Why does stream­ing mu­sic stress us out?

There’s a dark side to mod­ern mu­sic de­liv­ery COM­MENT

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - CHRIS RICHARDS

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.

GETTY IM­AGES / ISTOCKPHOTO

Mu­sic stream­ing ser­vices tar­get con­sumers, but con­sumers are not the same thing as lis­ten­ers, Chris Richards writes.

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