Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Spot the Problem

More and more lately I realize that I need a new tag: "streaming music." Apart from YouTube I don't use any streaming service myself as I prefer to have the CD for any music I am really interested in. I suppose that I reject streaming for the same reason I stopped listening to radio and watching television decades ago: I want to make all my own choices as I hate having stuff "broadcast" at me. Here is an article that delves into some of the problems with a service like Spotify:
The music world continues to be exceedingly vulnerable, and there are looming questions that desperately need to be addressed. Most important: How can artists distribute and sell their work in a digital economy beholden to ruthlessly commercial and centralized interests?
Enter Spotify, a platform that is definitely not the answer. In fact, it only exacerbates such conundrums. Yet for now it has manipulated the vast majority of music industry “players” into regarding it as a saving grace. As the world’s largest streaming music company, its network of paying subscribers has risen sharply in recent years, from five million paid subscribers in 2012 to more than sixty million in 2017. Indeed, the platform has now convinced a critical mass that paying $9.99 per month for access to thirty million songs is a solid, even virtuous idea. Every song in the world for less than your shitty airport meal. What could go wrong? 
To understand the danger Spotify poses to the music industry—and to music itself—you first have to dig beneath the “user experience” and examine its algorithmic schemes. Spotify’s front page “Browse” screen presents a classic illusion of choice, a stream of genre and mood playlists, charts, new releases, and now podcasts and video. It all appears limitless, a function of the platform’s infinite supply, but in reality it is tightly controlled by Spotify’s staff and dictated by the interests of major labels, brands, and other cash-rich businesses who have gamed the system. 
Spotify loves “chill” playlists: 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.
Those excerpts should give you an idea, though you should read the whole thing. I am hampered in discussing this because, as I said, I have never used Spotify or any other streaming service. There is just nothing about it that appeals to me. The closest I get to being the object of some commercial algorithm is as an Amazon customer and I find the choices they make for me to be mildly annoying. They are constantly sending me links to things I have already purchased or to authors I purchased and decided I didn't like or to things that are exactly like things I already have. I'm sure it's not just me!

So I guess all I can say about Spotify and its dangers is akin to the famous critique of democracy by Mencken: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” If what most people want from music is a soporific (euphemistically known as "chilling out") selection crafted for them by an algorithm, then ok, sure, whatever. But herein perhaps lies the reason that there is less and less creativity and originality in music these days.


Let's have something non-soporific, yet up-lifting. This is the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin:


Craig said...

Like you, I want to choose my own music; I never listen to the radio and have never chosen one of these "playlists" the streaming services provide. But I have been a Spotify subscriber for about a year now, mainly because it is a good way to hear new recordings (that, if I like, I then buy) and to explore repertoire that is unfamiliar. There really is a huge amount of music on there, even though some of the best classical labels (like Hyperion) are not available by that means.

I don't know much about the commercial side of these streaming services. I do wonder whether they make financial sense for the artists and record labels. The ability Spotify gives me to listen to CDs before buying them has translated into my buying fewer CDs overall. My wife thinks this a good thing, but others might see it differently.

The bit in the excerpt you quote about Spotify becoming a gatekeeper controlling access to music rings true to a certain extent. Spotify used to allow its customers to "follow" certain artists and get notifications if a new record was available from them. About a year ago they cancelled this; now they send what are essentially advertisements of new music they think you'll like based on who you "follow". It's annoying.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Craig, for filling in the details of your experience. I think that I find YouTube useful for listening to unfamiliar repertoire and, occasionally, artists with CDs I might want to purchase.

Steven Watson said...

Spotify has given me access to hundreds of albums I would never otherwise have heard. I never feel like the object of an algorithm: if I want to listen to an album I can search for it, and if I like it I can add it to my library. The auxiliary features -- what gets called 'curation' (how I loathe the way that term is used!) -- is easily ignored or silenced. I've never listened to nor seen a Spotify playlist.

There is the personal financial consideration of course. I would not be able to afford many CDs at all. And I'd rather spend the money on a concert than a few CDs. Plus unlike physical books, I've no fondness for CDs. They are an ugly medium, and I'd only buy them for the music -- which if I can get elsewhere, for a better price, I will.

Streaming services are also excellent research tools. What if I want to compare the various interpretations of the second movement from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony? With a streaming service nearly every recording is available to you in an instant.

Are you familiar with the specifically classical streaming services, e.g. Naxos Music Library, Primephonic, Idagio?

I think the only danger of Spotify is that it contributes to an overabundance of music. The culture of listening to music on headphones while commuting, blaring it out while you do the household chores etc. is perhaps not particularly good for music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh darn, Steven, now you've got me mulling over whether to try a streaming service or not!

Will Wilkin said...

Steven makes the essential point we should apply to any technology: use it with discretion, in a way that one judges brings more benefit than loss (of skill, of control, etc). To repeat: never relinquish human control.

That said, I still prefer CDs (as the "scratchless LPs I yearned for in my youth). I find the kids using streaming services seem to know a lot less about the artists and the music than I did at their age, probably because I read all the album covers and program notes, not to mention having a song or movement in its larger context as part of a collection with a larger coherency.

I am very frustrated with the difficulty of getting a working CD player in my 2015 car. I've already been through 2 cheap portables, and cannot find anything like the old-fashioned in-dash stereo upgrades we used to get from stereo stores or Crutchfield catalogs. That is the only reason I use Sirius XM radio in my car, which amounts to a streaming service except the only control I have is to turn the station. If I don't like or not in the mood for what is on at the moment at Met Opera or Symphony Hall channels, there is no other classical music available and I default to Willie Nelson's Roadhouse channel for authentic country music.

Bryan Townsend said...

In the early days the CD digital sound sometimes seemed a bit harsh, but nowadays the technology is excellent--as you say, scratchless LPs! I have a harmon/kardon CD player with a Polk Audio sub-woofer that delivers excellent sound at home. I don't listen to music in the car, so that's not a problem. Doesn't Blaupunkt have some great systems?