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[50.0] the hills are alive with the sound of music streaming services
the case for geofencing and gatekeeping
I think every family has a movie it can claim as its definitive and defining go-to. There’s one film to rule them all in my family and that’s The Sound of Music. It’s so great because everyone has a part to play! By which I mean my cousins have decided which family member will play each role in our proprietary The Sound of Music—understudies, extras, and understudies of extras included. (For those curious, I sort of shuttle between being one of the Von Trapp sons; it depends on the day and where my talents are needed.)
The fam takes art very seriously and we evangelize in our own special ways: Catch me singing The Reverend Mother’s “Climb Every Mountain” in the original pitch when skiing on empty slopes, true story. Not sharing evidence thereof, though: Some experiences should stay gatekept and geofenced!
My childhood home had The Sound of Music on two VHSes because it’s such a long movie. Pining for that tactile era! I’m feeling similarly about CDs, growing up in a (sort of) post-vinyl and pre-streaming era. Burned CDs of course but also the whole “Now That’s What I Call Music!” dynasty, thanks to which a very young me heard Macy Gray’s iconic “I Try” and improved her lyrics to “I wear goggles when you are not near.”
Point being that music has played a meaningful role in my life for as long as I can remember and that’s definitely still the case. Now that’s what I call core memories! I can’t shower without a little ditty going, much to the chagrin of former roommates, especially since more or less any genre will do. Makes my Spotify Wrapped quite the gem at the end of the year: you’re extra fun and haha-random—now say it back.
To London Review of Books editor Daniel Cohen, the proliferation of music through Spotify and other streaming platforms doesn’t result in an enhanced listening experience. In particular, he finds issue with the calculus defining summaries like Spotify Wrapped: that listening to a song frequently means that it’s your favorite. (You don’t find me singing “Climb Every Mountain” just anywhere, remember…) He thinks this input-output mismatch and the economics it rewards make for worse music:
For a song to count as having been streamed – and for an artist to qualify for a royalty – it must play for at least thirty seconds. If an artist can’t hold someone’s attention for those first thirty seconds, they don’t get paid. Some have adapted the way they go about making music accordingly. In 2010, less than 20 per cent of number one songs in the US had choruses that started within the first fifteen seconds; by 2018, almost 40 per cent did. Meanwhile, hits have got [sic] shorter: between 2013 and 2018, the length of the average song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US fell from 3 minutes 50 seconds to 3 minutes 30 seconds. (The rise of TikTok, where only a segment of a song tends to be played, has intensified this trend.)
With this emphasis on pure volume come other existential issues. For one, up-and-coming musicians find it challenging to make a living off music in a way pre-streaming generations did not. (Compared to recent generations, that is—idk how far back we can take that generalization.) One stream gives an artist around a third of a cent, with highly streamed artists like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran making more than that. Struggling musicians then often attempt to play into the system by transforming their individual styles into whatever the algorithms want. Which is what Cohen elaborates on above; it also explains why every twentieth TikTok on my For You Page is someone in their car playing a bad song they made that they claim will be the “song of the summer.”
Equally deleterious in my + Cohen’s opinion is that music is less encountered at random but instead selected for you through autoplay and Spotify radios etc. Cohen writes:
For me, the most exciting part of listening to music is falling in love with a song or album that sounds like nothing I’ve heard before. But people have complained to me that Spotify’s recommendations are overly on the nose: the problem isn’t that they don’t like what Spotify plays them, but that it’s too obviously the sort of music they might like. For all Spotify’s talk of ‘discovery’, the thing it really cares about is… ‘the hang-around factor’. If someone skips a song, or stops listening altogether, then something has gone wrong. You mustn’t bore the listener, but you mustn’t startle them either.
But a thing I wish Cohen also covered was the fact that music can be a place and a physical encounter. A divine meeting, sometimes almost burning-bush level. For example, in 2015 a good friend and I (years before we met) both discovered Tei Shi while seeing her open for another artist in concert, and then deepened our friendship partially based on that coinkydink! Now that’s what I call melody and harmony!
Demonstrating the there-ness and the then-ness of music, I also participate in the Latvian Song and Dance Festival, a UNESCO-recognized world heritage event that sees more than 20,000 performers, including around 10,000 singers on stage at once:
Taking place once every five years for the past 150 years(!), the festival brings together Latvian people (now scattered across the world) to celebrate their cultural traditions. The festival has played a pivotal role in collective identity, as well as reaffirmation of cultural traditions in the years preceding and following the downfall of the USSR. Performed at a large venue outside the capital city, the festival’s repertoire brings congregants into a physical space, and then disperses across the globe through performers and attendees alike.
Rehearsing for the concert through voice notes and Google Doc-based conductor critiques, I’ve been struck by how I already know half the repertoire by heart from the past two times I participated. Not a flex but rather proving my point: I don’t sing those songs ever in between concerts but they stay in the recesses of my mind and come out of the woodwork when they’re needed. Music can be geofenced, and that might make it worth far more than a third of a cent per play lol.
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.