Meg Lethem was working at her bakery job one morning in Boston when she had an epiphany. Tasked with choosing the day’s soundtrack, she opened Spotify, then flicked and flicked, endlessly searching for something to play. Nothing was perfect for the moment. She looked some more, through playlist after playlist. An uncomfortably familiar loop, it made her realise: she hated how music was being used in her life. “That was the problem,” she says. “Using music, rather than having it be its own experience … What kind of music am I going to use to set a mood for the day? What am I going to use to enjoy my walk? I started not really liking what that meant.”
It wasn’t just passive listening, but a utilitarian approach to music that felt like a creation of the streaming environment. “I decided that having music be this tool to [create] an experience instead of an experience itself was not something I was into,” she reflects. So she cut off her Spotify service, and later, Apple Music too, to focus on making her listening more “home-based” and less of a background experience.
Such reckonings have become increasingly commonplace in recent years, as dedicated music listeners continue to grapple with the unethical economics of streaming companies, and feel the effects of engagement-obsessed, habit-forming business models on their own listening and discovery habits. In the process, they are seeking alternatives.
“With streaming, things were starting to become quite throwaway and disposable,” says Finlay Shakespeare. A Bristol-based musician and audio engineer, Shakespeare recently deleted his streaming accounts and bought a used iPod on eBay for £40. With streaming, he says: “If I didn’t gel with an album or an artist’s work at first, I tended not to go back to it.” But he realised that a lot of his all-time favourite albums were ones that grew on him over time. “Streaming was actually contributing to some degree of dismissal of new music.” Even with digital downloads, he tended to give music more time and attention.
Jared Samuel Elioseff, a multi-instrumentalist who records as Invisible Familiars and owns a studio in Cambridge, New York, also felt the streaming environment was generally hindering his musical curiosity: “I’ve been Spotify-less for two years now. My musical experiences definitely feel more dedicated and focused. It’s not as convenient. I’ll reluctantly admit that I listen to less music. Although on Spotify, I wasn’t necessarily listening to stuff. I was checking out the first 15 seconds and hitting skip. Now, I have to work for it and I like that. I can use the internet as a search tool but I’m not using it as a means to listen. I really have to seek things out and research.
My musical experiences definitely feel more dedicated and focused … I have to work for it and I like that
“Streaming makes the listening experience much more passive,” he continues. “The word ‘streaming’ is one of those things that’s gradually assimilated into everyone’s vocabulary. Before there was streaming music, what else was streaming? This idea that you can just turn on a faucet, and out comes music. It’s something that leaves everyone to take it for granted.”
Conversations around how digital marketplaces shape listening have long focused on the unbundling of the album. For some, though, this has felt distinctly tied to streaming. Nick Krawczeniuk, a music fan and network engineer who recently moved away from streaming, felt his listening habits were being particular affected by Spotify’s “liked songs” playlist: “I found myself selecting more and more just one-off songs from an artist, whereas before I’d been inclined to save a whole album.”
And Milesisbae, a 23-year-old hip-hop artist from Richmond, Virginia, who recently cancelled all streaming subscriptions after learning how little musicians were compensated, noted something similar: “I will listen to one song 100 times in a row, but I won’t give the rest of the album a chance. Before I used streaming services, I would listen to the whole thing.”
Miles says he increasingly sees artists selling CDs and downloads at shows; indeed, for some who have deleted Spotify and Apple Music accounts, leaving streaming has meant a big-picture reimagination of their relationship to MP3s. For Shakespeare, downloads are now his primary mode of consumption: he has 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, the move away from Spotify after eight years was partly inspired by the realisation that by using open source software, a home server and a VPN on his phone, he could build something similar himself. He is now using a project called Navidrome to create a self-hosted streaming library that he can stream from any location, across various devices. “It’s a little box that sits on my desk, plugged into my router,” he explains. The server holds all his music, including Bandcamp purchases and ripped CDs: “It’s a simple music library.” He sees moving away from Big Streaming as connected to a broader movement towards small-scale tech projects and open-source services that are not resource- or energy-intensive.
Nearly everyone interviewed for this piece pointed out the need for systemic change across the music industry, from rethinking how royalties are paid by streaming services to expanding public funding for artists. Still, leaving streaming has led to a more meaningful daily experience of music.
Jeff Tobias, a musician and composer who finally pulled the plug on Spotify for good in early 2022 as the company was making headlines for its deal with podcaster Joe Rogan, has an approach to streamless listening that’s uncomplicated: records, cassettes, Bandcamp, Mixcloud. When it comes to discovery, recommendations come from friends, Bandcamp editorial, and stuff he comes across at his job working at a local record shop. “It’s almost a pre-internet style relationship with music,” he says. “I am kind of going back to thinking, ‘Oh I wonder what that album sounds like’ until I really take it upon myself to actually seek it out.”
“I like music because it’s a communal artistic practice,” he adds. “And anything that I can do that allows me to listen to music in a way that connects me with either the artists or my friends, that’s what I want to be involved with. Spotify and streaming in general just has absolutely no connection with that relationship at all.”
Wendy Eisenberg, a musician and teacher who recently deleted their account with Napster Music (formerly called Rhapsody), put it this way: “The one thing I’ve noticed since divesting is that music sounds better to me because I’ve put in the work to either locate it on a hard drive or download it from a friend’s Bandcamp or something. And every time I listen to 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 am just receiving music from some distant tastemaker. But it seems like I have some relationship to the music, of ritual, which is where I come to it as a practising musician.
“Taking the extra step to load it on to my phone, or the extra step to flip over the tape, or put the CD on in the car, it feels like something that I’m doing, rather than something I’m receiving,” they continue. “And that sense of agency makes me a more dedicated and involved listener than the kind of passive listening-without-listening that streaming was making me do.”
Lethem reported something similar: she now listens mostly to records, Bandcamp downloads, and a little radio she put in her kitchen. “The choices are very limited. But it’s actually freeing. [With streaming] there’s endless accessibility, but you’re not really listening to anything. At least that’s what it started feeling like to me. I’m experiencing so much music, but am I really listening to any of it?”
DIY discovery: Six ways to find new music …
Online music store Bandcamp is a key revenue driver for many artists, taking a scant cut of sales compared with streaming services. For fans and listeners, the Bandcamp Daily blog is a treasure trove of independent gems and curios, and a few hours spent trawling other users’ profiles or the site’s Discover function is always sure to yield a new favourite or two.
The human algorithm
A great way to discover new music can oftentimes be just dropping a message in your favourite group chat: “What’s everyone been listening to lately?” Even if your mates have the exact same taste as you, there’s bound to be some kind of variance, and those small differences are often where you’ll pick up the kind of track that an algorithm could never show you.
Your local record store
There are few better ways to find new music than simply going down to your local record store, telling the staff member at the counter what you’re into, and asking what they recommend. If you’re shy, don’t worry: many shops feature a staff picks section to trawl through.
It’s easy to be paralysed by the repetitive cycles of streaming services. Online radio stations such as NTS, Worldwide FM, The Lot and Hope St Radio offer tailored, extraordinarily niche, and often mindblowingly good radio shows. Heavy hitters such as NTS have multiple channels and deep archives; newer, more DIY operations might only have a patchy, ultra-lo-fi stream and no tracklists. Either way, it’s a great way to hear something you have never heard before.
Musicians can often provide the best recommendations, and even if you don’t have most pop stars on speed dial, interviews are generally the next best thing. A Björk profile, for example, may lead you to wild techno experimentalists Sideproject, while a podcast chat between Charli XCX and Rina Sawayama could lead you to discover your new favourite diva.
If Spotify’s algorithm is disarmingly tailored, YouTube’s is shockingly loose. You almost never know what’s going to come next when you are listening to music on YouTube (which many people, especially among Gen Z, use as their sole streaming service). Sometimes, it will be another song by the same artist, at other times, it will be something extraordinarily unlikely, such as this 1994 performance of Fade Into You that, for about a year, was ubiquitous in many people’s algorithms. Either way, it’s a journey. Shaad D’Souza