Dear Spotify: the internet is bigger than you

Spotify is awesome. I’m still going to use it to some degree. But I have a major issue with it that has driven me back to Grooveshark, my previous music streaming service. I don’t download or buy any music, so I’m 100% streaming. Before Spotify that meant a mix of Pandora (especially on mobile when I run), Grooveshark, YouTube, and occasionally MySpace (still a great spot to listen to bands’ stuff). So when Spotify came out I was psyched.

And there is a lot to like. It’s sleek, it has a wide selection (with some annoying gaps), and it’s clean. In particular, there aren’t a million versions of the same song, by and large. And if you select a song, it will play. (On Grooveshark you’ll occasionally get errors.) One downside is that it has ads. If that seems small, it mostly is. But it means, for instance, that you can’t just throw on a Spotify list for a party without your guests wondering why the heck there are random musical interludes followed by pitches to buy the music.

All that would be easy enough to put up with. Except…

Sharing music on Spotify sucks. Sharing with other Spotify users is great; my roommate and I co-created a playlist one night which was a lot of fun. But there is no easy way to share music with non-Spotify users, which is almost everyone. I’m sure Spotify would respond that as it gets more users, this will matter less. But that’s not a good enough answer.

You see, Spotify, the internet is bigger than you. Spotify wants to be the “killer app” for music. It wants to be your browser. This doesn’t feel all that weird for music, since many people are used to reliance on iTunes. But when you think of it in the context of the rest of your internet activity – and specifically your social activity – it’s easy to see that it’s a bad model.

The browser is the web’s “killer app”; everything you do on the web flows through your browser. But there’s a huge difference. Your browser is mostly detached from the content you view online. If you use Firefox that should be particularly clear. Mozilla isn’t responsible for all the web pages available online. Google, creator of Chrome, is responsible for organizing a lot of the web, but even it is mostly not in the content business. Basically, the people who make the content of the web aren’t the same ones who make your browser.

Spotify wants to do both for you with respect to music. They want to be the one with the legal rights to stream all the world’s music AND they want to provide the killer app. They don’t really care about sharing outside of Spotify because they don’t want people to use music outside of Spotify.

That’s bad news.

The internet is bigger and broader than any service, company, or app. That’s why the web is so powerful. It’s not “brought to you” by anyone really. It’s a set of standards that anyone can use to create web pages, build browsers, etc. No one controls each stage of the process by which you log onto the internet and access a web page.

Spotify wants more control. Sure, they aren’t your internet provider. But other than that, with respect to music at least, they want to be everything else. That’s not good. We shouldn’t give any one company such control. (That includes Apple, who has had too singular a presence in much of digital music up until now.) For that reason, we should resist Spotify.

Oh, and also it’s a huge pain in the ass. The thing I love about Grooveshark is that I can link to any song, or to a playlist I’ve made. I can share music with friends and family via email, social media, gchat, etc. As long as they have a web browser, the Grooveshark page will load and they can listen. They don’t need to provide information, download anything, or start using the service themselves. That’s the beauty of the web: everything is a link. Everything can be shared.

Spotify either doesn’t get that or doesn’t care. I’ll still inevitably use it to some extent since it’s great software and a great service. But I won’t be abandoning Grooveshark any time soon.

How to treat your readers

Like adults. Even if some of them don’t like it. Reihan Salam at National Review:

I am a conservative, but I’m also of the view that exposing people to potentially new, unfamiliar, uncongenial, and perhaps even offensive ideas isn’t akin to exposing them to, say, some kind of deadly pollutant. That is, my working assumption is that my readers are adults who don’t suffer from sensibilities so exquisitely delicate that even the slightest exposure to, say, a link to a “modest proposal” by two economists (known for their free market views) featured on VoxEU will give them the shakes. If I’m wrong, I’m sorry to say that you’re going to have to update your bookmarks or find some way to fiddle with your browser to block this URL.

There was always pressure to become lazy and not push readers, but in the age of analytics it’s much more obvious. The stats can tell you in real-time how much it’s costing you to push them. Reihan’s approach is laudable. But we can’t count on individual actors to do this. We need strong journalistic norms and perhaps rules within media organizations to push back against the temptation to merely preach to the converted.

How bands get paid

This is a fascinating post from an indie band, via Techdirt, laying out how much they get paid for various purchases or listens across platforms. It’s worth a read. But since I took a little heat for my recent post/screed on Spotify and the record companies, I want to share a few highlights from an actual music creator:

If you decide to pay nothing, well, we get nothing, but at least you didn’t give money indirectly to major record labels, which seems to be the case with Spotify!!

And here’s Techdirt:

What really comes through from all of this is that, as has pretty much always been the case with all but a handful of top acts, musicians don’t make much money from selling music. At least, as an indie band, Uniform Motion actually does make some money from all of these methods. If it was a signed band, they’d almost certainly be making zilch on each play or sale, because the label would keep it until they “recouped,” which for nearly every signed act is approximately never.

However, it does drive home the need for ancillary revenue streams — such as performances. Performance revenue has issues too, but to make a living making music, it seems pretty clear that most acts need multiple revenue streams.

The main point I want to make here is that figuring out how to make sure artists can live a comfortable life is mostly divorced from how we actually paid for music in the late 20th century! The centralized record company model was a means for a tiny percentage of artists to make a whole ton of money. Pretty much nothing about that makes sense. Especially now since distribution costs roughly nothing.

There is then the separate question of how a whole class of musical artists should be compensated. We can have that discussion. But let’s start it out by remembering that the answer so far has mostly been they basically didn’t. So when I raise the possibility that maybe they don’t need to, it shouldn’t seem like a totally wild notion.

What is evolution good for?

In one of his essays in Philosophy and Social Hope, Richard Rorty noted the tendency of scientists to assume that they are best positioned to adjudicate questions on the philosophy of science. As Rorty compelling detailed, they are not. So I was reminded when reading Can Darwinism Improve Binghamton? in NYT’s Book Review.

The author starts off this way:

My undergraduate students, especially those bound for medical school, often ask why they have to study evolution. It won’t cure disease, and really, how useful is evolution to the average person? My response is that while evolutionary biology can explain, for example, the origin of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we shouldn’t see evolution as a cure for human woes. Its value is explanatory: to tell us how, when and why we got here (by “we,” I mean “every organism”) and to show us how all species are related. In the end, evolution is the greatest tale of all, for it’s true.

This is, in my view, quite misguided. Without usefulness it soon becomes impossible to locate any measure by which to evaluate the truth of an explanation. This, to me, (and I believe to Rorty), is the point of postmodern philosophy. By accepting it we don’t have to accept all that falls under the heading of “postmodernism”; we can dodge it by embracing pragmatism. While I recommend Rorty to anyone looking to read more about science and pragmatism, I occasionally have come across succinct yet poignant statements of the subject, two of which I’d like to share here.
Economist Joseph Stiglitz put it simply but astutely in a recent paper“Prediction is the test of a scientific theory.”

It’s as simple as that. Conservative writer and entrepreneur Jim Manzi had an equally useful (get it?) take on science and pragmatism a while back.

He wrote“I claim that the purpose of science is to create useful, reliable, non-obvious predictive rules.”

We would do well to heed these words.*

*Yes, that’s circular reasoning, if you really think about it. But as Rorty might say, what’s the alternative?

Daddy, what’s a “job”?

Futurist Douglas Rushkoff has a column at CNN called Are Jobs Obsolete that’s worth a read. I want to endorse it as a thought exercise, which I believe is his main point. So much of our jobs debate occurs in this very narrow frame boxed in by the specific and path-dependent way that we currently structure our economic lives. Rushkoff’s thoughts are valuable as a thought experiment, if nothing else.

Here is the condensed version:

I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks — or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

We’re living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That’s because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff — it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.

What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.

There are some problem bits, like noting that the corporation is a relatively new phenomenon (by that standard, what aspect of economic life isn’t?) I also think his discussion of jobs and technology is wrong in one part, but it’s not worth discussing here. There are any number of major practical objections that must be leveled if anyone tries to make any recommendations based on this line of reasoning – and I’m still puzzling over them – but I’m not sure it’s useless either.

Here’s what I wrote in my post on peer production and David Roberts’ “Medium Chill” which I see as roughly in line with the sort of speculation Rushkoff is engaging in:

Think of this in terms of the basic economics for a moment. We need to produce various useful goods and services. We rely on firms – and the market at a broader level – to coordinate the division of labor necessary to produce these things. We need managers and org charts and work plans to overcome the basic fact that, left to our own devices, we wouldn’t really be able to get much done.

That was the old assumption. It largely made sense in a world that wasn’t connected. To produce sophisticated goods requires collaboration and, pre-internet, collaboration was quite expensive. All that is changing. There’s a new model in town – what Yochai Benkler calls “commons-based peer production”, which I’ve written about here. Today, coordination within large groups is relatively cheap. That’s how we’re able to produce Wikipedia, Linux, and Ceiling Cat.

Let’s return now to the medium chill. Even pre-internet I’d find David’s formulation compelling. Even just on enjoyment alone he has a strong case. But in our new low-transaction-cost world I believe his case is even stronger. It seems at least possible that if we worked less, we would actually produce more of value. Whereas, the added spare time would have once gone almost entirely to leisure and time with immediate family or nearby friends, today much of it could conceivably be spent creating information and cultural goods like software, music, political commentary, and more. Added to all the other benefits of the medium chill, I think it sounds pretty good.

The bolded line squares with Rushkoff’s headline. All of this needs to be viewed as extremely tentative. It could all be mostly wrong; it could be 100% wrong. It’s not actionable at this point. But I’m giving some thought to how we might experiment with it around the edges.

It could also be that we don’t need to end jobs, as much as we need to end certain kinds of jobs. Perhaps some sort of information-production jobs can be peer produced while certain service jobs simply can’t be. Maybe we’ll be nurses or baristas 20 hours a week and then spend another 20 of our own free will creating information goods. That’s far fetched, but probably not quite as far fetched as many people think.

Poverty, culture, economics

If you’re at all interested in the science of willpower, self-control, or decision-making (and I am) you really should read John Tierney’s excellent NYT Magazine piece on the subject. Here’s one nugget:

Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class. It’s hard to know exactly how important this factor is, but there’s no doubt that willpower is a special problem for poor people. Study after study has shown that low self-control correlates with low income as well as with a host of other problems, including poor achievement in school, divorce, crime, alcoholism and poor health. Lapses in self-control have led to the notion of the “undeserving poor” — epitomized by the image of the welfare mom using food stamps to buy junk food — but Spears urges sympathy for someone who makes decisions all day on a tight budget. In one study, he found that when the poor and the rich go shopping, the poor are much more likely to eat during the shopping trip. This might seem like confirmation of their weak character — after all, they could presumably save money and improve their nutrition by eating meals at home instead of buying ready-to-eat snacks like Cinnabons, which contribute to the higher rate of obesity among the poor. But if a trip to the supermarket induces more decision fatigue in the poor than in the rich — because each purchase requires more mental trade-offs — by the time they reach the cash register, they’ll have less willpower left to resist the Mars bars and Skittles. Not for nothing are these items called impulse purchases.

When we talk about poverty, we inevitably talk about various “cultural” issues, by which we mostly mean “non-economic” issues. Economic improvement can’t pull people out of poverty until we solve various cultural issues that are holding people back, or so the story goes. But we should really look at these as all part of the same cycle. Being poor puts you at a distinct and empirically demonstrable disadvantage when it comes to exerting self-control. Lack of self-control tends to play a large role in life outcomes. Much of what we think of as the “culture” of poverty may in fact be very much an economic issue.

Selling experiences

David Brooks, endorsed by Matt Yglesias:

I can’t resist concluding this column with some kernels of consumption advice accumulated by the prominent scholars Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson. Surveying the vast literature of happiness research, they suggestBuy experiences instead of things; buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones; pay now for things you can look forward to and enjoy later.

I’m on board. There are a lot of things that could be said in response to this, so here’s just one… Many of us in the “we buy too much crap that doesn’t make us happy camp” are also likely to look favorably on the behavioral science types who shed light on just how we get sold said stuff. When you walk through a mall, you’re not just making purchasing choices in a vacuum. You’re being led along a journey that has been very specifically designed by experts whose goal is to make you spend money. Exits are out of view, cookie smell is piped in, whatever it is. The same general theme can be seen in advertising. A lot of money is spent enlisting very smart people to design very sophisticated plans to get you to buy stuff that is unlikely to make you happier.

So here’s my question: how should we think about efforts to get you to buy stuff that will make you happier? Should we view advertising for travel agents more favorably than we do advertising for McDonalds? Should we look for ways to raise the $ spent on promoting the purchase of experiences relative to $ spent on promoting the purchase of things?