To streaming services, you are merely a source of data that they can sell to advertisers. Their goal is to keep you listening as long as possible while paying as little attention as possible. Their algorithms are therefore designed to feed you as simple and non-engaging stream of background sound as possible. This is the antithesis of music. Music streaming is anti-music.
All right, so perhaps that is a bit inflammatory. Or is it? I was at a record store last week, in the evening, I was was the only one there so i felt comfortable taking my time. Browsing. An activity I find particularly pleasant.
There was a time when I would have had to mention that it was an independent store, not part of a chain. But the multinational record store chains are all gone now.
The clerk was a little it bored and, because this was an independent store, he had on some really interesting music and we got to talking. The topic of streaming came up and I found myself having to explain, very slowly, that I didn’t subscribe to any streaming service. That I preferred to listen, deliberately, to a full album. That I thought artists, like everyone else, should all be paid decently for their work. That for me, streaming was the antithesis to music. The clerk nodded as if he was really thinking about this.
These are by no means original thoughts. The universe, in its typical universe-y fashion, reinforced these thoughts this weekend with one of my favourite podcasts: Spark, from the CBC. Really just a radio show, which underlines the fact that a podcast is essentially just a delivery mechanism, named for a device that had a brief, though very incandescent, life.
Episode 467 is available for downloading from the CBC site here for another 6 months so you’ve got until September, 2020 to listen to it. Host Nora Young brings in experts and academics to talk about things like the ongoing commodification of our attention, psychological ownership, and the economics of the method in which most people consume music. It is fascinating listening, as Spark usually is. If you are at all interested in this topic, you should probably listen to this episode.
The one almost original idea I can add to the rhetoric is an aesthetic one perhaps best introduced with a questions: why do you listen to music? What do you get out of it? What does it add to your life?
Music streaming services don’t give a shit about music. They are all about getting you to NOT pay attention to the music their algorithm is playing for you. If you pay attention, you might turn off which would mean that you would stop providing them data that they can sell to advertisers.
But Paul, you may say, isn’t that what Satie was trying to do by creating “furniture music?” Isn’t this what minimalists and ambient artists like John Cage and Brian Eno are also trying to do.
Furniture music, ambient music, and other related avant-gardes are trying to do the exact opposite. These are intellectual and emotional tactics trying to make a point. They are attempting to disrupt the status quo, forcibly, disconcertingly, jar you out of your complacency. Minimalism is punk with better table manners. Streaming services are capitalist zombie babies shambling forward arms outstretched only for your money, through your attention. Minimalism wants to set you free. Streaming doesn’t give a shit about you.