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The social soundtrack

Blake J. Graham | Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Our soundscape has been drastically altered. There has been a sea of change in the way we collect, create, listen to and share music. A decade ago, the rampant piracy of music descended upon the Internet. With the growth of technology enabling peer-to-peer sharing, as soon as one inspired individual had the audacity to put a song, album or discography on the Internet, all had access to it. The technology was too new for there to be direct moral codes around it; people knew that if they wanted music, they could search, click and it would be theirs — tucked safely in their library. Apple made a bet with the iTunes Store that people would want to pay for their music so long as acquiring it was as frictionless as in the models presented by the pirate giants Napster, KaZaA and Limewire. The iTunes 99 cents per song model worked for a time, then it fell apart. Complaints were lobbied: the sound quality wasn’t high enough, the previews weren’t long enough, the selection not broad enough. Piracy still ran rampant, and no insular group seemed to have the clout to fight it. To best piracy, an attempt had to be made to out-maneuver the benefits of stealing music while still promoting music, musicians and the music industry.

In October of 2008, an Internet company from Stockholm, Sweden, named Spotify was launched. Their goal was to provide instant access to the world’s music. For three years they were the dominating subscription service in Europe, offering a “freemium” payment model, where a small percentage of their users pays for premium services in order to offset the cost driven by their free users. In addition to premium accounts with more features and higher bitrate music Spotify placed radio-esque ads into the the free users’ streams to help pay for licensing. By November of 2010, Spotify had over 10 million users, 2.5 million of whom were paying for the service. On July 14, 2011, Spotify launched in the United States, becoming the most promising subscription music service to American users. On Sept. 22, 2011, Spotify teamed up with Facebook’s OpenGraph platform to allow users’ music preferences and tastes to be shared instantly with the Facebook network. Since announcing their integration with Facebook, Spotify has taken off in America with an overwhelmingly viral nature.

Spotify is not the only company offering social, digitally on-demand music experiences. Other players include Mog and Rdio (both also feature Facebook OpenGraph integration). There are some complaints against the services though, namely the ownership of music. The collection of music is a highly personal activity. People strive to create the most comprehensive collection to fit their needs, and as time progresses and people move through different phases of their lives, the music moves with them. The collection of an 80-year old man greatly differs from that of a teenager, not just in scope and style of music but even down to the media that sound is stored on. People desire connection with sound — be it emotional, analytical, rational, intimate or intellectual. There has even been a resurgence in the collection of vinyl LPs as a reaction against the perceived desensitivity in digital music. Some people would rather deal in the pure audio waveforms produced by a stylus tracing the grooves of a record and amplified to volume a la Faraday’s law of induction. There is pride and community in the connections between collector and collection, and that is something very difficult to replicate in a space as electrically sterile as the web.

As of Nov. 30, 2011, Spotify is changing that. They are changing from a music distribution service to a music distribution platform. Spotify has opened up its services to developers who can now tap into their musical environment. The result will be massive democratization of on-demand digital music. At its launch, Spotify has announced internal applications developed by Pitchfork, Last.fm, Billboard, Fuse, The Guardian, Rolling Stone and Tune Wiki among others. Their bet is on people buying into the services provided and founded on Spotify and for those users to effectively build their own community around it. People will now go to Spotify to explore new types of music while simultaneously engaging with their friends on Facebook. Every song a user listens to will be codified into Last.fm’s massive index, which will not only provide the information of what was listened to when, but the service will also passively use that data to provide recommendations. The technology isn’t individually new, but it is the amalgamation of social connectivity, professional reviews, trend analytics and digital recommendations under one platform that make the development so significant.

The past, present and future of music are wholly personal and magnificently democratic. We all want to be explorers who delve into lands of mysterious sounds and return with gems of music to return to our collections. We all want to share our treasures and discoveries with those around us. Services like Rhapsody, eMusic, Pandora and iTunes got us to where we are today. But it’s time for the giants of social to take over. It’s time for life to be infused into digital music. It’s time for us to take our music back.

Blake J. Graham is a freshman. He can be reached on Twitter @BlakeGraham or at bgraham2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily that of The Observer.