Spotify comes to India: How the app may fare in comparison to peers, and why streaming is fundamentally evil
Spotify is alleged to have one of the more sophisticated algorithms around, making the process of discovery a particularly enjoyable one, as well as curated playlists
This is not a drill: Spotify is finally — belatedly — here. The streaming giant had been fluttering about in our digital consciousness for the past couple of years or so, playing hide-and-seek with our tender hearts, all Godot-like. There were all the false alarms: after multiple stubbornly persistent reports of their “imminent launch”, none of which turned out to be anywhere near accurate, and an announcement by the company itself last March, we were losing hope. Like they were toying with us. And then, stealthily this past week, Spotify came to India. It was done with little to no fuss — understandably so, given that most of the country was going apesh*t over the very frightening possibility of a full-on super-duper nuclear (!) war. But still, they’re here now. And they want us to make accounts while we still can.
Admittedly, the music streaming space in India is a crowded one (but then, what in India isn’t?). We have Gaana, Amazon Music, Google Play, Apple Music, the recently rebranded JioSaavn, and then some, all vying for the top spot. And then there’s the evergreen YouTube, which even old people have figured out how to navigate. But Spotify feels different somehow. It’s the company that sort of ‘broke’ music streaming globally — and copped a lot of flak for it too — and the one mired in the most controversies. Where there’s Spotify, a disgruntled band or label or listener isn’t far behind.
Even in India, there had been constant rumours and speculation about big record labels blocking their entry because of copyright issues that I don’t fully understand. As recently as a few days ago, news surfaced of Warner Music Group (WMG) taking out an injunction (or something) to block Spotify’s launch because of some crafty workaround they found for troublesome copyright laws. So Spotify India doesn’t yet have access to WMG’s formidable library. Which means that my search for Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape Of You’, that most excruciating of earworms, yielded nothing. Nada. Zilch. Nula. (Which isn’t actually a bad thing.) And, mercifully, no Led Zeppelin either.
Further, leaving aside petty musical differences, the company announced in January that they’d tied up with T-Series — who, incidentally, are embroiled in a never-ending, farcical pissing contest over subscribers with a YouTuber named Pewdiepie — to bring Bollywood music to their global subscriber base (because why should we suffer alone?).
At this point, let’s address the big fat elephant in the room: Streaming is evil. It is basically a resurgence of the label-driven music industry of the past that came crashing down thanks to the internet and piracy and P2P downloads. And now it’s back. Streaming, at its core, is just a shiny repackaging of those same flawed principles premised on profitability and little else. As ever, the artists are the ones getting shafted, making point-nothing of a dollar per play. (Though, in fairness, musicians I’ve spoken to do value the opportunity to earn regular royalties off online plays that a one-time sale doesn’t allow for.) But it is what it is.
Anyway, coming back to the point of why Spotify entering India is more likely than not a positive development, the first reason is of course the most obvious one. It means more music for listeners (they have some 40 million songs), and more music can only ever be a good thing. The music streaming industry in India is an emerging one. It’s an exciting time given the greater access to internet, made possible in no small part thanks to Jio’s penetration into the telecom sector, followed by plummeting rates across the board. There’s a huge untapped market, because the one thing this country does not lack is people. And there’s plenty of options to choose from. How they fare, especially given that Spotify (and Apple Music) are western imports that large swathes of the country wouldn’t care about, depends on how effective their business strategies are.
Like all the other players in the space, they’re functioning on a ‘freemium’ model. Users can access the database for free, but the ad-free paid model offers greater quality and more services — including the all-important ability to download tracks for offline listening, for those all-too-frequent moments when the Wi-Fi is down and the internet guy assures you he’s sent someone to fix it but it’s so obviously a bald-faced lie. At Rs 119 a month, they’re competitively priced — Apple Music is the same, though it also offers a family pack, while JioSaavn is Rs 99. They’ve been cute with their pricings, also offering per-day and per-week subscription packages for people to sample before they eat. This is in contrast to Spotify’s pricing in the US, which is $10 a month. (For scale, a McChicken meal at McDonald’s in India is roughly twice the price of a Spotify monthly subscription here, while a Big Mac meal costs a little over half a Spotify US monthly.) Plus they’re offering a tempting 50 percent off for students, the traditionally broke demographic that is so often the most enthusiastic about new music.
Then there’s the fact that Spotify is alleged to have one of the more sophisticated algorithms around, making the process of discovery a particularly enjoyable one, as well as curated playlists. Their interface is sleek and easy-to-use, though I say this with only a day or two of use. Unlike me, there lies a strong contingent that had already been using Spotify through VPNs, which I’m sure is as illegal as it sounds. Right now, they’re all busy trying to import their playlists onto the India version.
Honestly, given how immense the music industry in India is — even outside the black hole that is Bollywood — the emergence of a major new player is bound to have a positive impact. All the existing streaming services are, in addition to providing affordable music to their patrons, also reaching out and working toward building something credible and sustainable within the industry. They’re working with the forever-disenchanted independent category of musicians, providing a leg-up in a demanding space and, in the process, trying to carve their own space. And I’m interested to see how Spotify slots into that.
In fact, I’ve already bought myself a year-long subscription to Spotify, for a grand total of Rs 1189. It’s a development that makes me deeply conflicted though; it makes my conscience weep in protest. On the one hand, I have fingertip access to millions of songs — no more trawling the inner depths of the internet for a stray torrent. I’m eager to see not just the impact it has on the industry and the music community at large, but also on how it shapes my own listening patterns (which are already shapeshifting ever since I’ve made the semi-transition to streaming). The convenience, as well as the potential for discovery, make for a great experience.
But then there’s the agonising “but”. Ultimately, the relationship between a listener and a streaming service is a messed up one. You’re just renting the songs for a throwaway price each month. It’s transactional, without the abstract notion of ownership ever entering the equation. The amount you pay diligently at the beginning of your monthly cycle is shared gleefully between the landlord — your streaming service of choice — and his depraved friends, the labels. And then they gamble and drink cheap whiskey and make a total racket. Meanwhile, the artist, the true creator and original stakeholder in this whole charade, is left counting literal pennies. As in real estate, so in music: buy, rather than rent.
At the risk of sounding prescriptive, I do feel like streaming shouldn’t be used as a replacement for music you’d usually buy, no matter how convenient it may feel. It should be an additional tool of consumption and discovery, not the only one. Ever notice how internet discussion and watercooler talk about TV shows these days revolves only around shows that are available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or that other one? How the stuff that doesn’t make it to these giants may as well not exist? The world would be a terrible place were the same to happen with music. Great platforms such as Bandcamp or SoundCloud, as well as India’s own OK Listen, survive through patronage of their loyal fanbase. In return, they provide listeners with some of the most daring and cutting edge music that exists in the world today — music that otherwise wouldn’t exist since no label concerned purely with profitability and algorithm-friendly sounds will go anywhere near their stuff. It’s the same with indie labels everywhere, as well as artists whose stylistic leanings don’t quite fall under the broad categorisation of accessibility. Let’s not let that die down ever. Let’s, just this one time, find a spot somewhere in the middle.
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