Technology

Spotify keeps making it harder for me to listen to music

Thursday morning, I woke up in a haze and decided to listen to ambient music while I drank my first cup of coffee. The night before, I’d saved an album to Spotify, but when I fumbled through the panels of the desktop app, I couldn’t find it. The menu was full of recommendations and recent plays — I couldn’t find “Albums” anywhere in the list. There wasn’t even a clear way to navigate to it. I tried cycling between the Home and Your Library tabs, but nothing turned up an Albums button. The side panel showed playlists, and the album I wanted wasn’t in my recent listens. I could search for it if I remembered the album’s name, but I didn’t.

Eventually, I got there by tinkering with the window size and keeping an eye on the top menu bar, but I had spent whole minutes in interface purgatory, and the emotional damage was done. When I needed my Albums list, it wasn’t there.

To be clear, this is not all that big of a deal. As Kourtney Kardashian memorably put it, there’s people that are dying, and a few moments of interface confusion are not that important in the grand scheme of things. But my confused morning search is part of a much larger problem for Spotify. As the service has grown, it’s also sprawled. Spotify first carved out its niche by moving beyond albums and personal favorites, focusing instead on user-generated playlists and automated recommendations. Now, the company is using the same playbook to expand beyond music entirely — and in the process, it’s making its lone flagship app harder and harder to use.

Spotify’s first step in this direction was getting into podcasting. In 2019, the company made the twin acquisitions of Gimlet (a beloved podcast studio) and Anchor (a beloved podcast creation tool). In the years since, it’s been doing everything it can to make the Spotify app a destination, building out the app’s podcast tools and gating off a growing number of Gimlet shows to make them only accessible through the Spotify app.

It’s unusual to jam podcasts in a music app like this. Apple has both the most popular podcasts app and a fledgling music service, but it keeps them separate because that’s what people expect. Amazon serves podcasts through its Amazon Music app, but the company is more focused on external distribution. Podcast fans that ditch the native iOS app usually do so in favor of a podcast-only service like Stitcher or Overcast. The only reason to bundle music and podcasts together is if, like Spotify, you’re a popular music app trying to leverage your way into the podcast business. For the vast majority of listeners, it just doesn’t make sense.

More recently, Spotify has set its sights on the $4 billion audiobook market. The company acquired audiobook platform Findaway last year and has begun referring to audiobooks as the “third leg” of its business, alongside music and podcasts. As of this month, you can browse a library of 300,000 different titles from within the Spotify app, similar to Apple Books and other ebook storefronts. But just like the podcast bundle, this is a weird place for most audiobook listeners to look for their next title. All the major audiobook platforms have standalone apps, and Spotify’s software innovations (personalized playlists, cross-device syncing) don’t apply to audiobooks. Even the basic commercial proposition — paying a flat monthly fee instead of buying albums piecemeal — doesn’t apply to the new market.

Not coincidentally, “podcasts” and “audiobooks” were two of the three tabs crowding out my desperately needed Albums menu.

In both cases, there’s a business logic behind what Spotify is doing. There are only so many people who will pay $10 a month to stream music, so if the business is going to keep growing, it needs to find new things to sell. Rather than start from scratch in the podcast and audiobook business, Spotify decided to leverage the 433 million people using its music app, figuring that if even a fraction of them converted, it would kick-start the new ventures.

Like any asset, the Spotify app can be overleveraged — and when the company starts chipping away at the core function of listening to music, it’s playing a dangerous game. As it happens, I’m a heavy consumer of podcasts and audiobooks, too, but the extra menu tabs haven’t done much to tempt me over. And judging by the company’s latest earnings, I’m not alone. The main effect is making the Spotify player harder to use and spending down any goodwill users feel toward the company.

For now, Spotify doesn’t have to fight for its place in the streaming music business. But with each new line of business, the app gets a little more cluttered — and the company’s hold on the streaming market gets a little weaker.