Amazon Music Prime: The New Coke of music streaming


How Amazon Music Prime upgraded and infuriated its members.

by Allen Therisa in Products

Amazon Music not so Prime.
Amazon Music not so Prime.

A few years ago, my friend Daniele and I had a conversation about the virtues or, in Daniele's opinion, the downsides, of music streaming against the benefits of owning physical copies of recorded music.

In Daniele's opinion, not owning the music we love (whether in the form of vinyl albums or CDs), regardless of the convenience offered by on-demand music streaming, could leave the listener or, in the dead phrase of our digital service-dominated era, "the consumer", vulnerable to losing access to music if we stop paying to stream it.

Having digitised and disposed of my CD collection by this point, I disagreed. Streaming was the future, I confidently told Daniele, and the freedoms it offered consumers to enjoy their chosen music at affordable or, in some cases, zero prices could not be beaten.

Despite my arguments, Daniele was not convinced.

At that point, the streaming market was largely dominated by Spotify and Apple Music, while Amazon offered, as part of its Prime package, a free music streaming service called Prime Music.

Prime Music was not greatly publicised, but was, for a while, much appreciated by its loyal band of followers. Bundled into Amazon membership, Prime Music contained no advertising and offered free access to two million curated tracks.

This meant Prime members could play albums and playlists, as well as the individual songs they chose, when they wanted, and as many times as desired, via the Amazon Music mobile or PC app.

It was, for a while, a lovely thing.

This all changed, without warning, on 1 November 2022, when Amazon "upgraded" Amazon Music Prime, by adding its entire music catalogue of 100 million tracks to the service (good) whilst withdrawing the ability to play album tracks in the order as listed or songs as selected (very bad). Instead of being able to choose music to listen to, Prime Music members from this point had no choice but to listen to all tracks on shuffle, with no option to shuffle back or repeat play.

Worse, Prime Music now also injects selected tracks that appear (according to the dreaded Amazon Music algorithm) to match the tracks in members’ playlists, effectively choosing what members can listen to (very, very bad).

Oh, and there's also a limited number of skips if you find yourself in an algorithm trap of suggested tracks that you do not want to listen to (just like Spotify).

Putting aside the media and online debate over the upgrade, the response from users, as reflected in recent Apple reviews has been, perhaps not unsurprisingly, almost all negative.

Whoever executive authorised these changes should be fired.

Give me back the 2 million songs I want to listen to, not this nonsense.

Worse update that has killed the app.

Been thinking of subscribing to Spotify. This update has made my mind up.

The latest update lets you play any song that exists apart from the one you select.

This new update is ridiculous, you can't even play a song you search for.

It's constantly refusing to let me do anything without upgrading.

App no longer lets you download music offline or even pick a song. What a joke!

Worst experience EVER!!!

To make matters worse, throughout Music Prime, whenever members now navigate playlists (since albums no longer have any meaning, as they are scrambled and interrupted by the algorithm) they are presented with nagging nudges to upgrade to Amazon Music Unlimited, for an additional charge, to control how music is played. 

In effect, Amazon has turned Music Prime into little more than an on-ramp to its higher-level music subscription service, which mirrors other music streamers in terms of both price and the service offer.

You can see the logic in what Amazon has done here. All the digital streaming and subscription services are under commercial pressure right now, partly because the corporations behind them are taking a hit in terms of revenue and falling stock prices because of the current economic crisis. Ergo, why not raise prices (which Amazon has also done for its Prime membership) and monetise everything in the process?

Amazon could have decided to generate additional income from its Music Unlimited service by offering it at a more competitive price (thus bringing over additional consumers from its competitors) or by innovating in terms of the service offer, rather than slavishly following the market.

But no.

The result is that all the major music streamers now offer effectively the same service, at the same price, with the dreaded shuffle deployed to force consumers to whatever the next, higher price point for each service happens to be.

In this, they are repeating a market strategy that has become over-familiar and increasingly annoying since its heavy use during the lockdown social experiment.

Part of a bigger picture

During lockdown (and for some time before) what became known as "nudge methods" were deployed to influence (i.e. coerce) citizens to change how they live, through the application of behavioural insights into public policy to encourage them to do so. From wearing a mask, to socially distancing or driving up vaccination numbers (and before lockdown, to reducing rates of smoking, obesity and alcohol consumption), nudge methods have been deployed internationally to manipulate citizens to take actions deemed to be good for them, as well as beneficial to state service providers.

Amazon, via its shuffle, skip limits and constant prompts to upgrade is aiming to do the same with its customer base; to nudge its members to change service and pay more for doing so.

As the streaming revolution developed, the emphasis was on the opportunity, convenience and apparent liberation that technology offered consumers to move away from owning physical assets (vinyl albums and CDs) to streaming (or renting) the music they love. The potential for cutting off or limiting access to such music to squeeze more income from customers was never actively discussed (apart from by my friend Daniele). 

This apparent paradigm shift also reflected a parallel discussion which was taking place at the time (and more controversially) within wider social policy circles.

In November 2016, Ida Auken, a Danish politician and member of the Folketing for the Social Democrats party, wrote an article for Forbes entitled, Welcome to 2030. I own nothing, have no privacy, and life has never been better

Auken's argument in her article is that, as the internet society develops, it will operate more efficiently as a result of an associated shift from capitalist acquisition and consumption to non-ownership of assets, facilitated by “fourth revolution” digital access opportunities. 

Welcome to the year 2030. Welcome to my city - or should I say, "our city." I don't own anything. I don't own a car. I don't own a house. I don't own any appliances or any clothes.

It might seem odd to you, but it makes perfect sense for us in this city. Everything you considered a product, has now become a service. 

We have access to transportation, accommodation, food and all the things we need in our daily lives. One by one all these things became free, so it ended up not making sense for us to own much.

In this model for the future organisation of society, the delivery of services on the part of governments and corporations will be less resource-heavy and liberatory for individuals, as they move from being cultural consumers and collectors of physical assets. It will also offer freedom for people from an unhealthy associated consumerist mindset.

Such utopian thinking has fallen dramatically out of fashion more recently, partly as a result of the experience of lockdown and the subsequent related financial crisis. But that does not mean that the ideological drivers behind the fourth revolution theorising and impetus for radical societal reorganisation have gone away.

Rather, they have gone to ground.

The sobering experience felt by Amazon members, who have discovered the music they love can be taken away from them once it is offered as a digital service, also suggests that as the fourth revolution future arrives it is fraught with uncomfortable risks.

Not so much an algorithm problem

Regardless of Amazon's reason for making its change to Prime Music, the suspicion will remain that it is to squeeze more money from its members. But, in doing so, Amazon may be making the same commercial error as The Coca-Cola Company made in April 1985, when it replaced its popular Coca-Cola soft drink with New Coke.

Whether the Amazon corporation understands its error, and corrects it, as Coca-Cola did three months after the introduction of New Coke, when it brought the original Coca-Cola back to the market, is yet to be seen.

But what is clear, regardless of what Amazon does or does not do, is that Ida Auken was wrong in her thesis of 2016. In the future, we may indeed own nothing, but on the evidence so far, we will likely be very unhappy by the choices forced upon us.

Daniele will also likely be proved entirely correct (dang him!) in his opinion that giving up our music to an untrustworthy corporation is a very foolish thing to do.

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