8tracks is set to suspend its services permanently by the end of the day.. Neither the end-all nor the be-all of music streaming services, many people likely never used it, and I wonder how much it will actually be missed. But it was my favorite music streaming platform.
Using 8tracks was different from any other streaming music platform. You couldn’t search for and play on demand certain musicians and songs. If you searched for “Mumford and Sons,” for example, you would get playlists that had Mumford and Sons music somewhere in the playlists–could be first, could be third, but since 8tracks didn’t allow you to see complete track listings, you would only know if you listened. And playlists were shuffled every time you listened to them. And, you could only use so many skips in an hour, limiting how much you could control what you were listening to. It was in no way, shape, or form, an on-demand service. 8tracks also had public performance licenses with ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, meaning it was legally similar to public radio. Which was a big part of why, unlike other music upload services, it was never sued into bankruptcy.
8tracks received positive press when it launched and was listed as one of Time’s “50 Best Websites” in 2011, the same year I joined the service. This was about when their popularity peaked. They partnered with Rolling Stone to make playlists, hosted musicians who wanted to promote their music via the service, and sponsored brand playlists. 8tracks’s unique features, at one point, let it stand out from the crowd. Because the service allowed users to upload songs from their personal music library, users could share music that wasn’t available to stream anywhere else, or was harder to find in their given country. It was more common at the start of the decade for artists to refuse to host their music on streaming services, or to make it exclusive to certain platforms, so this made 8tracks’ offerings way more diverse at the time. And other services were still figuring out how to share music socially; Spotify required users to create an account, and put ads in playlists for users who didn’t pay for Premium. 8tracks didn’t do either, making it much more appealing as a way to share music on social media. 8tracks would eventually host 3.5 million playlists, offering playlists catered to moods, situations, fictional characters, or any other number of factors.
However, the service seemed to have a hard time making a profit. On an FAQ page about the Plus service, outright admitted that it wasn’t making a profit, and had only raised about five million dollars to support the service over the past decade, all while still paying for artists unlike comparable services. 8tracks supplemented this by showing ads, which could be banished by a $29.99/year Plus membership, but that Plus membership couldn’t offer the premium features users could get out of other services. Because of its license, 8tracks couldn’t offer offline listening or unlimited skips, or really much other than a nice badge next to your user icon. In 2016, 8tracks tried to switch to crowdfunding, hoping to raise money from users interested in owning shares of the company. According to the Forbes article I just linked, 8tracks calculated that they could get as many as 40,000 supporters to fund the platform; their goodbye blog post indicates that they managed to get only 4,464 total investors. In 2016, 8tracks was stopped by legal concerns from offering services outside of the United States and Canada. In late 2016, 8tracks limited users without a Plus account to only 1 hour of streaming a day, and users who were completely logged out would only be able to listen to a single track. In 2018, that decision was reversed, bringing back unlimited streaming. Users without a Plus membership would now get two audio ads for every four songs, which they said might provide a “thin layer of marginal profit”. Their goodbye post also reports that they attempted to sell the company twice, in 2015 and 2019, but couldn’t find a buyer.
I wish it was surprising that the service had these issues; while 8tracks offered some truly unique opportunities, the reality was that it went against the increasing trends for on-demand, totally custom experiences. Even Pandora, a similar internet radio service, offered more freedom of choice and, perhaps crucially, offered variety that didn’t depend on users generating and curating content, just on pressing play and letting their patented Music Genome Project do the work, creating harmless playlists for hair salons, dentist offices, and clothing stores around the world. 8tracks was never going to be as universal, as non-confrontational, as on-demand as other streaming services, and it didn’t have high-level investors who could absorb repeated losses.
But I loved 8tracks with my entire being. 8tracks’ user-generated, totally curated experience was its biggest asset. More than any computer algorithm, people know what makes music sound good together. Playlists were often made around moods–exercise and studying and writing playlists, but also fall playlists, playlists for looking out your window as it snows outside. 8tracks was also very popular with fandom; fandom, which always loves to dwell on and obsess over moments and characters and ideas, found 8tracks to be the perfect platform to express those feelings musically. I’m guilty of working through my feelings about the comic The Wicked + The Divine by creating several playlists, and it made my year in 2014 when one of my playlists was selected as a Staff Gem on 8tracks. (Playlists could earn ratings of gem, silver, gold, platinum, and diamond, based on how much other users liked them.) Playlists were also often curated around remixes and obscure songs, exposing users to wider varieties of music, to unique covers, to songs that had never been available in a traditional sense in their country and simply weren’t available anywhere else. 8tracks had introduced me to some of my absolute favorite songs in this way. It was uniquely suited to the way I listen to music, where I prefer to hit play and let feelings wash over me, to hear familiar favorites but to be surprised in turn.
I’ll adapt, and survive. 8tracks is allowing users to export any playlists they liked or created to Spotify. It’s, unfortunately, an imperfect solution; the export isn’t exporting files so much as tracklist information, attempting to match a given playlist’s tracklist to Spotify’s library. If the service doesn’t recognize the track, it can’t export it. About 30% of the 200+ playlists I liked on 8tracks won’t make the cut. 8tracks is also allowing users to download plain text files of the tracklists, to help users hopefully track down those obscure songs going forward. It’s the best and most legal thing they can do, but as a librarian and a fan of this service, it’s heartbreaking to see how much we will lose by the end of today.
8tracks has been what I have listened to to write, to explore, to create, to feel. It has been an essential component of my musical life for almost the entire decade. So even though I will be able to rebuild something similar from other services, it is still heartbreaking to see it go.
Catch the author on Twitter @yipp33kiyay.