What Was Life Like Without Spotify?
Screening the landscape of music before the streaming giant
The year is 1998. As a child, my earliest memory of music included Britney Spears dazed in a classroom and Mariah Carey—multiple versions of her—rowdy in a movie house. These videos were displayed on our small black television screen, which I could only watch on the weekends. YouTube was non-existent; every ’90s kid had MTV, a brief respite after a long day of school and extracurricular activities.
Among my first compact cassette tapes were, of course, Britney Spears’ Sometimes, Mandy Moore’s So Real and M2M’s The Big Room. Each tape had a “Side A” and a “Side B,” one didn’t exactly have the luxury to be indecisive because it took actual effort to rewind or fast-forward to specific songs.
I would save up my allowance for cheap CDs filled with the top hits of that time. Whatever was left, my money would go to inexpensive “song hits.” Before one could easily search song lyrics on Google, I bought them in the bookstore, grocery or wherever else it was available. I’d have my very own karaoke sessions and practice songs alone in my room—hoping to be the next Gabriella Montez. The closest I’d get to being a star was regularly singing in school programs. At one point, I sang our graduation hymn while wearing my cream white, puffed up communion dress that I resented.
I felt it was fate that the last chapter of High School Musical fell on my graduation year. I daydreamed that I was Troy Bolton’s SO while Can I Have This Dance was playing, as one would think so fondly of the iconic Dirty Dancing scene with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. This was a Catholic schoolgirl’s fantasy. (I never had a prom; I blame the nuns.) To this day, I still feel things when watching that video.
Before I had a glossy pink Apple iPod Nano (4th generation to be exact, with 16GB), I’d select and put music in a white MP3 player, which could only hold 30 tracks; it looked like a Chiclet. These were the crème de la crème from a 15-year-old’s perspective. Once I had exhausted every song—conjured up all possible scenarios in my head—I deleted them and exchanged for another.
The year is 2009. On my laptop is a wealth of illegally downloaded albums on my meticulously curated iTunes. I’d edit album covers and create go-to playlists. My “Top 25 Most Played” would include a variety of genres, from worship to indie music.
During my first few years in university, I discovered 8tracks. Mine was an online diary—available to the public for consumption—where my tumultuous, emotional highs and lows were recorded. The first playlist was entitled “Everything I Could Never Tell You.” I was diligent in creating one playlist after another; these elicited certain emotions other media couldn’t.
The website shut down on December 31st, 2019—the last day of the decade that was—after 137 months and countless playlists after. In a transparent e-mail, founder David Porter wrote, “We’ve fallen behind in royalty payments because our revenues have declined as a result of a steady drop in listening activity.” Why? Because of streaming giant Spotify.
The year is 2017. After years of hesitation, I finally caved in and paid for a premium account—just so I wouldn’t have to hear another squeamish ad. But really, I just wanted to monitor what the guy I liked was listening to and include it in our conversations. He loved Simon and Garfunkel, Toto (doesn’t every guy like Africa?) and more “tito music” I grew to love. I introduced him to Tears for Fears and it became one of his most played artists of the year.
My relationship with music has transformed over the years, and I have technology to thank for that. Still, I am grateful that I experienced life before online audio streaming platforms, before shuffling songs and putting them on loop was possible. It gives me a deeper appreciation for music. When I only had a few to choose from, it made me treasure every song, memorize every line, as if I birthed it.
Here’s to life before Spotify, lest we forget.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver