We live in an age when just about any content imaginable can be streamed to a device of your choice. This makes listening to music extremely convenient, so much so that it’s something many take for granted. This includes me, until a recent experience served as a huge slap in the face, and an awakening of sorts. And once again, I am reminded why music streaming will never be the future, and that there’s no replacing buying music, be it digitally or physically.
Take Spotify as an example. If you’re a longtime user of the service, or even a paying customer for the premium tier, you’ll more than likely have a long list of songs added to your personal library. Chances are you’ll also have multiple playlists, which may or may not contain a few common tracks between them.
But one day, as you’re listening to them on your commute, or while working, you notice that some of the songs just aren’t playing – regardless of if you set your playlist to play in sequence or shuffled. Then you open the app itself only to find said tracks being greyed out. Congratulations, you can no longer listen to those songs, and through no fault of your own at that.
This is something that happens every once in awhile, and I would imagine it’s not an issue that’s exclusive to Spotify. And the common consensus is that this happens due to licensing issues, or region locking. To elaborate, this could be the license themselves expiring, or the record label suddenly wanting to pull songs or albums from particular markets.
If your music tastes are of the mainstream variety then this is probably not an issue, since mass outrage plus news coverage will probably fix it in no time. A good example was the expired licenses for a number of popular K-pop songs distributed by Kakao back in 2021. With widespread brouhaha, things got back to normal within 10 or so days, and K-pop fans among Spotify users got their favourite songs back.
But what if the songs you listen to are not popular? What if you only listen to the alternative among the alternative, or rather than K-pop, you prefer songs from across the Korea Strait? Then you’re just boned and stooled out of luck.
You can try contacting the artists and record labels directly via email or their social media handles and cross your fingers hard. But if that doesn’t change your situation for the better, then there’s nothing else that you can realistically do to change the situation.
Don’t get me wrong though. Despite all I have said up to this point about streaming services like Spotify, I still think that the world is a better place with it than without. For music lovers, it’s an amazing – life changing, even – discovery tool, and there are many artists that I would never have discovered without it. In fact, in its category, it’s probably the best thing since in-flight entertainment systems, and I’ll leave it up to your imagination as to whether that was a joke.
That being said, if you find something you like via a streaming service, your best course of action is probably to find a way to buy the song or album. Which is difficult enough as it is, with the closure of music retailers like Rock Corner and Tower Records, especially if your music tastes are of the aforementioned non-mainstream variety.
Another alternative would be to buy them digitally, but the available options are dwindling by the day. iTunes will probably remain an option for awhile yet, but these are limited to Apple’s lossy AAC format. Ditto Amazon Music which is locked to MP3. The Google Play Store stopped selling music in 2020, and Tidal, one of the better places to get FLAC tracks, stopped selling music quite recently in October of 2022. There are other remaining options, such as Qobuz, 7Digital, and Bandcamp, to name a few, but their libraries are spotty at the best of times, to say nothing about their availability in different regions.
While researching for this article we thought of another possible alternative in the form of downloaded tracks. The idea is that you download the music you want to your device via your streaming service for offline listening, in the hopes of it being available to you even if things got ugly behind the scenes. Unfortunately, there have been a very few others who have had the same thought process, and it turns out it didn’t work for them either, for both Spotify and iTunes.
Piracy is not an option either, since not only is it illegal, these days it’s about as difficult to find good-sounding copies as going legit – especially for non-mainstream songs. Then you also have to worry about it not packing some uninvited guests that will wreck your device or let someone else take it over. Did I mentioned that it’s also illegal? I believe I did, but I’ll say it again just to be sure.
Ultimately, in the world of music streaming, your ability to listen to them is practically completely out of your control, despite getting them legally, or even outright paying for them. Beyond getting a personal copy and making sure to have multiple backups, there’s no guarantee that you will always be able to listen to your favourite songs.
Which is why despite the massive convenience that streaming services are, they will never be the future of recorded music consumption. In addition to artist and label choices, expiring license are an ever present and looming threat. For what it’s worth, Spotify has a tool that its users can use to, at the very least, determine if albums have been region-locked or had their license agreement lapse. If an album is not available anywhere, then it’s safe to assume that the latter has happened.
A possible solution to this would be for the music industry to normalise perpetual licenses. But this is almost unheard of beyond game publishers wanting to monetise fan content.
And on that bombshell…
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