Spotify’s subscriptions and user control

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Spotify is an audio-streaming service which began in Sweden in 2006 shortly after the advent of the first iPhone, when it quickly revolutionized the music industry away from the pay-per-album model that had been popular for decades up to then: Apple Music and YouTube Music quickly copied Spotify’s model. It is restricted to users aged 18 and over, or 13 and over with parental consent. With over 60 million copyright-protected songs and millions of podcasts and other audio materials, Spotify remains one of the most popular audio apps in the world with over 320 million regular monthly users in October 2020. It has always been a “freemium” service, whereby the basic features are free and come with advertisements, but some of the best features (ad-free and offline listening) are subscription-only. Indeed, its cheap access to a veritable Babylonian library of music without commercials means it currently has over 144 million paying subscribers.

Spotify kids logo, advertising the Premium Family subscription. Credit:

Spotify was originally invitation-only, but today is open and geared towards driving consumer interest in its Premium services, which generally cost either $9.99 a month, or $4.99 a month for students. Spotify often offers free trials of Spotify Premium for either one month or 60 days to demonstrate its benefits beyond the lack of commercials. The other main differences between the Free and Premium versions are:

  • Spotify Free lets you listen at up to 160kbps quality, whereas Spotify Premium adds 320kbps quality.
  • “Shuffle-mode” forces non-paying users on mobile to listen to random songs unless they are listening to one of 15 on-demand playlists. Additionally, when using shuffled songs, a non-paying user can only skip over a few songs. Spotify Premium users have none of these restrictions.
  • Spotify Premium allows users to download up to 10,000 songs for offline use, whilst Spotify Free does not allow downloads.
  • Free access to Hulu, a popular on-demand video streaming service usually costing $7.99 a month. Spotify and Hulu together are $9.99 a month (since March 2019, before then it was $12.99), or $4.99 for students, versus $17.98 to buy both individually.

Spotify & Hulu offer a package deal together. Credit:

Spotify allows user-created content via personalized playlists (which can then be shared with anyone) and a user profile picture. Its guidelines for acceptable content seem simple and reasonable at first:

  • No violations of copyright, trademark or personal image rights (the latter essentially means you cannot post images of people without their consent).
  • No “Offensive, Violent, or Inappropriate Content”, such as nudity, child pornography, bullying, hate speech or extreme violence. In their words: “If you are questioning the appropriateness of a photo, chances are it violates our Profile and Playlist Image Guidelines.”

At first glance, these are essentially common-sense rules to facilitate a focus on music and to keep the app safe and docile, particularly for the teenage segment of its population. However, a dive into the specific Terms & Conditions of use for Spotify yields some interesting findings that make the system look significantly more draconian:

  • Spotify can change its subscription prices for auto-renewing subscriptions whenever it wants to, and the subscriber will be billed automatically at the new price if they continue to use it. However, this is common practice in the digital streaming industry (see: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO).
  • Spotify can remove any User Content without an explanation, without prior notification, if Spotify decides the content has violated the its User Agreements.
  • Spotify is not legally responsible for any User Content.

In particular, the last two points bring to mind the recent censorship argument against digital media companies and criticism of many of the largest tech companies in the world, such as Facebook and Twitter, for not doing enough to combat hate speech/censoring certain political views/acting as a proxy platform for illegal activities. This is not to say that Spotify is doing the same, but more to remark how like many companies forged in the digital age, Spotify operates in somewhat of a regulatory vacuum, where it is free to set hefty restrictions on its user base that most users may never know about.

Overall however, I think the antecedent paragraphs give a slightly more cynical view than the reality: Spotify is not renowned for aggressively removing User Content for essentially no reason whatsoever, and it has to maintain flexibility to act against those who step out of line since misbehaving users can potentially reach hundreds of millions of people on the platform. Spotify has enabled so many likeminded music fans from literally all across the world (see below) to connect via a shared passion, irrespective of their cultural or geographic differences. This is a particular rarity in the hyper-polarized and occasionally nationalistic climate we live in today, and Spotify is to be applauded for crafting unintrusive regulations which continue to create a safe environment for people to focus purely on something they enjoy.

Map of Spotify users in Developed countries. Credit:

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