When music gets social

One epically slow Friday afternoon at my day job, I sat typing a horrendously long report—the kind that requires its own table of contents. Fridays are quiet around my office building. Rather than fall asleep at my desk, I broke through the silence with a song from Ingrid Michaelson. Then another and another. I listened to just about every song she’s ever released. Her music kept my toes tapping under my desk and my head from nodding forward in a lunch-induced coma. “If you are chilly, here, take my sweater,” she sang to me.

I don’t have Ingrid Michaelson’s entire library on my computer, but I do have Spotify, and this little desktop app lets me stream music straight to my computer. Calling itself the “lean, green music machine,” Spotify certainly has a lot going for it.

Released in 2008 in Sweden, Spotify has grown massively in just a few years. By the time it was released in the United States last summer, it was already available in seven other countries. With 1.6 million subscribers to paid “unlimited” or “premium” versions, Spotify makes music legally accessible online and on-demand for $4.99 for computer access or $9.99 for mobile capability and syncing with your home computer. The promise is that you have all of your music and all of Spotify’s wherever you go and whenever you want.

“It just made sense,” audiophile Micah Nickens told me recently in his cozy studio. Spotify was playing music in the background, and I immediately started asking about the artists, making mental notes to try to find Nickens, who’s also the owner of the Garden District salon Gaudet Brothers, on Spotify when I got home. “I signed up for the free version for three days—but I did the premium right after that,” he said.

What he wasn’t expecting was the full social integration with Facebook that would happen weeks later. Nickens signed up using his personal email address rather than his Facebook account, but this fall, Spotify made it mandatory for new users to sign up through the social networking giant.

When a new Spotify user opens the application on his or her computer, a list of Facebook friends also on the application pops up too. Users can click on their friends to see if they have shared playlists, favorite bands and more.

But the integration of Spotify and Facebook doesn’t end inside the app. It is evident through the Facebook news feed. When a Spotify user linked through Facebook listens to a song, it shows up as a status update. Just one song will likely end up in the new Facebook ticker on the top right side of the browser, but if a user listens to an entire album or playlist, the status notification may appear in Facebook’s central news feed.

“I signed up before the super Facebook integration,” says Charles Sutcliffe, a coastal policy employee with the state, “but I do think I signed on with my Facebook account for simplicity’s sake, so I didn’t have to create yet another username and password.” Sutcliffe says he turned the sharing activity function off immediately. “I think publishing your music habits through Facebook is a good idea, but I don’t think it should be the default setting. I don’t really want to advertise my music habits to my entire social network,” he says.

Nickens expresses the same concern. “Music is a personal thing for a lot of people,” he says. “Some of it is about your mood, and some of it isn’t ‘cool.’ People could think you have great musical taste, but it could be raining outside, and then I want to just listen to something cheesy.”

All of the Spotify users I interviewed were frustrated with the app’s default integration with Facebook. “I don’t really like syncing my Facebook to anything,” says Molly Reid, a script researcher for the popular HBO show Treme. “I’m still not comfortable with the idea of Facebook infiltrating the rest of my online life, even though I realize that may be inevitable.”

Though Reid is planning to research how to turn off the Spotify notifications in Facebook, she hasn’t yet. While I was writing this article, a notification from Reid appeared in my Facebook feed. It showed she was listening to a collection of songs from Presidents of the United States of America, the band popular in the late 1990s for songs like “Peaches” and “Lump.” I remembered listening to those songs in my friend’s car one summer, and I clicked on her notification so Spotify would play “Peaches” for me, too.

“I’ve recently started sharing my Spotify on Facebook,” says Veronica Brooks, Charter School Development Manager at the Louisiana Department of Education. “I liked the idea of being able to check out what friends were listening to. Even though I really love music, I’ve never been a music buff. I mostly hear about new music through friends anyway.”

That’s the irony. Most people don’t want to share their own information on Spotify, but they love getting to see what their friends are listening to.

“One day, I saw on Facebook that a friend of mine was listening to an artist that I had introduced her to, and that was cool,” Sutcliffe says. “There are certain people on Facebook I wish would use the service so I could possibly get some recommendations.”

Music has been shared socially throughout most of human history. Before recordings, people had to gather to listen to music, whether in a concert hall or around a campfire. Recordings, and later, live streaming, may have allowed listeners some modicum of privacy as modern music has developed, but many people still go to concerts, talk about bands they like or share CDs and MP3s. But as more people buy music online, the physical act of handing a friend a recording will continue to decline.

The social integration offered by Spotify and other online music programs like Pandora may be the new way to share a good song. “I regularly post music videos to my (Facebook) wall or songs that are on my mind or that I am enjoying and discovering,” says Katie Swetman, the art director for Maxon Media, who produces The Curious Collective podcast for The Radio Bar. “My intention is to share them with my friends and hope they enjoy them. I don’t see a problem with it as long as people can stay true to themselves and their personal tastes. I guess I trust people’s taste more than my own.”

Sometimes, though, we all need to listen to music that we might be slightly embarrassed to share with the rest of our social network (or the world). “I’m not going to lie,” Sutcliffe admits. “I definitely listened to the new Indigo Girls album on Spotify, and it was probably set to share.”

Sometimes the music choices users don’t want broadcast aren’t songs they would be embarrassed to share. “I have no qualms about owning my music tastes,” Reid told me. “That doesn’t mean I want even my most erudite selections broadcast without my consent.”

Either way, for most new Spotify users, the Facebook integration is here to stay. There are ways to turn off the notifications through the Facebook settings, but sometimes clicking on the wrong link can open those sharing preferences all over again.

The next time I’m in the office on a Friday afternoon, and it is really quiet, I’ll probably open Spotify. And though I’ll listen to what I want, I just might not listen to Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” five times in a row on Spotify. I’ll have to do that on my iPhone.