Let’s think all the way back to the end of the last decade. 2009: well before streaming services dominated entertainment, when you had to either a) purchase these items from an online store (like iTunes), b) purchase them from a physical store (remember those?) or c) mine your roommate’s music library hoping they had Kid A on mp3 already.
What a difference 10 years makes! In 2019, streaming services have made our lives so much easier—and I would argue better. Better to the extent that no other app or service has improved our lives in the past 10 years more than Spotify Premium, which is why I am declaring it the single best life hack of the 2010s.
To truly appreciate the impact of music streaming on quality of life, let’s go back another decade. In 1999, CD sales were at record highs. Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and NSYNC sold millions of CDs and made tons of money. Then came Napster, which destroyed the record industry’s business model, followed by the iTunes store in 2003, which furthered the shift away from buying physical albums to downloading individual songs. And that’s how we listened to music until 2011—buying mp3s for 99 cents (or $2 if it was a high-demand track), ripping CD collections, and saving a friend’s mp3s to a thumb drive, to sync to your iPod later.
Then, in 2011, we were graced with the launch of Spotify in the US. The Swedish streaming music service offered a web player, desktop and mobile apps, a free tier (with insufferable ads) or a paid premium version. Spotify Premium is definitely worth it. It is ad-free, and allows you to download albums or playlists so you can listen offline.
Beyond becoming the standard for the “freemium” model that’s ubiquitous today, and the convenience of listening anywhere, what made Spotify unique was just how much music it had—virtually anything you would want to listen to. (Today, many Spotify holdouts have been added to the library, like The Beatles, Prince, and Taylor Swift. As of this writing, the only artists I often miss from the platform are Aaliyah and Joanna Newsom.)
As with any good product, imitators soon followed. Tidal launched with big-name exclusives from Jay-Z and friends (but those almost all ended up on Spotify anyway). Amazon Music exists I think, and Apple Music officially replaced iTunes in 2019. But Spotify has remained the gold standard, with its curated playlists that literally turn songs into hits, its seamless syncing across devices, and its social features allowing you to see what friends are listening to and add to collaborative playlists.
While the honour of the “Best Life Hack of the Decade” may seem lofty, no other app or service has affected what we do, how we do it, and our access to so much information at once. It has directly improved car rides, gym time, work, parties, flights, and walking down the street—pretty much every moment of every day.
As with all new music formats (from vinyl albums to 8-track tapes to CDs), how we listen has changed what we listen to. Since Spotify counts a “play” as 30 seconds of listening time, songs have gotten shorter and hooks come in earlier. We now have access to music from all over the world. You want to listen to Rosalia? Or BTS? Or Burna Boy? What was once obscure is now just a click away.
While the platform certainly allows for individuality, it actually does a better job of measuring our collective listening habits. Since Billboard includes streaming numbers in the charts, we have a more accurate assessment of what we’re listening to at any given time (a vast improvement over reporting physical sales and radio airplay), which has led to hits from unexpected places like memes, YouTube videos, or being featured in a Netflix movie.
Speaking of music in movies, let’s not forget the importance of Shazam (which launched in 2008, but still). If you hear a song anywhere, you can now identify it instantly, and directly open it in Spotify or Apple Music. This is how Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” became a number one hit two and a half years after its release. Or how Robyn’s Dancing on My Own (the best song of the decade, in my opinion) gained a wider audience after being featured in an episode of Girls in 2013.
Of course, some artists have earned greater success by specifically going against the Spotify system. Beyonce’s 2013 self-titled album was released by surprise, and could only be purchased as a full “visual album”—and her 2016 follow-up Lemonade premiered directly on HBO.
When Prince died in 2016, none of his music was available on the streaming platform, causing fans to purchase his music, leading him to hold down half of the top 10 positions on the Billboard 200 the week after his death. (Since then, Prince’s estate has allowed his music to be available on Spotify. But these exceptions only go to show Spotify’s prevalence in our daily lives—only a select few superstars can draw people away, and even then it’s only for a short time.)
It’s worth mentioning that Spotify is not great for artists financially. They receive far less in royalties than they would from radio airplay or traditional sales. On the other hand, Spotify allows artists much greater reach beyond convincing local radio to play their songs. It only takes one track being featured on the wildly popular Rap Caviar playlist to launch a new rapper to superstardom, and once they reach the fans, then the money from concert tickets, merchandise, and licensing rolls in. So, yes, artists make less money from streaming, but listeners have an easier time finding artists that they want to support.
And what did all this music sound like in the 2010s? The first half of the decade was certainly defined by the EDM beats permeating through pop songs (see “We Found Love” or Yeezus), but the five years are a little trickier to pin down. Hip hop dominated both commercially and critically, and there is an undeniable theme of moody young women (Lorde, Billie Eilish). But the main characteristic of music this decade has been the artist as the auteur. (In fact 18 of Pitchfork’s top 20 albums of the decade are by solo artists.)
While it’s hard to pinpoint the direct cause of this phenomenon (perhaps splitting up the lower royalties has something to do with it), the domination of solo artists aligns with how individuals listen on the platform. As we consumers can find whatever we want to listen to, maybe artists feel like they no longer have to make music for the masses, and are looking inward to create whatever they feel like (see: Rihanna’s Anti).
So, how is a music app a life hack? It makes our lives better and easier. Nearly all modern recorded music is at your fingertips for when you want to run a mile, or cook a fancy meal, or get ready to go out, with no worry or hassle.
I hope that this year, some uni freshman reading the best of the 2010s lists realises how easy it is now to get an education in music, with everything from Kamasi Washington’s post-modern jazz to Todd Terje’s disco-house to Angel Olson’s ghost folk available at any moment. Now we can enjoy more. We can find something we really like, and not just what happens to be available.