A Forest of Streams

We recently received a thumbs up from our scholarly communication advisor to use Spotify for the jazz appreciation MOOC. I realized I had been spoiling for a fight, and when I received the news, it was like all the air had been let out of my tires. But this is good news for our planning process, after all. And as she pointed out, Spotify is legal (i.e. it has a business model that compensates copyright owners, who willingly participate), and in the ad-supported version, it’s free. The only drawback is that there may be students enrolled in the MOOC who do not reside in countries where the service is available (no Spotify in India, Brazil, or China for example–see here for a list of countries in which it is available). But as Georgia remarked, they will in all probability find suitable alternatives. Simultaneously, through the librarian grapevine, I learned that students in the History of Rock MOOC offered by the University of Rochester have organized themselves for the listening exercises by creating Spotify playlists. And it dawned on me that there was yet another way to present those listening examples.

Here’s my Spotify playlist for the first few weeks of the jazz appreciation course. Neat, huh?

As our scholarly communications advisor implied, Spotify is just a sliver of the digital music pie. Download services like iTunes still dominate the digital music sector, generating 71% of global revenues, but subscription streaming services have picked up a substantial slice of the market at 13% (Recording Industry in Numbers 2013). Interestingly, Europe and the US are mirror images of each other in terms of how users prefer to access their music; Europeans prefer streaming services while Americans mostly download music. A key to the growing popularity of streaming services may be the fact that users are more likely to explore music they mightn’t otherwise listen to because they don’t have to buy each track.

In the music streaming group, we’ve got Spotify, Rhapsody, Deezer for our friends in Europe, Rdio, and Microsoft’s Xbox Music (and many, many others). Stand by for Google Play All Music Access, which was unveiled at Google I/O last week. This was newsworthy partly because Google beat out Apple, which has yet to release its much anticipated iRadio. And of course a lot of users stream music via music video sites like YouTube and VEVO.


And YouTube:

In addition, there are a host of sites with user contributed content like Grooveshark and Soundcloud. These sites have terms of use that tell users not to upload content that infringes on the rights of IP holders, and they run the titles of tracks through a music database to check, but things slip by. Consequently, these sites frequently claim protection under the “safe harbor” provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, under which they are held unaccountable for copyrighted content until they are made aware of it. The Verge recently published an article on an interesting twist related to the safe harbor provision of the DMCA involving Grooveshark and pre-1972 recordings. Grooveshark is actually something of a hybrid in that it offers some licensed streams in addition to the user content, but they seem to be losing licensing agreements right and left. The service is on the mend, however, thanks in part to a new radio feature that allows users to broadcast their playlists. Curiously, broadcasting licenses cost less than on-demand streaming licenses, so this new feature may allow Grooveshark to stem the flow of red ink and mend fences with the labels. Given all these complexities, it may not be totally kosher to use sites with user contributed content in a formal course setting. But that doesn’t mean students can’t use them individually.

In the user contributed content group, there’s Grooveshark:

and Soundcloud:

Lastly, there are radio services and curated sites like Pandora, This is My Jam, and Songza. These aren’t necessarily the best ones to go to for a known query though since they’re designed more to introduce you to things that you might like based on your initial input. You essentially select a playlist curated by other listeners, or by a MIR algorithm, and if you’re like me, the results can occasionally be irritating. Why, after selecting Baroque as the genre, Pandora thinks I want to listen to The Messiah in the middle of May is beyond me…

In summary, there are copious and growing amounts of (mostly) legal digital music to access on the internet these days, which makes the prospect of designing listening exercises for online music classes surprisingly straightforward. Granted, subscribers do not control the collection, so content could change or disappear from one moment to the next. But with a little searching, it can probably be had from one service or another. This is likely not at all the case for supplemental readings in the humanities, but I’ll save the discussion of open courseware and textbooks for another post.

6 thoughts on “A Forest of Streams

  1. Ray Heigemeir

    This is really useful information and an excellent, easy-to-comprehend summary of the state of things. Thank you!!


  2. Georgia

    Francesca, such a very helpful post! Thanks so much for sharing all the wonderful research you have done on this. I hope you won’t mind if I share the link with the other edX librarians, assuming you haven’t already done that. What you have learned is so encouraging. I’m especially happy that open resources, even when not specifically designed for educators (ie, OERs), are easy to find so that we can be effective in this environment. I also applaud the recognition that students are resourceful. We can trust that in this environment, motivated students will surprise us and enhance ours and everyone’s experiences. Thanks!

    1. francesca Post author

      Thank you, Georgia! Please do share. I had hoped that my blog would have wider utility beyond UT’s specific case (and my capstone course journaling requirement). It’s especially nice to hear from you, since I have a feeling I will be referring to you a lot as the work progresses….

  3. moocstudent

    as someone in that history of rock mooc, please provide a listening bibliography in text format for the students! for that course there was an itunes playlist and then “mentions” in the lectures….i think the students get more from a course when they aren’t also tasked with being the TA’s (re-creating playlists, etc).

    1. francesca Post author

      That’s good to know! The professor of this jazz appreciation MOOC really does want to exercise some control over the specific recordings students are listening to, hence the desire to establish playlists via free music streaming services. As we know, Spotify won’t work for all enrolled students, so the idea of a listening bibliography is an important one that will allow students to seek out the specific tracks from the services available in their countries. Thank you!!


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