Gateways: How Lightning Bug’s October Song Inspired Me to Ditch Spotify

Music Features Lightning Bug
Gateways: How Lightning Bug’s October Song Inspired Me to Ditch Spotify

When did you fall in love with music discovery? Between friends, we often discuss when we fell in love with live music, music criticism, the album form or specific bands. While I think of it often, I rarely discuss how I came to love meeting a work of musical genius for the first time. It feels gauche to love discovery of new art as much as you love the art itself; it sounds like an accusation that the music in one’s existing Rolodex will simply never be satisfactory, despite the care and labor that went into it. But, it’s hard to put into words how thrilling it really is to stumble upon an unfamiliar artist and have their work click—leading either to the revelation that there’s a treasure trove of outstanding music in that artist’s discography and that of their peers. There’s even something to love about realizing your new favorite doesn’t have another song that hits like the one you’d just found. In 2024, finding music that’s new to me is such a part of my day-to-day life that I don’t often think about it when it’s happening, but that wasn’t always the case.

For much of my young life, other actors mediated the exact process through which I discovered new music. For the first decade, they were my parents: They moderated which CDs or radio stations got played in the car, they approved which movies I could watch, they permitted the video games I could play and which soundtracks I’d be exposed to. My dad even gave me my first iPod (second-generation Nano) with a panoply of tracks ranging from New Wave hits to She Wants Revenge. By middle school, I had more freedom to surf the web of the 2000s, and YouTube informed my personal discoveries just as much as Top 40 radio, which is how that iPod became crammed with Kanye West, Nightwish, Regina Spektor and more. To shuffle my first iPod was to take a great risk.

The three discoveries which inform my lasting indie obsession came at random: Best Coast’s “Our Deal” music video premiered on TeenNICK and a MovieMaker-obsessed classmate shared projects featuring hits from Florence & the Machine and The National; the YouTube algorithm gave me Ra Ra Riot, whose song “Oh, La” became the jumping-off point for my first Pandora station; a few months later, in my first year of high school, my family got Sirius XM radio, and I found XMU when I recognized the St. Vincent song they were playing—“Cheerleader.” XMU, Tumblr and the occasional recommendation from an older friend fed me new content to yell at my classmates about, making me instantly popular, and I later jetted off to a liberal arts college confident that I had the deep indie knowledge one needed to succeed.

I didn’t. But that was okay: enter Spotify. My college radio station was fairly lax about what its individual DJs could play, save for curse words and ads per FCC compliance. To play what you wanted to play and only what you wanted to play, realistically, you needed a Spotify Premium subscription, and I didn’t think twice about it. Spotify felt like such an easy way to collect all the songs I bookmarked in YouTube playlists, Tumblr reblogs and in the caverns of my memory into easy-to-catalog mixes. The Discover Weekly tool helped me identify songs similar to my existing taste but outside of my awareness with an acuity that felt stronger than Pandora, and I followed a handful of user-curated playlists to supplement the algorithm. From 2015 to 2020, after I’d graduated, I heavily relied on my Discover Weekly and one curatorial playlist—Compact Cassette, compiled by found-footage filmmaker and aggregator David Dean Burkhart—for radio show content and general discovery. I was guilty of using blogs like Pitchfork and GoldFlakePaint to confirm my biases rather than meet new music, which undoubtedly contributed to a narrowing of my listening habits.

Streaming service algorithms, like the ones on Spotify I used, make the act of music discovery just a little too easy. There is something convenient and exciting about subscribing to a service that can analyze what you’ve been streaming and make recommendations tailored to that history. In my case, the algorithms that fed my Discover Weekly felt like they were on point, unearthing material from the far reaches of their library that suited my tastes. The more I streamed, the better its algorithm is supposed to get. That said, streaming services host incomplete catalogs. Beyond just the absence of legends like Joanna Newsom from Spotify, there are generations of influential musicians whose material can only be found crate digging. At best, streaming algorithms can play a supplementary role to a suite of music research processes. Unfortunately, none of them are quite this easy.

Obviously, in 2020, everything changed. In January of that year, I vowed to get back into the music writing game after leaving it behind in college, where I’d contributed to the radio station’s in-house blog. My friend started a new site where I could try my hand at responding to albums with paragraphs of the written word. When Ohio enacted a stay-at-home order with the rest of the country, I surrounded myself with music to replace the voices of my coworkers and roommate—who’d decamped to wait out the pandemic with his then-girlfriend at her place. Writing responses to new music became the perfect escape, a way to stay in touch with the scene in the absence of live shows. I streamed my way through the early weeks of lockdown.

As relatively content as I was, the music world was on fire. Delayed releases and canceled tours evaporated income for just about everyone. Then came Bandcamp Friday: On March 20th, 2020, the tech platform and music marketplace announced it would waive its revenue share to ensure that the labels and artists who used the site saw every penny of each sale. At the time, I was composing a response to Lightning Bug’s October Song, a sublime collection of hazy, artful rock that had propelled the New York band to national prominence. I’d first heard the album’s shoegaze centerpiece “Vision Scraps” the prior summer and was head-over-heels for the entire album, which was due for a Fat Possum reissue in the coming weeks. Overwhelmed by the optimism offered by Bandcamp Friday, I ordered October Song on cassette and purchased a new-old-stock personal tape player on eBay. It had been years since I handled any kind of cassette, but I resolved that this was my little opportunity to contribute. Maybe I’d like the sound, too.

I knew I liked October Song, but when I played the tape, I was aghast. The recording of applause and crowd chatter that is foundational to “(intro)” was awfully vivid; the thumpy percussion and tape-smeared guitar on “The Lotus Eaters” rang through my body with such intensity I feared I was in the throes of some kind of episode. The scratchy guitars on “Vision Scraps” felt like sandpaper had gotten in between my ears. Songs that I’d seen as pleasant, like “The Roundness of Days,” “The Root” and “September Song,” felt like they’d descended from the heavens and I was a simple shepherd, not cultured enough to comprehend the magnitude of the experience or where Lightning Bug was taking me. Everything was heightened beyond what my streaming platform of choice would offer me. The response I composed in response to October Song does not really encapsulate how transformative that experience was for me, but I tried.

To be sure, that tape snagged more than a few times. The tape player I bought was dusty and low-quality; any future cassette I purchased snagged in there regularly, too. I took cues on how to care for tape issues from pop culture depictions, extricating the injured cassette with surgical precision and using whichever tiny tool I had on hand to wind the tape back into place. I was, and still am, petrified of harming the tape. But I chased the high of that October Song listen with subsequent cassette purchases from other favorites of my 23-year-old self. I ordered tapes from Bedbug, Jordana, Video Age and Mini Dresses, to name a few. I purchased tapes from several Cleveland bands to support my local scene. Between 2020 and 2021, I purchased dozens of cassettes and, for my 25th birthday, I got my first turntable. My record collection started with a preorder for Grouper’s Shade and has become a selection of petroleum circles that is a pain to move. I’m about to take hundreds of cassettes and vinyl discs to their fourth apartment in four years.

Around the time I was reinforcing my love for October Song by rediscovering the magic of the cassette tape, I read more and more about the ills of today’s streaming system and the race-to-the-bottom that market leader Spotify initiated. By now, the basics are well-documented: Streaming services permit users access to a seemingly interminable library of streamable content, which users effectively rent. Services use proprietary algorithms to feed that content, whether it be recorded music, television shows, podcasts, etc., to users based on data we “consent” to provide. The payout schemes greatly favor artists whose music is streamed the most: megastars with major label backing. In a few odd occurrences, totally independent artists can live on their streaming income, but breaking through the noise when streaming services have incentives to keep payouts exceedingly low and reward major stars, whose labels financially support them, is functionally impossible.

Spotify data scraping helps them generate mood- and activity-based suggestions that reduce art to consumer experiences and stifle diversity within genres to reward top earners. The industry has arguably tailored its output to align with the streaming experience to the point where critics suggest that Spotify popularized an otherwise unnoteworthy genre with listeners because it makes for an unobtrusive listen. Looking back at my own listening habits in the late 2010s, I can see myself leaning hard into “Streambait Pop” to fill my radio hour despite my middling enthusiasm for it. This is to say nothing of the “fake music” that Spotify may or may not have encouraged to cut its costs, which infected my algorithm in late 2020 to the point where I stopped using Discover Weekly.

This is all to say that I fell out of love with the use of streaming services right around the time I realized that, in a society like this one, recorded music needs way more support than what streaming services will ever offer. October Song became the catalyst it never set out to be, at least for me. In the years since, I’ve kept my Spotify account out of habit, but I’ve recently freed myself of it. As the company digs its heels deeper and deeper into business models which devalue its offerings, leaving the musicians who rely on it so much for visibility out to dry, I can’t find any good reason to keep it. Whether it’s a streaming service or a marketplace like Bandcamp, no for-profit platform is free of sins against artists. So in these no-ethical-consumption days, I’ve grown more resolute in my desire to do right by the musicians I admire the only way I know how: making a tangible purchase. If it’s within my means, I just do it.

There are still plenty of interlopers who influence which music makes it to my ears. Between the press releases in my inbox, news from blogs or recommendations from friends, I have an arsenal of personal discovery tools that promises something more variegated than what typical algorithms are trained to do. These aren’t perfect, either. And to be sure, buying merch as we know it today is still a fraught business: Between rising venue merch cuts, merch distributor bankruptcies, the environmental unfriendliness of merch and trouble with music marketplaces, it’s getting harder to know what’s “right.” I don’t pretend to know the answer, but as someone who values the discovery process and wants to see art proliferate, relying on a streaming startup for some kind of all-access pass just isn’t cutting it.

If you’re reading this, maybe you have your own October Song—an album that beckoned you to buy it on vinyl or CD or cassette, despite having the entire project already in your pocket. It’s an album that vibrated differently when you heard it in physical format. It’s an album that eyed your bank account and opened the floodgates as you sought to replicate that feeling with new tapes, new records, anything you could get your hands on. That album is special. No matter how you found it, let it be a North Star to remind you of the vitality that comes with music discovery and the connectedness that can come with tangible investment at whatever level you can promise. There’s a world of crates out there, all of them are just begging to be dug through.

Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Aquarium Drunkard, Bandcamp Daily, Slumber Mag and more. He is currently a student in Philadelphia. He lives on Twitter @bigugly.

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