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Grooveshark: A lesson in why we can’t have nice things

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

Grooveshark is no more.

Why should we lament this? They were, after all, a company that delivered music without heeding copyrights and without recompensing the artists that wrote the music. Once you read more about their business model, one could only say that they operated in a gray area if one squinted really hard. Once you learned how they delivered what they delivered, you were amazed that they lasted as long as they did.

But let’s take a step back and examine what else they provided and why it might be OK to lament their passing. What follows is a bit of rant—no surprise there—and an exploration of what we’re actually talking about when we talk about music or films or TV shows or books. We’re so accustomed to the only system for access to culture being one of direct remuneration to license-holders, piecemeal for each bit of culture to which you’d like access

Is this really the only way?

The Grooveshark Service

What did Grooveshark do?

  • They had almost everything you ever searched for—and lots of stuff you never knew existed. Their collection was truly enormous: The only things I would have trouble finding were some very-local Swiss-jazz artists
  • They apparently also worked the same from every country instead of throwing up region-specific restrictions for every other song—or just not returning results not licensed in the country from which you searched
  • The search was great, showing a lot of cross-connections and opening you up to so many new artists and music
  • Their UI—old and new—was intuitive and provided a tight, complete set of features. You could build your own playlists as well as listen to other people’s playlists as “radios”.
  • Music played cleanly and well and reliably

So the service was exactly what you’d be looking for in a media service. Hell, it would have been a great service if it showed movies or TV shows, too. The only part missing was that Grooveshark didn’t come up with a way of directly remunerating the artists—and more importantly, their publishers.

Just to be crystal clear: the service was technically correct, but it didn’t play by the current rules for media distribution, so it operated in a gray-going-on-black area. Why express this so cagily? Because it’s hard to imagine that, even as soon as 10 years, we won’t be accessing media through something very like GrooveShark.

We already get access to all of the crappy music that we haven’t personally chosen whenever we turn on a radio. If you want to be able to choose what you listen to, though, instead of just listening to what’s shovel-fed to you by your betters, you’ll have to cough up a lot of cash and put a lot of personal time into building your collection. Either that, or listen to whatever’s on the radio. Which is probably commercials.

Since the owners of the music weren’t interested in unsnarling the knot of remuneration to myriad artists, they just shut it down and removed the service from existence.

In its stead, we were told to go to one of the bigger providers, like Spotify or Google Music.

Fine. No problem. Let’s see what those have to offer.


  • No web client. You have to download and install it. Ok, it turns out that there is a web client, but it’s not at-all well-linked from their homepage because they’d much rather you downloaded the executable so that they can set up shop in your startup-applications list and phone home about everything you’re doing. I’m not, so far, impressed with the legal way of doing things.
  • Good selection so far; didn’t find some stuff I had on Grooveshark, though
  • Available in a free version for a month
  • Free version has commercials, but not too often so far; OK, in Switzerland, it’s basically the same two commercials.
  • You can test the premium version for 30 days
  • Premium shuts off the ads, but costs 2.5 times as much as GrooveShark
  • The $.99 for 3 months offer is only available to U.S. subscribers

I played a couple of albums with Spotify, but didn’t like the dark-only UI and didn’t like that I couldn’t view my play history (or couldn’t find it), so I moved on to Google Play to see how things were over there.

Google Play

  • The free version lets you upload your own music from iTunes, but not browse music like GrooveShark
  • You can try premium for 60 days; this feels much more like GrooveShark
  • The UI is quite nice and very comparable to GrooveShark. Hey, YouTube, could you please, for the love of God, just walk down the hall and steal the GooglePlay UI? Pretty please? It’s kind of what we’ve all wanted for YouTube.
  • It also costs 2.5 times as much as GrooveShark
  • The selection is quite good, but the search is a bit dodgy—I know, right?

I signed up and was in quite quickly. The UI is fluid, intuitive and pretty. So far, so good.

I search for an album that I’m listening to on Spotify (Hugh Laurie’s “Let Them Talk”). Google found Hugh Laurie. There’s one of his albums, where’s the other one? The one I’m searching for? It’s not possible that I already ran into a limitation in Google’s collection? What if I search by album name?

There it is.

This is Google, right? Google couldn’t find Hugh Laurie’s other album because they had it filed under “Various Artists”. The album cover, however, shows it as “Hugh Laurie: Let them Talk”.

Google can’t Google.

This is unexpected, actually. Google Play is stumbling hard out of the gate because the search sucks. I’d never thought of Grooveshark’s search as especially good, but their search had led me to expect higher-quality results than even the mighty Google is capable of delivering.

And then, when I do find what I want, Google Play can’t play anything. Pity. Just zips through the songs in the list and whines that it can’t reach the servers. Which it clearly can.

I finally figured out what the problem with Google Play was on my Mac. I have click-to-play on for all plugins and good, old super-high-tech Google still uses FLASH for a couple of things, … like playing music. Are you kidding? What is up with the modern Google Play using Flash to play music? It’s 2015, right? Don’t we have an HTML5 audio tag now? On top of that, Google Play couldn’t tell me that the plugin that they absolutely need in order to run wasn’t enabled?

GrooveShark could. Just sayin’.

We can’t have nice things

Why couldn’t we just take the GrooveShark concept and software and make it legal?

With Grooveshark, we flew too close to the sun, but from our lofty aerie we were able to glimpse what listening to music and discovering music could be.

From these heights, we’re now dropped back into the morass of crappy software and arbitrarily limited collections fighting it out for the next several years until we finally settle on something like GrooveShark again. Google Play is decent, has a lot of music and a good UI, but it nearly gave me a frustration aneurysm straight out of the gate and costs 2.5 times as much as my previous solution for that pleasure.

It’s like the Internet in the 90s. They wanted us to pay for every scrap of information we got. 20 years later and we now have all of the world’s information at our fingertips. We want all of the world’s music at our fingertips as well. And books and movies and TV shows, while you’re at it.

In Switzerland, we pay several hundred francs per year for our media subscriptions (video and audio). The price covers the costs of Swiss sporting events, but also pays for syndication and licensing fees for songs, movies and TV shows. The Swiss Jazz station is fantastic. But I can’t make a my own playlist from it.

I will gladly pay money for media. I do not like wasting my time, though. I don’t like having to investigate to find out where stuff is playing, to which service I have to subscribe in order to get something, slot it in for viewing before it expires or hoping that the service continues to provide access to the content I’ve actually purchased.

The rent-seekers as gatekeepers to culture

But that’s not exactly the point, though, is it? Why should only people with enough money have access to the music of the world? What happened to the concept of the public library? Now that we have the means to provide a worldwide, digital public library, we’re still stuck in the stone ages, dragged down by the albatross of a primitive remuneration model.

Is there really no way to provide this access at an affordable price? The cost of access is not the true cost or production, but that cost plus a healthy profit. With a nice multiplier for repeated, licensed use. Instead of technology liberating the content, it’s used to artificially fetter it.

In a way, our approach to broadband is the same: we have access to the Internet at all but the highest levels and fastest speeds. For most of us, the cost is relatively cheap. But that’s only from home or the office, and it costs more than it should.

If you want it on the go, you need an extra data plan for your phone. That is, you get to pay for access to the Internet twice. Why are data plans still special, still so limited? Why do you have to worry about tethering? About your data cap? Ridiculous. We have wonderful things now that should be cheap, but that are artificially expensive so that exorbitant rents can be extracted.

There might not be anything you can do about it right now, but it’s important to remember that this is the way it is for now. The limitations are artificial and imposed by society, and many of those limits are imposed on society by an economy jury-rigged to benefit the rent-seekers. Their grasp on our worldview seems to be quite solid, but there are rumblings. We should help turn that into a roar.

So, no, you’re not a fool for thinking you should have access to unlimited internet or music or movies or books. You’re a fool if you believe that there is no other way. It’s about political will, as usual. The sums involved are relatively paltry. See Dean Baker’s Artistic Freedom Voucher for a workable proposal that would cost peanuts for each taxpayer.

While we’re at it, could we also ensure that everyone in the world has access to clean drinking water or to sufficient food? No, of course not. That would cost billions. Who has that kind of money? Governments are busy buying planes that don’t fly with that money and corporations are busy…sitting on it, waiting for a good investment opportunity.

Our civilization is absolutely not geared toward providing services. It is geared toward providing rent.