Why does streaming music stress us out?
There’s a dark side to modern music delivery COMMENT
For listeners, the world of streaming music should feel a little bit like utopia — a magical place where we can access millions of songs instantly and effortlessly. So why is everybody so freaked out about it?
Our anxiety seems to surge in waves. The first big one came a few years back when we learned that a single stream on Spotify earned our favourite artists mere microns of a penny. Last year, a second wave of worry began to crash — the nagging hunch that streaming platforms were i mpoverishing our listening, transforming us into passive consumers who no longer gave unfamiliar sounds the time they needed to bend our brains.
A third wave came last month when Spotify filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange, confirming the Swedish company’s domi nance as the most- used streaming platform, with 159 million active users, including 71 million paid subscriptions at the end of 2017, according to The New York Times. But Spotify has always seen itself as something bigger than the world’s premier music library. In 2014, founder Daniel Ek explained his company’s philosophy in the pages of The New Yorker like so: “We’re not in the music space — we’re in the moment space.”
It’s distressing to be re-
AMBITION TO TURN ALL MUSIC INTO EMOTIONAL WALLPAPER.
minded that the world is filled with corporations that will work relentlessly to monetize every moment of our lives — especially because those moments are finite. And I think this is where our underlying angst over streaming originates. Listening to music on streaming platforms ultimately reminds us that there are lifetimes upon lifetimes of recorded sound that we won’t live long enough to hear.
And unlike us, our most beloved songs no longer require a physical form. Music used to be something we owned — discs or cartridges we could touch, collect, swap and treasure. Now, having ascended into the digital cloud, recorded music has become something we experience. The act of streaming transforms music from a noun into a verb, a thing into an activity.
Through all of this, it’s still important to remember Spotify isn’t the same thing as streaming, just as consumers are not the same thing as listeners. And as consumers, we have every right to be perturbed about how this new mode of circulation perpetuates the worst practices of the music industry — especially when it comes to Spotify.
We already knew that Spotify’s royalty rates were objectionable, and we knew that its algorithm-generated playlists often feel like mix tapes made by bots. Then, in December, thanks to an out- standing article in the Baffler by the music journalist Liz Pelly, we suddenly knew a lot more. We learned that Spotify games its search function so that it’s easier for users to find the work of certain artists on a Spotify- branded playlist than it is to locate the artists’ actual albums. We also learned that major corporations have been adding songs to their branded Spotify playlists without the consent of the artists and without compensating them.
Pelly came up with the perfect phrase for that second tactic: “the automation of selling out.” And she’s right to ring the alarm over it. The fact that multinational corporations such as Nike and Starbucks can use a musi- cian’s work to legitimize their brands in exchange for nothing other than exposure is exploitative and unconscionable.
What I’m less worried about, however, is the mounting concern over Spotify’s favouritism toward anodyne sounds, and how the platform populates its playlists with non-disruptive styles of music to keep listeners from logging off. “Spotify loves ‘chill’ playlists,” Pelly writes. “They’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect.”
Yes, that’s gross, but isn’t that how the music industry has always done business? In a marketplace shaped by corporate interests, blandness always thrives — from Muzak to corporate radio to MTV to Spotify.
Knowing that, we as listeners always have the option to break away and find alternative platforms that better suit our ethics and our esthetics. ( Many fans have found refuge on Bandcamp, an artist- friendly streaming site where the musicians set their own prices and get a bigger slice of the profits.)
The point is this: If you’re an intrepid listener, the endless array of brain- chilling playlists promoted on Spotify aren’t being aimed at you. Streaming numbs only consumers who have paid to feel that way.
Plus, the harder Spotify tries to get us to zone out, the greater the opportunity we have to sharpen our attention, to cultivate our listening, to better discern whether we’re being switched on or marketed to. That might seem like a lot of work for listeners who feel overwhelmed by t he i nfinite choices streaming platforms provide, but it’s simply a continuation of how we’ve always lived. We used to turn on the radio and wade through a slush of bad songs in hopes of catching the good one. Once upon a time, we were hunter-gatherers, roaming the land, trying to figure out which berries wouldn’t kill us.
Because before we had the machinery to record it, and the factories to massproduce, and the infrastructure to distribute, we had no choice but to encounter music where it truly lives: in the fleeting present.
Music streaming services target consumers, but consumers are not the same thing as listeners, Chris Richards writes.