Sunday, June 5, 2016

Spotify Is Bad For Civilization – on Genre, "Music Discovery", and the Decline of Taste

I don’t often learn anything new in liberal arts classes, but when I do, it’s a revelatory experience.  Such an awakening occurred during the 5-minute break of a literature class when the conversation turned to one student’s musical tastes, or deficiency thereof.  “I’ve been listening to a lot of EDM,” remarked the three-year student of epic poetry, theology, and philosophy.  “EDM when I wake up, when I shower, when I drive…”  Everybody laughed, except for the Author.

As a somewhat avid listener of most kinds of music except for jazz and soul, which – let’s admit it – are horrible by themselves, and as the sole curator of a 177-hour-long list of hand-picked songs, I’ll confess that I, more so than other people, am predisposed to hate the implications of this statement.  Most people in this situation wouldn’t think anything of the student listening to EDM, and they certainly wouldn’t make it as far as passing judgment on that lifestyle.  “Live and let live,” they would say, or, “You do you,” or, most heinously, “It’s good that you’ve found something you’re really passionate about.”  I, conversely, found nothing whatsoever celebratory in it, and spent the rest of the class period mulling over such questions as, “What kind of EDM?” and “Who’s your favorite artist?” and “What the hell do you appreciate in EDM that’s any way artistically redeeming?”

Putting aside the banalities I associate with EDM (which is a euphemism for electronic dance music, which is itself an even more vapid incarnation of electropop music), the tendency of Millennials and consumers in general to blindly seek out and wolf down types of music based upon their disposition suggests a regrettable indifference towards the artistic process used to bring the music to them in the first place.  It’s easy to boast about your generation receiving arguably the worst pop music in the history of the world; I had thoroughly convinced myself of this dark reality back in 2014, a year that introduced and continued to feed us such innovations of musical gayness as Sam Smith, that Beyoncé album, Macklemore, One Direction, and so on.  Yet one could make this case for just about any year in music; if you only listen to whatever plays on radio, you will probably end up thinking yours is either the greatest or the worst era ever, depending on your temperament.

However, there can be no dispute that the youth of today, beyond producing and consuming the worst music of all time, have additionally assumed the worst methods thus far pioneered of discovering, listening to, and critically dissecting music.  This is on account of many things, some technological, others sociological, but music as an art form is undoubtedly declining as a pillar of our culture.  Whereas music formerly could only be experienced in public performances eagerly sought out by the middle-class, and later through radio and individually purchased physical records, the advent of the internet and of streaming services has enabled nearly everybody living in 1st-world countries to access untold stores of albums from every era and movement.  In theory this should come as a boon to musical literacy and – dare we say – diversification, but in effect these platforms have proven cancerous to their users’ acumen and mentality, systematically connecting them with whatever they already like and nothing else.  People develop an addiction to EDM, to metal, to Top 40, to whatever gets them “turnt up”, and gladly stay in ignorance of real music.  Their musical intake has backslid into something like Starbucks coffee or cafeteria chicken tenders: courses they consume just to sustain themselves, not knowing of or not having any better options.

“What kind of music do you like?” is a common icebreaker among Americans, one that has the potential to reveal a fair amount about an individual’s personality.  Of a man who says he listens to Kendrick Lamar or Public Enemy, one might induce he fancies himself an intellectual, politically conscious and keen to the demands of African-American neighborhoods.  Maybe he’s just like me and appreciates music that tries to say something, anything of pertinence to society.  Of a man who exalts the U2 of the olden days (before they totally sold out), one could presuppose a certain degree of spirituality and segue from that into a conversation about faith, the afterlife, or something as corny and poetic as the oneness of humanity.  Of a woman who says she likes Radiohead and thinks The King of Limbs is severely underrated, one could judge she’s either a tranny or a keeper, because women don’t listen to Radiohead.  Of a man who says that he likes Radiohead and believes Thom Yorke to be a messenger for our times, one could guess he’s probably a liberal male, and deal with that accordingly.

One’s favorite musical artist can be as telling a characteristic of one’s identity as one’s favorite author, city, pastime, historical leader, etc.  Bradley Nowell, Lou Reed, Fiona Apple, Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Tupac Shakur: these were more just content creators happy to make a living entertaining the masses.  These were (and continue to be) cultural icons, even idols who shaped minds and inspired hundreds to hone their craft, their voice, their style, or their sex lives.  At the mere mention of these names, one could form a mental picture not only of the artists’ outer bearing but of what traits or virtues they symbolized to their fans.

A collage of extremely wealthy and popular EDM “artists”

What could one possibly assume about people who admit to “listening to a lot of EDM”, except that they probably don’t have great taste in music?  What distinguishes a Kygo from a Skrillex or a Calvin Harris or a Tiësto or a David Guetta, artistically or as celebrities, and would an EDM fan be able to blindly source a new track by any of them?  Such a person would be a blank slate from their EDM taste alone, as would a majority of my generation, which has all but disavowed the celebration and disciplined study of idols in the arts.  Yes, there are the Beyoncés and the Kanyes and the Lady Gagas of the industry, people respected in most circles less for their music than for the ideals they represent (women’s liberation, not caring what others think about you, and being gay), but by and large Millennials have exported the rock god in favor of the pop star.  What do Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Drake, Ariana Grande, J.T., Rihanna, and Taylor Swift mean to those who play their music?  What does the music mean to them, and could they explain the meaning to someone not acquainted with the record?  Would they listen to the record front to back more than once?  These, alack and alas, are dying practices in the 21st century.

This is not to call the pop star a strictly Millennial invention.  Indeed, every generation has had its share of safe and featureless junk that rapidly fades into obsolescence, only to be resurrected in a hastily made Totally 80s playlist and exposed to a whole new batch of suckers who think they love the pop music of their parents but wouldn’t bother themselves to buy or listen to any older album in its entirety.  This is the paradox of claiming to love music from the 80s or any other decade: by the very denotation of “80s music”, one both demarcates said music to a separate category from contemporary music, suggesting it’s less relevant or pure as art, and subtly dehumanizes the authorship of the older music by attributing its genesis to cultural trends instead of individual composers and performers.  Talking Heads, e.g., were not an amazing “80s Music” band; they were a very influential and creative band who were known for working in the new wave and art pop genres, who happened to flourish in the 80s, and whose lead singer went on to have a semi-successful solo career.

Nor do I wish to say that genuine musical artistry has expired; quite to the contrary, the internet, self-publishing, and crowd-funding have parted the floodgates to a deluge of artists who in past days may never have reached an audience outside their own town.  The sphere of music at our disposal has compounded in volume over the last decade, and yet Millennials have somehow conceived more and more efficient means of homogenizing everything that reaches their ears. Instead of listening to artists, stories, or sonic landscapes, we listen to genres and “moods”, effectively screening out any music that doesn’t match our spirits at a time or that we don’t already find pleasing.  We have music for pumping iron, music for hitting the beach, music for drinking fake, expensive coffee, music for getting drunk and upsetting the neighbors, music for spiting male conservative friends, and according to Spotify, even music for having sex.  Wired has an interesting article examining how exhaustively the company has wrapped itself around the lives of its customers, but this should already be apparent to anybody who has used the program more than once a day.  While music as a mindless supplement to other activities steadily proliferates, we see music for music’s sake increasingly regressing into an intimidating, alien concept, and not the kind that European leaders welcome into their society.  This is detrimental to any thriving culture.

A collage of song collections that are only good for one distinct occasion

For a service that seems ready-made to facilitate musical branching out and learning, Spotify habitually reassures users that they needn’t branch out or come in contact with anything they don’t immediately like. From its thousands of specialized playlists to its automatically generated personal recommendations to its front-page pop music advertisements (VIEWS by DRAKE available now, CLICK HERE!) to its archaic, Pandora-inspired radio functionality, which prioritizes or buries artists based on the user’s input, Spotify offers a wide assortment of tools to connect its paying subscribers with a decidedly narrow selection of music, and to shield them from most everything else.  This makes perfect sense from a strategic standpoint, as most businesses depend on satisfied, returning consumers, and most consumers want a fairly similar experience every time they visit a business.  In promoting such user-friendly systems, streaming providers like Spotify and Apple Music follow rather surefire regimens for building consumer trust, but in so doing they also undercut the very advantages of their existing at all, that being the freedom to listen to any album on demand.

Spotify bombards users of the free version with advertisements enticing them to subscribe and “skip away” until they find a song that’s just right for their current company or state of mind.  In the dark ages predating the internet and ADD streaming services, skipping away was not a viable or easy option, requiring one to record a mixtape or burn a CD in order to jump between several unrelated songs in a row.  Alternatively one could fumble through a collection of physical media to sate one’s longing for a radically different song, but the hassle involved in this exchange intrinsically motivated the listener to focus on one artist for 40 minutes at a time.  Certain LPs, such as The Dark Side of the Moon, played out as two unbroken, sweeping pieces of music, defying anyone twitchy enough to skip around and achieve the same emotional high encapsulated in the whole.  Pink Floyd’s albums, and others’ to a lesser extent, rewarded those who listened intentionally and persevered through the slower instrumental sections.  They were theatrical exercises in balance and contrast and bombast, ones that deserved to be heard in whole even by those who didn’t take to the band’s style.

The media distributors of today, in contrast, reward impatience and lackadaisical listening at every turn, encouraging people to downvote and hide away whatever uncomely, dissonant, or boring sounds accidentally pop up and disrupt their studying or cleaning or cooking.  If you don’t like that one song in Afternoon Acoustic, fret not and flip it over to Indie Chillout, where you may have better luck.  Are you really not digging the first 40 seconds of that weird 23-minute song called “Apostate”?  Skip that self-indulgent rubbish and never listen to another Michael Gira song again.  And by all means don’t try to make it through the last David Bowie album when you can just put on the “This is David Bowie” list for dummies that Spotify scraped together after he died.  Why would you run the risk of hearing a song you don’t instantly like when you could limit the breadth of your playlist to songs that millions of other like-minded people have already sanctioned?  Why would you bother finishing a 300-page novel either?  You’re a busy full-time employee or college student, most of the inspiring/poetic/so-true quotes are on Buzzfeed or Sparksnotes, and you’ll be able to watch the Hollywood adaptation in six months anyway.  And do you really have to stand for all those plodding, arty scenes of setup in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Surely there are hundreds of better entertainment options you could stream instead, and when those outwear their welcome too, you can change the show again.

As the shrewd guys at Red Letter Media noted in one of their 100-something Half in the Bag movie reviews (I remember not which one), modern men get DVDs out of magical grocery store dispensers, and in like manner they also get their vinyls out of magical thinking phone apps that know exactly what they want and when.  Somewhere along the line, frequenters of the Redbox became so numbed to what they were paying for that they forgot the films were even made by humans, that they could be viewed and evaluated critically as art.  Art films like It Follows and Goodnight Mommy would appear right next to franchise movies like Insidious Chapter 3 and Paranormal Activity 5, and at $1.50 each (or a paltry quarter with coupons), nothing was ventured or lost on any of them except a little gas and free time in the evening.  The element of risk removed from the equation, the layman’s perception of DVD rentals degenerated into an inexpensive form of momentary sensual stimulation, one release being as good as any other so long as it didn’t confuse or bore him.

The same principle applies to Netflix streaming, which highlights so many scores of B-movies on the front page that most people don’t feel burned if they waste 90 minutes on a made-for-TV presentation.  People could dig a little further into the app and find meaningful, visionary films by Park Chan-wook, Lynne Ramsay, Gaspar Noé, Bong Joon-ho, Stanley Kubrick, or P.T. Anderson, movies including Victoria, Upstream Color, The Shining, Nightcrawler, Risky Business, Oldboy, and those are just ones I already know to be good.  Nonetheless, whenever my friends fire up Netflix in the dorm lobby, we end up watching something like “Kung Fu Dunk” or “Timerunners” or “School of Rock”, because those are what show up first and they don’t really care what they watch for free on somebody else’s account.  We have more – and more varied – written entertainment sources within our reach than any other people in history, but we’ve lost the will to get anything other than entertainment out of them.

The same principle applies to digital music providers, which throw heaps of junk at unversed, probably busy listeners and congratulate them on “discovering” “new” music, when in fact they couldn’t put a name to what they’re hearing or differentiate it from the artist who played just before, and when they may have suppressed or skipped a bunch of truly different music to arrive at the cuts they tolerated right away.  The instant gratification model of Spotify (and Pandora, and Netflix, and any other Orwellian media assistant) is one that virtually precludes the user from learning to love any of the better artists working today.  I would not have become as big a fan of Bjork’s music if I had taken Spotify’s word that she was not for me.  Ditto with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, an album that repelled me on first listen, didn’t grab me on the second, and utterly enthralled me on the third, so much so I now agree it’s one of the seminal rock records of all time.  For others, this difficult album may have been Radiohead’s Kid A, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, Swans’ Soundtracks for the Blind, Grimes’ Visions, Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra, or King Crimson’s debut LP, but following the recommendations of Spotify wouldn’t have led one to any of them. Then there’s the matter of Death Grips, an avant-garde electronic/hip-hop trio so musically abrasive and violent that I had to force myself to listen until, ten tries later or so, the separate layers started to feel harmonious, exhilarating, and frankly brilliant.  They are one of many groups that deserve to be heard despite the discomfort they initially instill, and that demonstrate how music can deliver terror and anxiety in equal measure as joy and reassurance.  Yet with the possible exception of some crossover Grimes tracks, streaming services do little to expose these bands to the uninitiated.

A collage of albums that wouldn’t benefit from skipping away

It’s often generalized that ordinary art comforts the disheartened while extraordinary art challenges the comfortable.  Liberals especially love to invoke this bromide in praise of whatever semi-fictional social-justice film is currently making the rounds at festivals, glibly passing off narrative flaws or distortions of truth under the façade that it’s a movie “ripped from today’s headlines” that “demands to be seen”.  If only these poseurs, and the streaming platforms they utilize, heeded the same guidelines of great artistry in their musical preferences.  When I told one of my Beatissima friends that I’d finally listened to The Life of Pablo and wasn’t all that impressed (along with many one-time fans of Kanye West), his response was something like, “To be honest, Cote, I really don’t give a ____ about your taste in music.”  And I don’t really blame him; after all, most of the people he grew up with didn’t give a second thought to “white people music”, erecting a kind of protective wall around the urban artists they most respected.  Likewise, the county and the homeschooled community in which I grew up never listened devotedly to rap music unless it came from Eminem or Lecrae, and the pop-ridden airwaves largely reflected stereotypes of Southern Californian superficiality.  My peers and I didn’t partake of much of any “black people music” as traditionally understood, but we didn’t partake of the best white music either.  As with 99% of Americans, we bonded over what the radio cycled ad nauseum and what our friends deemed cool, which in my case was a lot of film and video game scores.

Everyone is influenced by their surroundings, and one could argue that the bonds forged in these shared surroundings form the backbone of our culture.  Radio, paradoxically, has played a principal role in both reinforcing and poisoning the culture, uniting millions in enjoyment of certain artificially catchy hits while severely degrading the quality average people come to expect from music.  What differentiates and sets radio above streaming sites is that FM stations don’t attempt to lie to those who still make use of them. Enthusiastic radio listeners have always had a 1 in 12 chance of guessing what they’ll hear when they get in the car, and if they use that medium more than any other, they probably don’t mind the repetition and would freely admit to liking most mainstream music.  Spotify, on the other hand, sycophantically seduces listeners into thinking that they’re taking strides to explore new musical voices, when almost every feature of the program is modeled on pampering consumers with music guaranteed to comfort, never challenge them.

Streaming services, it goes without saying, don’t care about introducing listeners to extraordinary art, and most of their signature practices are antithetical to the promotion of extraordinary art.  Hipsters love to rag on Pitchfork and its slavish fanboying over certain rappers, but Pitchfork at least recognizes the expressiveness of music and endeavors to call readers’ attention to artists they would normally turn off or ignore.  The only thing that music streamers respect is the monthly fee they cash from all their users, and the EDM that keeps the money flowing.


  1. "The result of a public that has a very high consumption rate and turnover rate is people listen to more music but spend less time with individual bits of music. It's made me more likely to put things up quickly and treat it more like a magazine instead of a novel." - Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails)

  2. Trent Reznor. Smart man.


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