I got here either, but here I am—and in truth, I think I’m on the right track.

As for the rest of my 2012 objections to joining Spotify? I still drive long distances, as well as through places where I don’t have cellular data, and it definitely bugs me when Spotify hangs or gets silently stuck in the middle of a song; that said, I still use it (because even when I have a higher quality copy of an album on my iPod—which I still carry—the iPod doesn’t scrobble). For a while during the spring I tried saving more playlists to my phone (which had never been an object I’d used for music listening before), but my old 16 GB iPhone quickly ran out of space; when that phone disappeared somewhere in the middle of Brooklyn during ASA13 last month, being able to store more music was a secondary reason I shelled out for a 64 GB replacement phone. A year of Spotification has changed how I engage with the affordances of mobile phones.

I’ve done a decent job of acquiring music I’ve fallen in love with through Spotify, mainly by sticking to an informal, “If I find myself clicking into Private Session to listen to something on repeat, and the artist isn’t Ridiculously Famous, it’s time to buy it on vinyl (or pay to download it, failing that)” rule. But I was right: I’m not perfect about it, and some of those playlists have so many random songs by so many random artists that it would really be an epic pain to re-collect them all as local files. Could I eventually pull this off? Probably. Is that really what I want to spend my time on, when I can just keep handing over $10/month and not have to deal with it? Nope. Granted, I’m a PhD student, and as such I’m not exactly rolling in discretionary income; I’m also a PhD student, and as such not exactly rolling in discretionary time. Or rather, I actually have a ton of discretionary time; I just also have a lot of better things to do with it (like do research, and write stuff, and read stuff, and perform my professional identity on Twitter, and go to shows, and spend time with my friends, and text with my friends, and send dumb snaps of my cat and my two goldfish to my friends, and think about maybe unpacking some more of my box forest apartment, and…you get the idea).

This is a very important part of my day.
No really, this is a very important part of my day.

The emotional thing, on the other hand, hasn’t really kicked in. I do have the 2013 roadtrip playlists that other people made for me as gifts, but I could just as well screenshot them to remember the care that went into those gestures. As for the playlists I’ve made myself, I haven’t gotten anywhere near as attached to them as I did to some of the mix tapes and mix CDs I made in the past; it turns out I cling to my Spotify playlists mainly out of pragmatism, because it’d be too annoying to rebuild them. In fact, if I were to quit Spotify today, the playlist I’d miss most isn’t a sappy or sentimental one, but that ‘gym sessions and biking’ one—so much so that I consider the money I pay Spotify every month part of my gym membership, just billed by a different company.

The funniest twist, however, is a bifurcated one. On the one hand, while I haven’t become a Spotivangelist, I’ll admit to being caught a little off-guard when I want to send songs to a music enthusiast friend and that person isn’t on Spotify; “is on Spotify” is apparently something I now assume true of all my music enthusiast friends, whether I’ve ever seen them on Spotify or not. On the other hand, as I write this there is—for the first time in years—a flash drive stuck in one of the USB ports on my computer. It’s full of music, and tomorrow I’ll slip it into a padded envelope and send it on its way.

Whitney Erin Boesel (@weboesel) does not broadcast her music listening activity on Twitter—at least, not usually.

Roundabout image from here; highway at night from here; Instagram image and ridiculous Snapchat image courtesy of author.

[i] Ironically, that last cross-country roadtrip was also when I first fell in love with Snapchat—but that’s a story for another post.