My Spotify Dilemma: The Power of Product

I hate the company but love their product.

My Spotify Dilemma: The Power of Product
Photo by @felipepelaquim / Unsplash

My journey into journalism started back in 2007 when I began writing for the school newspaper. Soon after, I collaborated with a photographer and wrote short biographies about the artists he photographed. It was my start in music journalism.

Back then, music streaming was a thing of the future. Peer-to-peer networks like Limewire were one sketchy source for my iPod library, managed on iTunes. I imported CDs from my uncle's vast collection to extend my musical horizon. And I often bought the silver discs at shops and concerts, only to digitise them shortly the next day.

Later, while working on Negative White, the online music magazine I ran for a decade, iTunes was still a vital part of my music consumption. I could add promotional CDs and digital downloads before the release date.

Coming from the iPod and iTunes experience, I soon pivoted to Apple Music as a streaming service; however, I mainly stuck to my own digital library. And I didn't intend to switch to Spotify, mainly because I read all the stories about how little artists earn on the platform.

Collecting dust for years: My old iPod with a whopping 120GB of storage.

I can't remember the exact moment–or even the reason for that matter–why I switched from Apple Music to Spotify. But it only made sense: The service gained more traction and influence, alongside the album's downfall and the rise of playlists–the new tastemakers. As a music journalist, I had to be where the magic happened. I had to provide playlists where the audience was.

And I never questioned my move to Spotify again. Then came 2022.

Young vs Spotify

For those who don't already know what I'm going to talk about: Here's a quick and dirty wrap-up.

Neil Young attacked Spotify for being a platform for misinformation around Covid-19. "I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines — potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them," he wrote in a now-deleted open letter.

The main reason for Young's anger: podcast host Joe Rogan. In 2020, Spotify struck an exclusive deal with possibly the world's most prominent podcaster. Estimated worth: more than $200 million, as the New York Times lately reported.

However, Rogan regularly delivered controversies around the coronavirus. For example, he took Ivermectin, the infamous horse dewormer, when he contracted the virus. Rogan also was criticised for hosting Robert Malone, a popular figure in the anti-vax movement.

Although Young's fame puts a bigger spotlight on the topic, he wasn't the first to address the issues around Rogan. For example, 270 doctors signed an open letter to Spotify after Malone appeared on Rogan's show.

"Why did Spotify choose Joe Rogan over Neil Young? Hint: It's not a music company."

The preliminary result of Young's protest: Spotify did as he wished and removed his music from the platform. But also, other artists like Joni Mitchell joined Young's cause.

It may seem weird that a music streaming service quickly chose this route. But the Washington Post explains it already clearly in a headline: "Why did Spotify choose Joe Rogan over Neil Young? Hint: It's not a music company." The article highlights Spotify's heavy investment into podcasts and its strained relationship with artists.

Ethical Questions

Since all this went down, the ongoing debate made me think about my relationship with Spotify as a company, as a product, and more generally, about how I consume, enjoy, and value music.

No one can delete the music on these drives but me.

I still maintain an extensive physical collection of CDs and vinyl. And the digital library counts over 30'000 songs that no company can arbitrarily remove. It weirdly comforts me.

And after I learned about Spotify CEO Daniel Ek's €100M investment in defence AI, I had to confront myself with the question: Do I want to contribute to all of this?

Do I want to have a relationship with a company whose primary purpose seems to aggregate data and somehow manage to make us love being spied on—even so far that it can predict our moods?

Do I want to spend money for a service that pays the artists virtually nothing, doesn't take responsibility as a publisher (which Spotify became with its big move into podcasts and Joe Rogan), and doesn't seem to care about their own codes?

Good Intentions

I inherently believe that many of the questions above have to be tackled on a societal level. Spotify is finally seen alongside other platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Substack, or YouTube. We as a society have to conclude how we deal with those platforms and their impact on our lives, communities and information ecosystem.

However, I, too, have to take responsibility. As a music curator (check out Weekly5 if you're interested), I use Spotify not only privately but also somewhat professionally. So I decided to take action and pledged to buy every song I feature on Bandcamp if it's available. Subscribers can verify it by checking my profile.

And finally, I started to use Apple Music again as a primary streaming service. Here's where the dilemma began to unravel.

The Better Product

I immensely appreciate one particular aspect of Apple Music: the quality is quite frankly astounding. I didn't think that Apple's Lossless format would make such a difference.

Another positive side of Apple Music: I can combine my existing digital collection with the streaming offering. But that's about it for the good things.

I attempted to use Apple Music the same way I use Spotify: Find songs, curate my playlists and listen to them. I don't listen to existing playlists aside from occasionally skipping through Spotify's personalised mix and checking the "Release Radar" every Friday to see if I find something for my Weekly5 curation.

Now, let me illustrate my struggle with Apple Music compared to Spotify with five concrete examples. (Disclaimer: There are far better design reviews out there like this one, this is simply my personal experience.)

The first screen

Already on the first screen, you can immediately see what Spotify (always left) is doing way better than its Cupertino competition: I get a more comprehensive overview and quick access to the things I've been recently playing.

On the other hand, Apple Music wastes almost the entire screen for some top recommendations.

The player

You cannot really mess up an audio player, but you can bring essential features to immediate accessibility.

Here, Apple Music starts to crumble already heavily: There's no quick access to add the playing track to the favourites. Moreover, the shuffle and repeat functionalities are hidden away on the bottom right corner and need additional taps.

But probably the most annoying thing is that you cannot skip through the songs by a swipe gesture. And no one knows why anyone would need the volume control on-screen when there are still physical buttons to change the level.

The Options

You can access more options and interactions for the specific song from the player. Again, Spotify shows how it can be solved cleanly. Adding the song to a playlist is a smooth process, with the functionality being easily accessible with the thumb.

Apple Music's solution feels unrefined and patched on without more profound thought. In addition, the option to add the song to a playlist is barely reachable.

The sharing

Apple's native iOS sharing menu just doesn't cut it. They didn't bother adding a dedicated sharing screen into their app that highlights the most important messenger and social platforms.

With that decision, Apple also denies the fact that music is the social glue for many communities and friendships. Sharing your favourite tracks with others is a vital feature.

The library

The library is where it all falls apart. While Spotify allows me to change the looks (list or tiles) and lets me pin my most important assets, Apple forces me to tap and scroll several times until I arrive at my desired playlist. Even worse is the fact that I cannot change the "recently added" to something else.

The Power of Product Design

I hate Spotify as a company, but I love their product. I hate how they conduct their business, but I still cannot see myself entirely leaving their app because I find myself frustrated with the usability of Apple Music.

It's the first time I struggle to leave something aside because I know it's contradicting my values and beliefs. Buying fair-trade foods or sustainably produced clothes? No problem. Often, the only difference is the price.

In love whit the iPhone X
Just not good enough: Apple Music. Photo by Daniel Cañibano / Unsplash

But with digital products, usability and design play a more vital part in the customer's decision-making. Although I conceptionally understood the considerable impact of product design, I never fully experienced it until my experiment with going back from Spotify to Apple Music.

It's a simple truth: Humans stick to easy-to-use and convenient products.

On the surface, Apple Music and Spotify have the same offering:

  • Access to a vast backlog of music
  • Roughly the same price

But most people don't care about Apple Music's unique selling points like a bigger (still ridiculous) share for artists or better audio quality. So really, the only thing that could surpass the significance of design would be content, but that's highly unlikely as Spotify's main stakeholders are the world's biggest music labels.

While most people will struggle to pinpoint the subtle intricacies of user experience, they are certainly subconsciously aware of it. And this TikTok is a perfect summary of the different feelings that Spotify and Apple Music provoke:

Spotify is using design as the main differentiator to its competitors. And they succeed. They may not apply the same psychological triggers as Instagram, but emotional design nevertheless plays a key role in their approach to product design. I can feel it myself: I am just more connected to the playlist I created on Spotify than on Apple Music, but I can't really explain why.

Now, to conclude this rather lengthy piece: Yes, I feel like a hypocrite sometimes for still using (and paying) Spotify despite all controversy. As a person, I hate the company. As a passionate music lover, I despise its dealings. But as a product manager, I bow before their design excellence.

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