Meg Lethem was working at her bakery in Boston one morning when she had an epiphany. Tasked with choosing the soundtrack for the day, she opened Spotify and paged and paged, endlessly searching for something to play. nothing was Perfect for the moment. She kept looking a little further, playlist after playlist. An uncomfortably familiar loop she realized: she hated how music was being used in her life. “That was the problem,” she says. “Use Music instead of self-awareness … With which music do I get in the mood for the day? What will I use to enjoy my walk? I was starting to not really like what that meant.”
It wasn’t just passive listening, but a purposeful approach to music that felt like a creation of the streaming environment. “I decided that music should be that tool [create] an experience instead of an experience itself was not something I liked,” she reflects. So she retired her Spotify service, and later Apple Music, to focus on making her listening more “at home” and less of a background experience.
Such calculations have become increasingly common in recent years as engaged music listeners continue to grapple with the unethical economics of streaming companies and feel the impact of engagement-obsessed, habit-forming business models on their own listening and discovery habits. They are looking for alternatives.
“With streaming, things gradually became disposable and disposable,” says Finlay Shakespeare. Shakespeare, a Bristol-based musician and audio engineer, recently deleted his streaming accounts and bought a used iPod on eBay for £40. As for streaming, he says, “If I couldn’t keep up with an album or an artist’s work at first, I wasn’t likely to go back to it.” But he recognized that many of his absolute favorite albums were ones that he’d grown to love over time were. “Streaming actually contributed to some degree of rejection of new music.” Even with digital downloads, he tended to devote more time and attention to music.
Jared Samuel Elioseff, a multi-instrumentalist who records as Invisible Familiars and owns a studio in Cambridge, New York, also felt the streaming environment hindered his musical curiosity in general: “I’ve been without Spotify for two years now . My musical experiences definitely feel more engaged and focused. It’s not that convenient. I grudgingly admit that I listen to less music. Although I haven’t necessarily heard stuff on Spotify. I watched the first 15 seconds and clicked skip. Now I have to work for it and I like that. I can use the internet as a search tool, but I don’t use it to listen. I really have to look and research.
“Streaming makes the listening experience much more passive,” he continues. “The word ‘streaming’ is one of those things that’s starting to enter everyone’s vocabulary. Before music streaming existed, what else was streamed? This idea that you can just turn on a faucet and music comes out. It’s something that everyone takes for granted.”
Conversations about how digital marketplaces are influencing listening have long focused on album unbundling. For some, however, this has felt distinctly connected to streaming. Nick Krawczeniuk, a music fanatic and network engineer who’s recently moved away from streaming, felt his listening habits were particularly influenced by Spotify’s Like playlist: “I found myself picking more and more unique songs from an artist before I was inclined to save an entire album.”
And Milesisbae, a 23-year-old hip-hop artist from Richmond, Virginia, who recently canceled all streaming subscriptions after learning how little musicians were compensated, remarked something similar: “I’m going to listen to a song 100 times in a row , but I won’t give the rest of the album a chance. Before I used streaming services, I listened to the whole thing.”
Miles says he’s seeing artists selling CDs and downloads at shows more and more often; Indeed, for some who have deleted Spotify and Apple Music accounts, quitting streaming has meant a major reinterpretation of their relationship with MP3s. For Shakespeare, downloads are now his primary form of consumption: he replaced his iPod’s hard drive with a micro SD card dock to increase capacity, and loaded it with Bandcamp purchases and ripped CDs.
For Krawczeniuk, leaving Spotify after eight years was partly inspired by the realization that he could build something similar himself using open source software, a home server and a VPN on his phone. He’s now using a project called Navidrome to create a self-hosted streaming library that he can stream from anywhere across various devices. “It’s a small box that sits on my desk and plugs into my router,” he explains. The server contains all of his music, including Bandcamp purchases and ripped CDs: “It’s a simple music library.” or are energy intensive.
Almost everyone interviewed for this piece pointed to the need for systemic change across the music industry, from rethinking how streaming services pay royalties to expanding public funding for artists. Still, moving away from streaming has led to a more meaningful daily music experience.
Jeff Tobias, a musician and composer who finally pulled the plug on Spotify in early 2022 when the company made headlines for its deal with podcaster Joe Rogan, has a no-fuss approach to streamless listening: vinyl, cassette, Bandcamp, Mixcloud. When it comes to discovery, recommendations come from friends, the Bandcamp editorial team, and stuff he encounters while working at a local record store. “It’s almost a kind of relationship to pre-internet music,” he says. “I kind of go back to, ‘Oh, I wonder how this album sounds,’ until I actually take it upon myself to actually look for it.”
“I like music because it’s a collaborative artistic practice,” he adds. “And anything I can do to listen to music in a way that connects me either to the artists or to my friends, I want to be a part of that. Spotify and streaming in general have nothing to do with that relationship at all.”
Wendy Eisenberg, a musician and teacher who recently deleted her Napster Music (formerly Rhapsody) account, put it this way: “The only thing I’ve noticed since selling it is that music sounds better to me because I working to either find it on a hard drive or download it from a friend’s bandcamp or something. And every time I hear it, even if it’s just on the way to work, I can hear the spiritual irreverence of that choice. And so it doesn’t feel like I’m just receiving music from a distant tastemaker. But I seem to have a relationship with music, with rituals, and that’s where I come in as a practicing musician.
“When I take the extra step of putting it on my phone, or the extra step of flipping the tape or putting the CD in the car, it feels more like something I’m doing and not something I’m doing receive. They keep going. “And that sense of agency makes me a more engaged and engaged listener than the kind of passive listening without listening that streaming prompted me to do.”
Lethem reported something similar: She now mostly listens to records, Bandcamp downloads, and a small radio she put in her kitchen. “The choice is very limited. But it’s actually liberating. [With streaming] There’s endless accessibility, but you don’t really hear anything. At least that’s how it felt to me. I experience so much music, but am I really listening to it?”
DIY Discovery: Six ways to find new music…
The online music store Bandcamp is an important sales driver for many artists and has hardly suffered any losses in sales compared to streaming services. For fans and listeners, the Bandcamp Daily blog is a treasure trove of independent gems and oddities, and a few hours spent sifting through other users’ profiles or the site’s Discover feature is always sure to yield a new favorite or two .
The human algorithm
A great way to discover new music can often be by simply leaving a message in your favorite group chat: “What has everyone been listening to lately?” Even if your friends have exactly the same tastes as you, there’s bound to be one some variance, and these small differences are often the reason you pick up the kind of trail that an algorithm could never show you.
Your local record store
There are few better ways to find new music than simply walking down to your local record store, telling the clerk what you like, and asking what they recommend. If you’re shy, don’t worry: many stores have a staff selection area for you to browse through.
It’s easy to get bogged down by the repetitive cycles of streaming services. Online radio stations such as NTS, Worldwide FM, The Lot and Hope St Radio offer bespoke, exceptionally niche and often mind-blowing radio shows. Heavyweights like NTS have multiple channels and deep archives; Newer, more DIY operations may only have a patchy ultra-lo-fi stream and no tracklists. Either way, it’s a great way to hear something you’ve never heard before.
Interviews with artists
Musicians can often provide the best recommendations, and even if you don’t have most pop stars on your speed dial, interviews are generally the next best thing. For example, a Björk profile might lead you to wild techno experimentalists Sideproject, while a podcast chat between Charli XCX and Rina Sawayama might lead you to discover your new favorite diva.
If Spotify’s algorithm is disarmingly tailored, YouTube’s is shockingly lax. You almost never know what’s coming next when you’re listening to music on YouTube (which many people, especially among Gen Z, use as their sole streaming service). Sometimes it’s a different song by the same artist, sometimes something extraordinarily improbable, like this 1994 performance of Fade Into You, which was ubiquitous in many people’s algorithms for a year or so. Either way, it’s a journey. Shaad D’Souza
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