An Ode to 8tracks
by Kenny Cox
As I plummeted down the internet rabbit hole late last week, I found myself back on a website that I thought I had escaped from years ago, 8Tracks. 8Tracks was created by David Porter in 2008. Unlike other internet radio services at the time, the site’s aim was to create a social network of playlist creators and listeners, relying on the creativity and music knowledge of its users for what one would hear on the site. The site’s peak popularity was in 2013, before sharply declining with the rise of Spotify and Apple Music. Every time I mention 8Tracks to other past users, it’s almost always met with an instant sense of excitement, as people begin to rattle off playlists they made, artists they discovered, and songs they cherished during their time on the site. So, what was so special about 8Tracks, and why hasn’t that magic been recaptured today?
One of the things that made 8Tracks so unique was its user-specific creation of playlists. Unlike Spotify or Apple Music’s numerous playlists made by companies, algorithms, or the services themselves, 8Tracks relied on users to bring their own tastes to the table. To make a playlist, users had to upload their own MP3 files to the site and along with their own cover art and track listings. This meant that 8Tracks playlists had a level of personalization that no one else offered at the time, something that Emerson student and former 8Tracks user Delaney Katz believes. “It was very personal… all of the playlists would have cover photos and the moods they wanted the listener to feel listening to it along with a description”. This personalization also meant that the songs added to a playlist were something that users truly wanted to share. There was no room for throwaway tracks or constant updates to one’s playlist — something that’s easy to do in the age of 20+ hour, 300-track Spotify playlists. Most of the playlists found on the site were sequenced, arranged, and created with a concise, singular intention.
This reliance on users’ MP3 files for sourcing music meant that one’s 8Tracks profile was also a look into their own music collection. Looking at my own account, I found playlists filled with tracks that I amassed throughout my teenage years — Vampire Weekend tracks, deep album cuts from FKA Twigs’ LP1, and glitchy M.I.A songs. I chose music for my playlists that I deeply cared about, music that I still care about just as much in 2019 as I did years ago. To me, 8Tracks functioned less as a platform to post about the band you’re interested in this week, but the one you have on a poster of on your bedroom wall; the music you posted mattered.
Another part of why 8Tracks was so special came from one of it’s biggest flaws, the lack of skips that users were allowed. Much like Pandora, TuneIn, and other internet radio platforms, 8Tracks only permitted three skips each hour. While this was a nuisance, it made listeners take in new music that they might have skipped otherwise. I discovered artists like Best Coast, Daughter, Tegan and Sara, and many more sitting through tracks that I might have just skipped otherwise. While the unlimited skips system allowed by most streaming platforms today is convenient, discovery suffers when any song can be ended in an instant. Even if no skips meant suffering through some terrible tracks, it also shines a light on gems that one might never hear otherwise.
But none of these aspects of 8Tracks could have been possible without the community that surrounded it. While all types of people were using 8Tracks at the height of its popularity, it’s often remembered as a haven for teenage music lovers in the early 2010’s. Go on Twitter and search “8Tracks”. Results will include jokes about listening to The 1975 in middle school, the meme of the indie kids standing on the wall, and people reminiscing on the hyper-specific playlists they dedicated to fictional characters. It was a hotspot for Tumblr kids, budding indie music fans, and those looking for a reprieve from what the radio had to offer. This community of listeners with similar interests created a passionate fanbase for the site. And while this remaining passion today could be a product of rose-tinted nostalgia for better times, there’s something to be said for a platform that helped people discover and grow their love for music. “It was one of the first ways that my friends and I discovered music that I actually really connected with... it was a very intimate kind of music site in comparison to some of the other bigger music sites right now” added Katz, and many other users would agree. With the vastness of today’s streaming sites, the miniature communities and niches that 8Tracks allowed to flourish are difficult to find and maintain.
So where is 8Tracks now? Well, the site has become a shell of what it once was for several reasons. As Spotify and Apple Music grew, many users left the site left in favor of the greater convenience those services provided. But 8Tracks itself is to blame too. As usership was declining, 8Tracks implemented ads on their service in 2016 after being ad-free since their beginning, something that upset many of the site’s remaining users. The site later enforced listening limits up to one hour a day in a bid to gain subscribers for their 8Tracks Plus service, making listening to more than one or two playlists nearly impossible. Finally, a security breach in 2017 compromised almost 18 million accounts on the site, diminishing any remaining confidence users had in the site. While 8Tracks itself might be past saving, the spirit of what made the site great can still live on. Following friends on Spotify, checking out user-created playlists and making your own mixes can keep the spirit of community that 8Tracks offered alive.