The Evolution of Music Listening

Pitchfork recently published a great longform essay on music streaming. It covered the past, history, and present of music streaming, and brought up a lot of great points. These are my reactions.

The piece discussed how “the “omnivore” is the new model for the music connoisseur, and one’s diversity of listening across the high/low spectrum is now seen as the social signal of refined taste.” It would be interesting to study how this omnivority splits across genres, age groups, and affinities. I find myself personally falling into omnivore status, as I am never able to properly define my music taste according to genre, and my musical affinities shift daily, weekly, monthly, with common themes.

Also discussed is the cost of music, whether it be licensing, royalties, or record label advances. Having to deal with the cost of music is a difficult matter. I wonder if I would have been such a voracious consumer of music if I hadn’t grown up with so many free options with the library, the radio, and later, music blogs. Now that I’m older, I make the effort to purchase music when I feel the artist deserves it, but as I distance myself (incidentally, really) from storing music on my computer, that effort becomes less important to expend.

Regardless of my own financial situation, the financial situation of the artist is important to discuss, and a Stereogum op-ed written by Kevin Devine of Of Montreal covers the politics that can surround that precarity. At times, selling out is viewed as something that no artist should do–compromising moral integrity, working for “the man”–something that is above the status of “musician” or “artist” that should be rejected. Fans, too, can come to dislike artists after they become too “mainstream”. But as Devine points out, that’s a false understanding:

“The idea that anyone who attempts to do anything commercial is a sell out is completely out of touch with reality.”

He continues, pointing out that this is even more ludicrous of an expectation in a capitalist economy:

“It’s impossible to be a sell out in a capitalist society. You’re only a winner or a loser. Either you’ve found a way to crack the code or you are struggling to do so. To sell out in capitalism is basically to be too accommodating, to not get what you think you deserve. In capitalism, you don’t get what you think you deserve though. You get what someone else thinks you deserve. So the trick is to make them think you are worth what you feel you deserve. You deserve a lot, but you’ll only get it when you figure out how to manipulate the system.”

And to get directly at the heart of the artists’ paradox, the expectation that they should not sell out, that they should provide their music or art to the public for free or cheap but also not license their music in commercials, is impossibly unrealistic:

“People who wanna be artists have the hardest time of it ’cause we are held up to these impossible standards. We’re expected to die penniless and insane so that the people we have moved and entertained over the years can keep us to themselves. So that they can feel a personal and untarnished connection with our art. The second we try to earn a living wage or, god forbid, promote our art in the mainstream, we are placed under the knives of the sanctimonious indie fascists. Unfortunately, there isn’t some grand umbrella grant that supports indie rockers financially and enables us to exist outside of the trappings of capitalism.”

Of course, there are grants from the NEA, but those are not large enough, plentiful enough, or valued enough by the government to be anything reliable for an indie artist.

DIY artist David Bazan discusses in the streaming essay that personal and untarnished connection with art as a main factor of why he doesn’t like digital music services:

“I’m like a small farmer who interacts with people who consume what I make and tend my little patch of ground,” he says, “and the Spotifys of the world, which are like McDonald’s, are going to make people less aware of how the thing gets made and of its value.”

He values the fact that his fans will have that personal connection with his art, even if it means that he ends up penniless and relatively unknown. The loss of a conscious supply chain and the facelessness of the producers has long been something apparent in more manufacturing-based arenas, that has begun to go after more creative pursuits.

Is this really the case, though? Artists have long been producing art that is meant to live on its own. Though perhaps it is meant to live on its own with the understanding and celebration of who created it. Music may be somewhat different, because while in terms of classical music it is the composers who are remembered, but as of late it is the performers who are more often more memorable and tied to the musical experience. The Backstreet Boys were more famous than their producer. Digital music may only perpetuating this impression.

The ephemerality of digital music manifests itself in the listening experience even further, as the author discusses:

“Vinylphilia and other sorts of affective relationships with musical objects are nothing new, but they take on a new level of importance when contrasted with a transmission from a distant server rather than an mp3 on a hard drive. It’s often hard to understand the affordances of music media until the next one comes along. Mp3 files felt incredibly intangible, even ephemeral, compared to CDs, cassettes, and records, but at least you could carry around an object that you were certain contained those files. With the new crop of streaming platforms, there’s even less a sense of ownership, only the procedure of remotely licensing a digital file to start playing each time you click. It’s understandable that many artists worry about the implications of streaming music: Access isn’t nearly the same phenomenon as ownership. Internet radio platforms like Pandora highlight the long history of this idea.”

The interaction with music and the artists and performers shifts as the supply chain is masked and ownership of music is offloaded to the cloud and replaced by a service which offers access rather than objects. Not only that, but:

““The word “cloud” fills a similar function for SoundCloud, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft as “platform” does for YouTube. It acts as a form of linguistic wallpaper masking the fact that digital copies of “your” music are in fact somewhere amidst vast server farms in places like Maiden, North Carolina; Ashburn, Virginia; Singapore; New South Wales, and Victoria, Australia; and Dublin, Ireland, subject to the terms of impossibly long end-user licensing agreements and to disappearance without notice.”

The supply chain is masked, but so is the storage of the music that you think of as “yours”–carefully curated spotify playlists, a vast collection of SoundCloud likes, or even 8tracks playlists crafted and uploaded to share. It can all disappear as quickly as MegaUpload was sued, thereby taking countless music blogs which hosted their music in that filesharing platform, offline.

While services like Ponyo (which I’ve discussed before) are attempting to reclaim the sound lost by Mp3s and other lossy digital formats, audio engineers are cognizant of the need to master sound differently when many listeners will be listening in those low-quality formats:

“Mastering for iTunes was a different challenge,” VanDette told Ars. “You can’t get around it—when you throw away 80 percent of the data, the sound changes. It was my quest to make the AAC files sound as close to the CD as possible; I did not want them to be any more loud, hyped, or boomy sounding than the CD.”

The comments from “the public face” of Google Play Music, Tim Quirk, also resonated with me.

“Telling the entire world what it should and shouldn’t listen to has become far less important than simply making this overgrown musical jungle navigable,” he claimed. “Online music services need bushwhackers carving paths from one starting point to another. We’re not gatekeepers. We’re not tastemakers. We’re park rangers.”

I listen to most music on shuffle, and it is rare for me to listen to full albums. Having experimented with iTunes, YouTube, Pandora, SoundCloud, Spotify, and now Google Play Music, I treasure the shuffle and “instant mix” feature of Google Play Music, as it does a very good job of shuffling and creating something like iTunes’ new “Genius” mixes. This attitude is reminiscent of an idea brought up earlier in the piece:

“algorithmic-determined internet radio streams are not designed for those of us who already spend large portions of our free time (and work time) researching, acquiring, and sorting music. This has long been the divide between the “lean-back” approach to radio listening and the intense, deep-dive approach of aficionados.”

I have long been an aficionado, but now as I work full-time and my personal priorities have somewhat shifted, I don’t often have the time to invest in creating self-mixed DJ playlists or CDs for my car. I have fallen back to the “lean-back” approach of accepting what shuffle algorithms organize for me. At the same time, there is a risk in consuming some of these services, as:

“Chiding and rewarding these systems felt like a mix between topiary gardening and a Rorschach test: a non-stop process of pruning my tastes, spurred by my instant reaction to new information. Such acts of pruning, I realized, are perhaps the defining social activity of life in the Stream. Voting “thumbs down” on a track for not immediately satisfying me is akin to liking a status update or a tweet, or even voting on the likeability of friends themselves by “hiding” certain folks in my Facebook feed, or periodically treating my list of Twitter followees like an overgrown bonsai tree.”

To listen to some of the more active services that are attempting to recommend new music to you (not the greatest venues for someone like myself who grew up discovering music through college radio and music blogs) requires a time investment much like coping with Facebook’s new newsfeed algorithms. Algorithms have to be trained, and that training process can often be just as much a cognitive burden as deciding what sorts of music to play yourself. Services which offload that algorithm training through an analysis of your music library (iTunes, Google Play Music) will likely find more success in the future.

Of course, in my own experiences managing a library much larger than I could possibly listen to, I made ample use of the ratings to craft my own curated playlists and listening experiences out of the overwhelming amount of music on my hard drive. Thankfully, that was far smaller than the music available online today.

While listening to music is seems socially integrated now, and fandoms hold strong as any concert attendee has witnessed, historically, radio was a powerful connector. As Susan Douglas, a radio historian describes,

“broadcast radio added “a new cognitive dimension” to social life that could bind “utterly diverse and unknown people together as an audience,” forging “powerful connections between people’s inner, thinking selves and other selves.” What is often called a “monoculture” nowadays is described by Douglas as an “imagined community” of strangers, united not through shared space, but because they were hearing the same programming (and ads) at the same time.

Internet radio breaks sharply from this model, building itself around the individual, not the mass, and scraping activity data into a hyper-personalized experience.”

More recently the trend toward algorithmically tailored music is also a trend toward more personalized, individual music experiences. Perhaps this is somewhat due to the impact that headphones have had on the personalization and individualization of music listening, but digital music recommendation services have furthered this into the software and music marketing industry, rather than the hardware industry of headphones and walkmen that existed and evolved in the past few decades. The algorithms and “music genomes” that define the music we listen to today are at risk of eliminating the “imagined communities” that Douglas associates with radio listening:

“Do taste topiaries run the risk of sealing listeners into self-flattering cocoons? Is the tendency toward diversity—determined on internet radio stations by a knob that slides between familiarity and “adventurousness”— mitigated by the safety of algorithmically-determined similarity? Is this something to fear, or just the big data version of niche marketing tactics that took hold on radio decades earlier? Does internet radio create a virtually cloistered local scene for the age of infinite “curation”? A Top 40 Möbius strip to each individual?”

However, the essay doesn’t follow this much further. Spotify and SoundCloud both have social integrations into their experiences, with Spotify having a heavy Facebook-infused social sharing and following element. Soundcloud has been fleshing out their social venues, but allows interaction across a common stream of music posted or reposted by those you follow. There is a real risk, however, that these digital music services are creating a filter bubble in the music industry. It’s less common that you could pull up next to someone at a stoplight and both be listening to the same song in your car. However, maybe that just means that we’re both listening to music that we really, truly enjoy, instead of what is being filtered through the radio.

The music industry has changed so much over the past century that I’m not going to attempt to predict what will happen or what could come next. Whatever happens, I’ll be listening.