On Broken Music Discovery and the Fragmentation of Music Libraries

Following up (finally) on a tweet-storm from March about music discovery and libraries now.

I miss old school mp3 blogs. Music discovery feels broken now that it’s fragmented across so many services. Soundcloud, Spotify, iTunes… — Sarah K Moir (@smorewithface) March 23, 2015

I used to subscribe to lots of MP3 blogs. I had lots of free time in high school, and listened fervently to the local college radio station (as I’ve mentioned before, in an autobiography through musical devices.) Music discovery is now fragmented across services—SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Pandora, the now-defunct Rdio, and even 8tracks)—it’s both harder and easier to find new music. The wizardry of Shazam, too, means getting to find out what song is playing in the bar, store, or on the radio so you can buy it or find it later online.

Wish there was still a “my library” out there that would actually be mine. Google play music tries, but login is awkward. And interface too. — Sarah K Moir (@smorewithface) March 23, 2015

I still use iTunes, but it’s a bloated program now, without a clear goal or identity as a software application. It started as a music/media player to compete with Windows Media Player (as someone who used my first iPod on a PC, that’s the way it seemed). Now it’s the one-stop-shop interface with the iTunes store (though not the app store), music library management, movies, podcasts, radio,  AND the interface for updating & backing up i devices.

It got harder to identify with my library as mine, since the software holding it is a beast of processor-hugging resources and multiple discordant functions. As mp3 blogs declined in popularity after RIAA crackdowns and mass shutdowns, my music listening and storage habits fragmented. I turned to SoundCloud and Grooveshark to listen to new music discovered on blogs and by friends.

These days my library is all over the place. iTunes is still the main home of my music—I can afford to buy new music when I want —but I frequent Spotify and SoundCloud to check out new music. I sync my iTunes library to Google Play Music too, so I can listen to it at work.

Google Play Music is in the cloud, but doesn’t handle the transition from my iTunes library in a seamless way. Playlists aren’t synced over from iTunes, and the 1-5-star ratings that I use to organize my library are reduced to an overly simplistic thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating, automatically and opaquely updated at music upload time.

Using all these different services is putting a bandaid on the main issue I find.

Hard to feel as connected to music anymore when it lives in so many different places, and recommendations are harder to find… — Sarah K Moir (@smorewithface) March 23, 2015

It’s harder than it used to be to feel connected with music. It’s not a stream or a subculture one is tapped into anymore, because it’s so distributed on the web. There’s so much music, and it lives in so many different services, that the music culture has imploded a bit. Music isn’t alone in this regard; it’s also affected television, courtesy of Netflix:

“We can’t talk about buzzy Netflix shows because our schedules are out of sync. The rough expectations for knowing if your friends are on episode 12 or episode 1 have been destroyed. Netflix thinks it has performed a noble act by releasing the entire season en masse, but it has actually wreaked havoc on the best part of television: talking about television.”

But I think I was a bit wrong in March to say that recommendations are harder to find. Good recommendations are harder to find. Recommendations in general, are not. Spotify launched the Discover Weekly playlist to try to algorithmically guide someone through new music once a week.  An opaque algorithm without a way to give feedback beyond play count and a rating isn’t ideal, though.

When I was in high school and college and defining my music taste, it was important to be the first to discover the “next big thing” in music. There was an element of superiority to this too, extending to the hipster put-down, “Oh, I’ve been listening to them for ages” when you tell someone about a band you just discovered.

Part of breaking down that cultural elitism has led to a pipeline fracture. You could find recommendations easily in  trustworthy music blogs, but many of them have shut down. The launch of the Hype Machine both helped and hurt the cause—not only is it easier to find the next big thing before most others know about it, you’re all riding the wave together. But music blogs themselves get less individual traffic, and the number of songs that get hyped on HypeM are intimidating to sit down and listen to and choose your favorites.

And take more time to parse through. Or maybe that’s just the post-college desiccation of RSS feeds and my time. — Sarah K Moir (@smorewithface) March 23, 2015

HypeM only captures a sliver of the music trending today. People have their favorite bands that they’ve discovered on services like Bandcamp and SoundCloud that let artists upload their music directly, or others like 8tracks or Rdio where you can create custom stations or playlists to share on the web, or relying on the algorithmically generated recommendations of Spotify Discover and Discover Weekly, SoundCloud’s recommended tracks, and so many others. And music radio has consolidated to a few pop stations that play the same songs, one alternative/indie station if you’re lucky, and maybe a rap/hip-hop station or two.

For the first time in my life I’ve been listening to top 40 radio. I still love local radio too. A lot of it still feels one-noted though. — Sarah K Moir (@smorewithface) March 23, 2015

Still the same old songs over and over again, but different genres. — Sarah K Moir (@smorewithface) March 23, 2015

Radio may always be like this, and everything overplayed to death. There are so many places to find new music, and my time is drying up. It takes a lot of dedication to sort through the latest in new music releases, and that’s only become more difficult as the number of sites and sources of new music has expanded. You can’t dump a bunch of blogs into your bookmarks or an RSS feed to discover the latest hotness. Now you’d need to check Spotify, Bandcamp, 8tracks, SoundCloud and others with their own embedded audio tracks to see what’s new on the music web.

I’ve been a long, long time music listener. From wandering the library, to working in college radio. And I still can’t figure out a solution — Sarah K Moir (@smorewithface) March 23, 2015

Discovery of music and sounds across the Internet has come up time and again with podcasting and audio on the web. While it’s relatively easy to distribute music on the web, the community listening to the music is fragmenting. Sites like Last.FM used to be a music community, but now merely passively collect the scrobbles (listens) of its users. As the venues of music listening have fractured, so too have the communities alongside them.

Algorithms can only do so much. Spotify’s discover is broken. Soundcloud’s recommended tracks is helpful, but works on track-by-track basis — Sarah K Moir (@smorewithface) March 23, 2015

I find it silly that SoundCloud, and even YouTube’s autoplay feature work almost exclusively on a track-by-track basis. Maybe this indicates how far machine learning still needs to come. Siri can tell me what I’m listening to, but can’t answer any follow-up questions about the music. Even Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist is still learning that a person’s music listening habits are greater than just one song (or what they listened to most recently).

People no longer want to develop Pandora stations just around one song, or one artist, but a mood or several sounds. Google Play Music and Spotify attempt to address that with their radio and playlist options. Songs for “focusing” or “retro soul” allow you to listen to music more idly. You’re discovering new music without needing to try. You could listen to new music all day and by the end of the day not know what you listened to. You can collect songs by clicking a + to add it to your library, without having to buy it.

It gets harder & harder to take radio songs & put them in my library. Maybe that’s what it means for the digital age to transform ownership. — Sarah K Moir (@smorewithface) March 23, 2015

I can ask Siri what I’m listening to, and click buy right on the response screen, but I never do. Owning a song won’t fix the fracturing of my music library. I keep track of the services I use to listen to music, and what bands I follow on them, in an effort to stay up-to-date on the new hotness. The alternative is to buy everything that I want to listen to multiple times.

Even if I did buy all the songs I want to hear over and over again, I’m not sure it’d fix it. I own most of them, but it still feels off. — Sarah K Moir (@smorewithface) March 23, 2015

The device I carry with me everywhere isn’t big enough for my library. Even when it was, it still wouldn’t be my go-to vs the Internet. — Sarah K Moir (@smorewithface) March 23, 2015

Ownership doesn’t automatically translate to access. Just because I own something, digitally, doesn’t mean it’s “easy” to keep close at hand. My CDs are all in one place. I can look at them on the shelf. They can only be played in one type of device, which is only easily accessible in my car (RIP Macbook optical drive). Digital music, even when I own it, sits on my computer’s hard drive and needs to be transferred before I can listen to it when I don’t have my computer.

My iPhone isn’t large enough to hold any of my music library. My iPod is small, ancient, and doesn’t hold a charge. It does the job for my daily commute on the train, but it’s not ideal. Mostly I use Google Play Music, to listen to my library when I’m not at home, but I need an internet connection (or a subscription) to do that. And again, a fragmented library means that I can’t access songs exclusively in Spotify or SoundCloud on the go, or at home without having multiple programs and websites open.

Though so much of the web revolves around sharing now, it’s still a challenge to share music with others. Mixtapes and mix CDs are a thing of the past, and sending songs back and forth on Spotify is the closest you usually get to sharing your music taste with others. Although any kind of music-sharing infrastructure is immature and soon-to-be tangled in future RIAA lawsuits, that likely isn’t the only reason that music sharing has declined for me. The time I devote to listening to new music has shrunk. Probably in line with the difficulty of tracking it down myself, but also as I’ve gotten busier. Attention spans have shrunk, and music is constructed to take advantage of that. The Swedish takeover of pop songwriting means that:

The producers compose the chord progressions, program the beats, and arrange the “synths,” or computer-made instrumental sounds; the top-liners come up with primary melodies, lyrics, and the all-important hooks, the ear-friendly musical phrases that lock you into the song. “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore,” Jay Brown, the president of Roc Nation, and Dean’s manager, told me recently. “You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge.” The reason, he explained, is that “people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.”

The music listening experience is designed for us by a bunch of Swedes, writing songs and producing countless hits (Max Martin and his ilk), developing a streaming app that has taken the industry by storm (Spotify) and a website that filled the gap left behind by mp3 blogs (SoundCloud). While I don’t have a solution for the fragmentation of my music library that I’m grappling with, maybe someone in Sweden will.