Thoughts

Why I don't use Spotify (and what I use instead)

Reading time: 10m
Tagged: music, big-tech

A long time ago I was a happy user of the free version of Spotify. Then the ads became such a massive nuisance that I had to stop using the service altogether. Why not upgrade, I hear you ask, are you against paying for music? No, but I don't want to pay for music, I want to pay for music. The difference might sound small or even petty, but it is actually important to me and it took me down the rabbit whole of modern music industry. This turned out to be a part in a larger effort to de-cloud. Unfortunately this is a hard one, since it comes encumbered with author rights. In this article I will lay out my motivations as well as my solution to the media piece of this puzzle.

As with the other aspects of my "de-cloudification" this was also twofold: on the one hand I had a personal and pragmatic motivation, on the other a political and more diffuse one. In this case both revolve around remuneration schemes and ownership.

My music, my rules

The first motivation was that I wanted to own the music I pay for. Music plays such a central role in my life that I want to listen to it on my terms. Before deciding to move away from Spotify I did this quick math: assume I pay €10 per month for the subscription. By the end of one year I will have paid €120. If I use the service for ten years, that is €1 200. It is no big deal, if I have been enjoying the music for all this time. Now, suppose there comes a reason for me to cancel my subscription. I could be unemployed or maybe Disney bought Spotify and it now sucks like everything Disney does or maybe all of my favorite artists left the platform. Whatever the reason, there might be a time I want to stop paying for the service. At this point my €1 200 investment becomes important: I leave with empty hands.

Maybe there will be Apple Music, or Deezer, or what not. Well, maybe not. Besides, what about my hard work collecting and organizing the music into a library and playlists? You cannot really migrate that to another service. A colleague of mine said he cannot leave Spotify because of his playlists. Maybe I am being too strict here, but not being able to end a commercial relationship because you will lose your work is the very definition of vendor lock-in.

Contrast this to our previous relationship with music: you go to the shop, you buy a record and you own it for as long as you are able to keep it in one piece. I still own records I bought when I was fifteen. With the subscription model, that would have been money down the toilet. Imagine I use the same €10 per month but instead of a subscription I buy something (you can buy digital music!). Every month I will be entitled to roughly one album. But this album will be mine. Forever.

A broken system

The second reason I decided not to upgrade my account was, as mentioned, political. Like I said, I want to pay for music. And if I pay €10 per month for access I want a fair share of that value to go to the artist. Unfortunately this is not what happens with Spotify. The reality of the remuneration system is so bizarre that it took me some brain acrobatics to be able to understand it:

In the payment structure used by the big streaming services, the money you spend on a subscription is not paid directly to the artists you are playing. Instead, the money forms a giant overall pool, and is paid out to artists in accordance with the number of streams they accrue, even if you personally never listen to them. You may hate Ed Sheeran’s music, but you are still paying him for it. (Excerpt from The Guardian)

This is especially perverse for a person like me who listens mostly to independent or anyway unpopular artists. Not only am I not allowed to own the music, but it seems that the artist doesn't either. Here is a depressing first-hand account from one of my favorite bands, in case you don't believe me. And if that doesn't make you rethink your relationship with Spotify, how about this: Daniel Ek, the Swedish white man who founded Spotify, is, at the time of this writing, worth 2 billion dollars.

If I would buy music on Bandcamp, from the same €10 the artist would get, on average, €8. And notice that, even though I am a heavy user, I do not vet for this particular service. If you ask me, I think the only real alternative seems to be Resonate, a cooperative system with a truly innovative remuneration model. Unfortunately, this service is still in its infancy and not ready to compete with the giants.

When music was bought physically record companies claimed they had high production and distribution costs, which is true. Therefore musicians were paid a fraction of the nominal cost on each record, which we can assume to be true for our current purposes. Artists, record companies used to say, can make money with concerts.

Liberating technology; imprisoning business

The digital age came along with the promise of both liberating the artists from the middleman as well as reducing production and distribution costs. The latter indeed happened, but that did not translate into a larger margin for artists because the former never did. I suppose artists were already used to not making money from record sales.

That was fine for a while, but then the corona virus came along and cut artists income overnight. No concerts, no money. Suddenly it started to make sense for artists to be paid for their music. This is the king is naked all over again. Imagine if we were to expect the same logic from other professions. Would you be willing to work on such a model? Even if it was true that the artist margins were small due to production and distribution costs during the physical era that is not the case anymore. We have the technology now.

I remember one day, during the pandemic, opening a Spotify link someone had sent me and being surprised by a message to support the artists with a donation. This was probably a misguided PR stunt and was removed soon after I saw it, but this is telling of how unwilling (or maybe by now even unable) they are to increase the share for the artists. I think musicians must be paid for their music; writing and recording songs is a lot of work, we should respect that. Playing concerts is also a lot of work, let's continue to pay for that as well.

Incidentally I must say I am not against the subscription model in general. It just doesn't work for me when it comes to music. Even though that is my focus here I should also mention that the solution I eventually found turns out to address movies and series as well. Unlike with music I don't need to own a film library. So Netflix serves me well. I also understand they pay content producers well, but I had to cancel my subscription there for unrelated reasons, so I did not research this properly.

How I listen to music

So what was the solution after all? I already told how I obtain music: I purchase it, usually digitally. But how to listen? I certainly didn't want to go back to the cumbersome iPod days, when I had to plug my device to the computer with a cable and transfer the music I wanted or sync the whole library. My goal with this experiment is not to go back to the 90's. On the contrary, I want to find a sustainable and modern digital ecosystem that works on my terms.

As mentioned I get most of my music on Bandcamp, which provides an app for streaming the content I purchase there. But what happens to the music I acquired elsewhere? For example, I bought Arcade Fire's album from their own website. And how about the CDs I have ripped?

A big part of the problem for me was how to listen to music at home, with an amplifier and proper loudspeakers. That led me to the first piece of the puzzle: Kodi. Admittedly the solution I will describe here is a great deal more complicated than most people will be willing to put effort to. But if you just want a media center you really need not go further than downloading Kodi for your preferred operating system and adding your media sources to it. But you already figured I'm a nerd and I'm not ashamed of it. So brace yourself.

Apparently I can't resist a Raspberry Py project, so I bought one such mini computer and a HifiBerry module, which is a better sound interface than the built-in. I already knew I was going to play the sound via an amplifier with digital input so I bought the module with a digital outlet.

The easiest way to get Kodi running on a Raspberry Pi is with LibreElec, a free and open source Linux based operating system, with everything you need to get started. I toyed with LibreElec and can personally recommend it, but, for reasons that will become clear later, I also needed a small but full fledged operating system. So I installed the Raspberry Pi OS and Kodi on it.

I attached an external storage drive for the media, since the Raspberry Pi "hard drive" is actually only an SD drive with a few gigas of capacity. I also created a CRON job to back up the content of this drive to another external drive periodically.

And that's all! Well, sort of. This setup is not yet a replacement for Spotify unless you only listen to music at home. As mentioned earlier I also wanted a way to listen to music on the go. Alongside Kodi I also installed a Jellyfin server and connected it to the internet. I used Caddy to achieve this. With the Jellyfin iOS app (or any of their plethora of apps) I can access my music library from anywhere. Notice that I do not recommend you do this unless you know what you are doing.

Other types of media

The Kodi/Jellyfin combo is also excellent for other types of media, most notably movies and TV series, but also photos—which I can even access from my Nextcloud instance—and other goodies. I did not cover those here because my focus has always been on music. Besides, and as stated earlier, I'm fine with Netflix and I will start using it again when I actually have time to watch anything.

Conclusion

From the personal perspective this experiment was very successful and I am pleased with my setup. I was able to completely replace Spotify with a system entirely under my control. There is some maintenance to it, but mostly it is about adding music to my library.

I should also note that, even though I refuse to use Spotify, that doesn't mean you can't. It is possible to connect to your account via a plugin for Kodi. I suspect when my kids are old enough I will have to surrender to Spotify again so they don't get bullied for being eccentric. Plugins also exist for other services such as Bandcamp, (unofficial) Netflix and Amazon Prime, and a myriad of other services and functionalities.

I still want to find a way to back up remotely, so that all of the files are not in the same physical space. Of course if our building burns down I will have bigger concerns than my media library, so the priority for this is fairly low.

But this project, as with my whole de-clouding enterprise, had another layer of ambition, namely its scalability to the society at large. On this area the project falls short and it is easy to understand why: the amount of resources put to alternatives such as Kodi is orders of magnitude smaller than big tech efforts. Often they are developed by a community of volunteers with a nonprofit organization coordinating the work.

But what makes software great is not only an army of designers and developers, but, crucially, a community of users. People who use the programs, complain about the shortcomings, praise the qualities, report bugs and so on. This work is done for free by all of us who use these platforms. If you think an alternative to mainstream apps sucks then that is when you should use it! The more people use them, the better they will get. Of course they should be good enough so they would work reliably, but this is the chicken and egg conundrum. Those of us with more skills or maybe just more motivated should be the first. Otherwise the alternatives can never become viable, let alone mainstream. If you are willing to try, drop me a line, I will help you for free.