In defense of music streaming: how Spotify helped me grieve when I didn’t think I deserved to
For listeners, can the streaming revolution be therapeutic?
This week – on April 3 – Spotify went public on the New York Stock Exchange. As a publicly traded company, its future is now dependent on investors on Wall Street as opposed to just privately contained music business entities. With increased transparency comes heightened stakes, and striving primarily for growth and revenue will undoubtedly dominate Spotify’s agenda as it continues to develop. Artists, investors, and listeners alike are watching with unprecedented scrutiny to see what comes next.
But for me, when I think of Spotify, my mind does not immediately leap to stock value or operating costs. Instead, I reflect on the ways in which the streaming service has served as a pivotal and hyper-personal facet of my private life and the lives of countless others.
In my case, this intimate connection has existed for years. Two months into my junior year of high school, my chemistry teacher died in a car crash. Following the accident, Spotify’s search function—with its vast musical library—was my only release.
His name was Mr. Brink, “Brinky” to some, known schoolwide for attempting campy Dad jokes and allowing students to have generous extensions on assignments. For the year that he taught me, I had known him as well as anyone, sitting inches away from him four times a week and undertaking the occasional trip to his office to ask trivial questions about elements. Despite his relative old age, his death was sudden, shocking, and tragic.
When he died, I felt sad, confused and oddly guilty. It was a sticky guilt—guilt for yearning to embody feelings of mourning that weren't mine to embody—it oozed over me as I walked from the assembly hall to my locker that day. On my way, I popped my headphones into my ears, turning to music, as I did for everything. I opened up Spotify, my dimly lit digital scrapbook of sorts, black and green like an enigmatic grotto. Instinctively, I typed the first word that was on my mind into the search bar: “dead.” I did not have expectations.
An unknown song by an unknown band began to play: “Dead Air” by CHVRCHES. Within a few beats I was mesmerized. The instrumental track was electronic and hollow, founded on pulsating synths and digitized drums. The melody, conversely, was reminiscent of a nursery rhyme, folkish and intricate. The lyrics: macabre, poetic, at times flippant.
It was pure catharsis to hear a stranger acknowledge this death in surround sound. To acknowledge this unrealized sadness. To acknowledge this subterranean, muggy apathy. And the eeriness of it all was that I never would have known of the song’s existence nor weight if it hadn’t been for this unique technology, its remarkable connectivity, its ever expansive web of untapped artistry. This was a privilege I had taken for granted: the privilege of stumbling into.
To this day, Spotify serves as my escape valve into deep-rooted feelings that I struggle to understand, many of which have become more and more complicated as I traverse through my college experience at NYU. To have the liberty to discover my “sad” or my “frustrated’ or my “motivated” or my “dance” or my “in love” in the form of alien art—with just a few swipes on a screen—is something that should be anything but quotidian, although Spotify’s 160 million active users might believe otherwise. Its capacity to make the world smaller, to render an individual less alone, less repressed, less uninspired than square one, is a regenerating innovation worthy of championing.
— Lisa Hennessey (@Brennassey) March 17, 2014
One of those individuals is Edie Freedman, a senior at the College of Arts and Science. The playlist in her arsenal that will always stand out from the rest is one which she generated collaboratively with a group of friends from high school under painful circumstances. “My friend was going through chemo so we basically recruited everyone to make this playlist,” she told me. The playlist, entitled “Chemotherapy,” represents a tangible emblem of her friend’s legacy: “…even after she passed, a lot of us still like to listen to it.”
Grief, of course, is just one of many emotions that the right music can lend itself to. Maura Leichliter is a sophomore at the Stern School of Business who also has a comprehensive affinity for Spotify: “I’ve just had a lot of late nights walking home from various things—dates, downfalls of potential relationships, on the verge of a breakdown…[I’ll] pull up Spotify, and feel a sense of release as I walk around and try to breathe and really feel the music…some of the moments I’ve felt most alive in college have been [these] spiritual experiences late at night on the streets with Spotify.” Streaming, as opposed to downloading or another antiquated format of music consumption, has given her the opportunity to discover and pay recognition to artists that she may never have otherwise come across. “I feel connected to the interface in the sense that it gives all artists a more level playing field…which makes me feel good for supporting it,” she said.
— Dan Blank (@danblank000) February 19, 2018
Music is emotionally driven; listening to the right song unleashes natural opiates in the brain which can elate and inspire us. The technology that serves as a vessel for such music, too, ultimately works because of how we feel.
More often than not, talk of the streaming revolution is met with skepticism and concern from music insiders, and not without justification—it is undeniable that artists, songwriters and other creators often fail to receive proper compensation from corporate entities like Spotify, forced to struggle with the diminishing monetary value of their work as a result of increased digital accessibility. Much of the contention that surrounds the artist's role in the modern music industry is valid and worthy of debate. But it is entirely possible that we as a society have underrated the power of streaming for another key player in the equation: the listener.
To the listener, the value of music streaming may not be not quantifiable. To the listener, the value of streaming is the collaborative memorialization of a late friend in the form of a playlist, or the soundtrack to an emotional night in New York City, or the comfort of an unfamiliar voice during an adolescent experience of loss.
Spotify, and the streaming apparatus at large, is far from perfect. But for young listeners like myself, the exploratory promise that it entails can be a perpetual resource for mental fulfillment, especially as life becomes increasingly complex.
For one, Mr. Brink’s tragedy was never mine to manifest. But the music that I gained in the process, once foreign to me entirely, has become my lifeblood. Externalizing emotions that were not fully realized once left me feeling destitute, dead, airy. But seeking inwardly, with a push from some modern technology and some music, was the dry path to resolution I deserved.
Gratitude—that’s one emotion that I don’t hesitate to embody.
Cover Photo Credit: Gayatri Choudhury