The Spotify Trap (and a Way Out)

This isn’t exactly an anti-Spotify piece, though I dislike Spotify (and similar services) for all sorts of reasons: for the money it keeps for itself and for big record companies, for the pressure to subscribe to Premium (no, I won’t), for the emphasis on its own algorithms, for the irritating ads, and for the weird feeling that when I spend time there, I’m not listening to music as I would otherwise do, but instead curating a playlist that matters to no one. If there’s an online music service where I will gladly spend my time, it’s Bandcamp. Anyway, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Rather, I want to look at how these giant algorithms have replaced the old traditions of listening to music together, introducing friends to new music, going to a record store and browsing, or getting a great suggestion from one of the staff. I miss those days but also have been thinking that we could recapture some of that in a new medium.

Some of my best memories of Yale involved spending time with friends who introduced me to music I didn’t know, or music I knew but not as well as they did. I remember listening to Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen with Steve; to David Bowie with Ron; to the Pixies with Joe, to Kris Kristofferson with Geoff and his friends, to Leonard Cohen with Nico, and the list goes on. In San Francisco this continued, mostly with people with whom I played music, or whose music I loved. There was so much music around us, and all this music had influences going decades back and farther. And even later, in New York, I had a few friends with whom I could spend an afternoon listening to music: both my favorites and theirs. But this grew rarer and rarer. Today, while someone occasionally plays a song for me or vice versa, I can probably count on my left hand the people who will listen to something because I recommended it. And I’m terrible at listening to other people’s suggestions too. We’re all overloaded, at least in our minds. Also, there’s an illusion of self-sufficiency: we already know what we like, and we have an overabundance of it, so why take in anything else?

Some of this just has to do with getting older. When you’re past forty, never mind past fifty, you and your friends don’t spend time together in the same way as before, partly because that time isn’t there. People are busy raising kids, keeping up with demanding jobs, working on their projects. An afternoon with a friend, spent listening to albums, just isn’t in the picture most of the time.

But there are other forces at work too. I mentioned being overloaded. We have “stuff” coming at us all day long: emails, Facebook and other shares, ads and automated recommendations of various kinds. In addition, we have the illusion of an abundance at our fingertips: just go on YouTube, or Spotify, and listen to just about anything. Those services generate playlists through algorithms, so you get suggestion after suggestion of things you might like (based on the preferences of others who listen to “similar” music). But those algorithms lose eccentricity and idiosyncrasy; they are based on general tendencies, not individuals. There’s no passion in them. True, they may expose you to lots of music you like, that you would never have heard otherwise, but there’s no one saying, “I love this, you’ve got to hear it.” It just pops up on your screen.

In addition, the world has been divided into two classes: the “influencers,” whose opinion matters for some reason, and everyone else. People strive to be influencers, often to the detriment of the influences themselves. The focus is on the wrong thing.

So, as a result, we live in our enclosures, our headphones, with the illusion that we’re accessing the world, when we are actually cut off from it. That is, we can access music from around the world, but if someone says, “You’ve got to listen to this,” we often simply don’t, or listen with half an ear. This is not true for everyone or all the time, but the problem exists. It’s especially hard on musicians, because they spend months, maybe years, on a song or album, then “share” it online, and then receive silence, or near-silence. Maybe a few likes or short comments.

So, very well. It’s a crying shame. What can be done about it?

Some of the response has to come from individuals, both listeners and musicians. Just clear out room and time for listening to things, and have some of those things be friends’ personal recommendations. When Covid ends, have people over and ask them to bring favorite albums. If you are a musician, bring your work to people in a personal way. Platon Karataev is having a special record-listening party a month before their new album comes out, for those who contributed at least 10,000 HUF (about $33) to their album fundraising campaign and who selected this perk. (I contributed to the campaign but didn’t select the perk, since the party seems intended for people much younger than me, and I’d feel like a generational intruder. But I applaud the idea.)

Also, there could even be a new kind of online gathering: for instance, a Bandcamp feature where you could pay a modest fee to get together in a virtual listening room and play anything in the Bandcamp catalog. The same percentage of the money would go to the artists as with purchases. In the listening room, you could talk with each other and listen to music (though not at the same time), and the guests could see the information about each album or song. It would be like a cross between a radio show and a virtual meeting. It could be for select guests or for anyone who showed up. People could hold regular (say, monthly or weekly) listening events if they wished. They could be based mainly on one person’s selections, or everyone could bring something. Bandcamp does have private streaming, but that’s a little different; it’s where artists can stream an album (in advance of the release, say) for a group of listeners. Why not let listeners do this as well, for a fee?

As I was coming up with this brilliant notion, it occurred to me that it must already have occurred to someone. Yes, indeed: in 2011, Eliot Van Buskirk published an article in Wired about the new virtual listening rooms, which apparently were a hot new phenomenon. While most of the services mentioned are now defunct, Turntable.fm is reviving as of this month. It has a waitlist; to be considered for admission, you have to email them your favorite song. If they like it, they will let you in. It’s hard to learn much about it, because if you go to the website, all you get is a sign-in page.

But there was something I didn’t like in a Wikipedia description I read. These listening sessions come with audience votes; audience members click the “lame” or “awesome” button to indicate their reaction. Awful. You have to let a song sink in before reacting to it. People might click “lame” because they don’t understand where the song is going, or they might click “awesome” because it sounds catchy from the start. And having to choose between “lame” and “awesome” is not only limiting but lame. So I would prefer a service that required you to listen through a full session before responding. Then you could leave comments and reactions, not only immediately but later on.

So yes, someone has already thought of this, but there’s room for improvement, and I am thinking of pitching an idea to Bandcamp. If they wanted, they could contribute something unique to the virtual-musical-meeting genre. I probably won’t be able to get to it for another 8-10 days, because I have an event to plan, but get to it I will.

Update: Here’s an interesting article by Damon Krukowski, published in NPR Music, on some of the fundamental differences between Bandcamp and Spotify. Also, see Shira Ovide’s NYT interview with Ben Sisario.

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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