Spotify, Soundwaves and the Solitary

© Unknown Mortal Orchestra, ‘II’, 2013

By Alex Lamont

It’s not been a great year for the majority of us, and if by chance fortune has smiled upon you, keep it to yourself until June and tell us all about it over a pint. For me, the saving grace, or survival tool, has been music. At the best of times music remains a constant in our day to day meanderings, whether it’s the soundtrack for the punctual bus commute or blasting through speakers into the late night. But from March 2020 to March 2021 (the time of writing), it has progressed to an even greater role than it previously held, inhabiting the shape of a study-buddy, a distraction, and at times, a friend.

Consequently, unlike my previous late teen years, in which the chatter of Snapchat and jealousy inducing Instagram occupied a worrying amount of my life, Spotify has been the app of my twentieth year. Before critiquing the limits to the streaming giant’s promotion of new music, I would like to make clear my appreciation that we had it on hand to guide us through the last twelve months. Life would have been a little bit darker without the convenience of music streaming, as much as we sometimes look down our noses at it while cradling our vinyl records in our arms. Music doesn’t always have to be an event, I feel it’s a luxury we should allow ourselves to indulge in as frequently as possible, and streaming is the easiest way for us to do it.

With that being said, hunting for new music is a discovery unlike most other discoveries, in that the hunt for new music never ends. Very little beats the feeling of hearing a new song for the first time or rediscovering a tune that feels so intimately wrapped in the memories of a certain time in your life. I experienced this a few years ago when I stumbled across Why Can’t This Be Love by Van Halen, a song my Dad had ripped and put on a CD for my Walkman when I was four, and all of those car journeys up and down to Northumberland came flooding back to me. It’s a magical feeling when it happens.

The Spotify algorithm in these trying times was, for many including myself, the primary key to a whole bank of undiscovered discographies and playlists- for a time. Spotify boasts 70 million tracks in its rich database, and yet, as every album I hear fades out the once-infectious now-infected groovy chords of So Good at Being In Trouble buzz into my earphones like an angry wasp. At first I welcomed it in as a kind neighbour, liking it and adding it to all of my summer playlists. But as the winter months arrived I realised that my kind neighbour was a bloodsucking vampire invited into my home, feeding off the algorithm and the opportunities its fellow sixty-nine million fellow tracks deserved.

The unusual thing here, is that Spotify used to have an option to prevent this – a like or dislike function while listening to a radio from a selected song – which disappeared some time ago. In place, the Spotify algorithm rotates between a handful of songs the listener already listens to on a regular basis, Unknown Mortal Orchestra in my case and after some thorough research, Harness Your Hopes by Pavement for my housemates. In a time where bars and gigs are closed, meetings with friends are severely limited, and the churning output of steady music is slower than the usual, it is a shame that Spotify were unable to seize the chance to introduce a new host of upcoming musicians to the world. This, to an extent, was reflected in the inclusion of well-established artists KAYTRANADA and Phoebe Bridgers in the Best New Artist category at the recent 2021 GRAMMY’s with both artists taking a giant streaming leap with Kyoto (31,067,512) and 10% (41,202,083) respectively with major assistance from the Spotify algorithm.

What can we do to counter this? This is by absolutely no means a ‘boycott Spotify’ article, but I can only suggest and encourage you to sign up to newsletters from as many online vinyl retailers (such as Rough Trade and The Turntable Lab), as well as independent, unincentivized music websites (such as us!) to find your new musical fix. 

In any case, that is all for now. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, hit the outro…