MIT Press manuscript slowly emerging

Within our research project around Spotify we are currently together writing and building a book manuscript to be delivered to MIT Press before summer. Things are proceeding, albeit somewhat slowly. I am presently in charge of Chapter 2, which takes a closer look at how files become music on Spotify. The text will be thoroughly edited, but the first pages currently reads as follows:

Spotify paints it black. This short message was announced on the Spotify company blog in January 2015—with the promise to bring “Windows Phone users the best-looking Spotify ever.” By introducing a darker theme, including a refreshed typography with rounded iconography, playing your favourite music has “never looked so good”, the blog post argued. With its “refined interface” the dark theme “lets the content come forward and ‘pop’, just like in a cinema when you dim the lights.”

Interfaces indeed pop forward—and by doing so hide all infrastructures behind. Consequently, it is well known that the story of music services (like Spotify), or basically any platform or service typically accentuates, and gives prominence to touchy and shiny surfaces—which constantly seems to get updated with fancy features. Still, graphical interfaces (GUI) are not only designed to look (and haptically feel) good, they are also somewhat paradoxically made to disappear from our perception. Just like in a cinema looking at the screen, viewers/users should ideally forget about mediating mechanisms—in this case, how files are becoming music—and instead willingly enter into a frictionless, coded diegesis of smooth and endless sounds.

Of course, listeners are usually aware (in one way or the other) of the technology and infrastructural framework behind the interface, whether they use a smartphone, a tablet or a computer (with their different semblances). After all, experiencing music as software differs from listening to a CD or an LP—not the least so since the ‘lean back experience’ is way less prominent. Online input is always needed. Active listeners are accordingly familiar with the demands of the service and the ways that Spotify summons its users: “Know what you want to listen to? Just search and hit play … Go get the music … Check out … discover new tracks, and build the perfect collection” [our italics]. As Jeremy Wade Morris has argued—and explicitly discussed at length towards the end of his book, Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture (2015)—music as software has lucidly introduced a new “technological relationship” to processes of searching and discovering, listening and liking, exchanging or buying music. When music at streaming services is coded and redefined as a purely data-driven communication form—with, on the one hand, content (as audio files and metadata) being aggregated through various external intermediaries, and on the other hand user generated data being extracted from listening habits—the singularity of the music experience is transformed and blended into what Wade Morris has termed “a multimediated computing experience.”

Today’s multimediated and exceedingly computational experience of listening to music takes on different, and sometimes personalised forms. Nevertheless, in order to understand the logic and rationale of streaming music services as Spotify, one should not shy away from, but rather ask what exactly happens when data is turned into music—and vice versa. That is: what occurs and takes place beneath the black shiny surface of, say, the Spotify desktop client, with its green and greyish interface details and whited fonts and textures? Research on the cultural implications of software— whether in the form of software studies, digital humanities, platform studies or media archaeology—has repeatedly stressed the need for in-depth investigations how computing technologies work, combined with (more or less) meticulous descriptions of technical specificities. Our analyzes of Spotify resembles such media specific readings of the computational base—that is, the mathematical structures underlying various interfaces and surfaces, and hence resonates with media scholarly interests in technically rigorous ways of understanding the operations of material technologies.

A first thing to note going under the hood, however, is that the Spotify infrastructure is hardly a uniform platform. Rather it is downright traversed by data flows, file transfers and information retrieval in all kinds of directions—be they metadata traffic identifying music, aggregation of audio content, playout of streaming audio formats (in different quality ratings), programmatic advertising (modelled on finance’s stock exchanges) or interactions with other services (notably social media platforms). Spearheading the new data economy of the 21st century Spotify resembles a sprawling network of interaction that include musicians and listeners alongside other actors and interests that have little to do with cultural commodities or media markets in a traditional sense. The constant data exchanges that occur—ranging from interactions with social media to car manufacturers—are all located elsewhere, outside of the so called platform of Spotify. We find that notion troublesome, and instead prefer describing Spotify as an evolving and open-ended data infrastructure, even if and perhaps needless to say, Spotify does not provide an open infrastructure for music listening. But since media environments “increasingly essential to our daily lives (infrastructures) are dominated by corporate entities (platforms)”, there exist today a scholarly tension between these two concepts as modes (or models) for critical examination. Platform studies have repeatedly acknowledged the dual nature of commercial platforms; YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the like support innovation and creativity—but also regulate and curb participation with the ultimate goal to produce profit for platform owners. In short, platform affordances simultaneously allow and constrain expressions. Spotify, however, differs from traditional ‘web 2.0’-platforms. Content wise it is a service geared towards and catering to record labels and artists that seeks to provide a regulated and commercialized streaming service with professional music, and not a semi-open platform with user-generated content. There is, after all, a difference between Spotify and SoundCloud. As a consequence, we find the term platform both problematic and inadequate, and have hence refrained from using it in this book.