The mounting horror of music’s Frankenstream services

MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say.  The following comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press. 

Stitched together from different parts of multiple corpses, the “monster” in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is really a misnomer. The true monster in the novel is Victor Frankenstein, not his cadaverous creation.

The book, however, seems to have become an instruction manual, rather than a bleak warning, for a multitude of DSPs as they grab this and stitch it to that, all in the hope of becoming invincible and immortal.

Eventually, however, these Frankenstream companies will turn on their creators.

Jeff Bezos, expressing his wildest ambition for Amazon in its earliest days, would refer to it as “the everything store”. The ghost of Harding, Howell & Co, set up in London in 1796 as arguably the world’s first department store, hung heavy over developments here as, unencumbered by floor and racking space, Bezos moved from books to almost everything else. (There are still some items, like guns and pets, it does not sell.)

With real estate and virtual racking on websites and apps being technically unlimited, the temptation to offer everything, or certainly stretch far beyond your initial idea, is hard to resist. It became a kind of reckless digital omniphilia: offer everything because you can.

That has resulted in cut and shut services, where whole new parts get added on, seemingly at random, with the logic being that if it has more parts it can do more things faster. It worked for Karl Elsener and the Swiss army knife, right?

Except, as Apple steadily found out, it just made everything slower as the joints rusted and fused together.

In 2001, it launched iTunes as a ripping and music management service, then in 2003 it became a music download store. Thereafter, it added videos, podcasts, books, radio, apps, even a social network with the short-lived Ping. By this stage, iTunes looked and moved like the software version of the Human Caterpillar. In trying to do more, the core technology was buckling under unanticipated pressure, folding in on itself. It did lots of things, yes, but it started to do them all badly.

In its newest incarnation, the Music app is not quite the hot mess iTunes became, but it still disproves the theory that Apple’s focus on ergonomics and slick design minimalism cuts through everything it does.

For a company that keeps a keen eye on Apple – arguably less for its design cues these days and more over concerns about its market power – this is one message that appears to have not come through loud and clear at Spotify. Like a febrile supermarket dash, Spotify seems determined to just grab everything it can and throw it onto the pile with an expectant “Ta-da!” and over-expectant jazz hands.

The warning signs – amid this bewildering frenzy to keep iterating – were there in the early days.

In 2009, this company that was loudly proclaiming that streaming was the future, started selling downloads. Downloads! Maybe that was a handrail for consumers as they started to get their heads around the shift from ownership to access. The downloads were initially delivered by 7digital but in 2011, Spotify created its own store, although that only lasted until 2013 when it was all closed, never to be spoken of again. It said it did this to “further simplify the service and pave the way for new features announced at the end of last year”.

In a classic one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back move, this “simplification” merely ushered in a company policy that one can only assume was driven by wilful over-complication.

Spotify is the heavyweight king of launching side hustles that no one asked for, few wanted and that barely anyone uses. Its temporary move to offer à la carte downloads was to prove to be merely the amuse-bouche in this sour banquet it gorged on.

In September 2018, it decided that it could become an aggregator and a distributor (to itself) by letting unsigned acts cut out third-party services and upload tracks directly via Spotify For Artists, positioning this as a powerful shakeup of digital democracy.

By July 2019, the Upload Beta Program was no more. “The most impactful way we can improve the experience of delivering music to Spotify for as many artists and labels as possible is to lean into the great work our distribution partners are already doing to serve the artist community,” it announced in a press statement that, on the one hand, said nothing but, on the other hand, said everything about how out of its depth it was here.

Since then we have seen a brusque approach to services: it builds them, it tries to put them to work and then it closes them.

“Spotify is the heavyweight king of launching side hustles that no one asked for, few wanted and that barely anyone uses.”

In 2018 (Australia) and 2019 (the US), the company launched Spotify Stations that was widely derided as “a Pandora copycat”. It trudged along through snowballing indifference and was eventually sent away to “live on a farm” in 2022.

It wasn’t just muddy software and services that it was throwing at the wall hoping some of it would stick; it was also physical items. In February 2022, it launched Car Thing in the US – an in-car voice- and touch-controlled player – and in April 2022 it made it available more widely. Until it stopped making Car Things in July 2022, thereby giving it a lifespan similar to that of a Labord’s chameleon.

In July 2022, perhaps echoing the semi-apocryphal tale of the American who bought Tower Bridge and not London Bridge in 1968, its M&A team bought Heardle (not Wordle). It clearly went so well that… they closed it in May 2023. Witness the potent irony of speculating on a music guessing game.

Spotify then launched Greenroom in 2021 – in that five-minute window when Clubhouse’s founders and investors convinced the tech world that this was the future – and renamed it Spotify Live in April 2022. Rebranding, Spotify quickly discovered, is not a panacea. The name, clearly, was not the problem; the service was the problem. Spotify Live became Spotify Dead in April 2023.

It is now backing out of big-name podcasts, with the Obamas joining exclusively in 2019 and then leaving (exclusively?) in 2022, while the Duke and Duchess of Sussex lasted from 2020 to 2023 with only a handful of podcast episodes to show for the reported $20 million they got on signing up. To lose one celebrity podcasting couple, Mr Ek, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

It’s almost – almost – like there’s a pattern emerging here. Spotify thinks it is a bold alchemist, transmuting base metal ideas into solid gold activations. It pumps money and resources into something. Then a year later it scraps its great hope because it was not great at that thing it was convinced it was going to be amazing at.

But don’t worry: there are more great things, game-changing things, spluttering down the product pipeline. There is a second swing at making audiobooks a new audio centre (albeit limited to 15 hours a month) and there might be prompt-driven AI playlists that could sit inside the rumoured, and clunky named, “Supremium” tier that may also offer high-res audio.

Look on helplessly as this Frankenstream lurches from one addition to another amputation, clawing at the sky and wailing in its confusion.

“Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” asked the monster in Frankenstein.

These extra limbs sewn onto DSPs are not shunned through hatred. A crueller fate befalls them. They are shunned through apathy.Music Business Worldwide

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