BY JESS MAKLER AND MANASA KARTHIKEYAN//
Music—what was once a truly human-driven form of art that thrived on choice and sparked social movements has become far too profit oriented.
Throughout the past year, it’s become increasingly evident that algorithms are not working for the digital citizenry as a whole. If you can ignore the privatization and gatekeeping of complex songwriting, the washing out of anything that doesn’t fit in a web-developed category. We are told what to hear, told that we should forget our preferences and our need to stand out, to be curious. We are told we have what we need, to stop trying.
Spotify’s recent development of an “enhance” button is one example of this toxic manipulation of human content, and sparked the idea of this manifesto. With the click of a button, a Spotify user can choose for the algorithm to “improve” the content of an original, user-made playlist, with the computer generating ten more songs per day. Soon enough, songs generated by Spotify’s “enhance” feature will drown your original playlist, resulting in a grouping of songs that is entirely impersonal.
Besides for this creative block, there are deeper systemic issues with this algorithmic approach to music-listening. Music becomes trapped at the gate of the algorithm, causing harm to small, independent artists.
If you’re not into the idea of “enhance”, perhaps you’re a fan of Spotify’s “Discover Weekly”, a function that prepares a computer-generated playlist every Monday, displaying songs across your favorite (or most frequented) genres. Discover Weekly uses science based on the accuracy of collaborative filtering, natural language processing and raw audio modeling.
The tendency of algorithms to build off what is already popular means smaller artists trying new ideas won’t even clock. Discovery Weekly is meant to bring us new music, yet artists need to hit 20,000 streams before they have a solid chance of being recommended; it’s a catch-22 that increased reliance on algorithms only exacerbates.
The history of musical movements that influence and inspire what is produced today owes a great deal to the way people responded to and shared a love of music. The rapid spread of genres like hip-hop and punk rock that relied on artists having a space to experiment showcases a sense of innovation that profit-first technology threatens to eradicate.
The closer we progress to unchecked hypercapitalism, the closer the entire industry comes to being a playground for venture capitalists who bow to the whims of market euphoria.
Nowhere is this descent into the depths of capitalism more transparent than in the recent surge of interest surrounding NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. A form of cryptocurrency still seen as relatively niche, these “tokens” can be attached to virtually any form of art, including unreleased music, special-edition albums, show tickets, etc.
At a glance, NFTs seem like they are putting the control of what happens with music back into the hands of the artist by cutting out a litany of middlemen and employing blockchain technology instead. In reality, NFTs are simply another way to make sure music enters the realm of exclusivity. The artists who need exposure will still starve, and those who have a fanbase that can buy into the cryptocurrency trend will play right into the classist, elitist hands of further privatization.
“The music business has always been about assigning value to something that fundamentally resists precise valuation—who’s to say how much our favorite songs are worth?,” writes Will Gottsegen for Decrypt Magazine. In a world where all music is monetizable, small artists get squeezed the hardest, with the main culprits being streaming services like Spotify that are notorious for taking a large cut from artists who use the platform.
We have deep connections with our music, and that’s what makes it special. Our collections of songs tell a story about a certain time in our lives. Adario Strange sums things up well here: “Yes, the robots are coming, and they will be a great help. But the next time an underground music movement like punk rock, hip-hop or drum & bass comes along, I’ll continue to trust humans with an inspired grasp of the magic of new sounds and cultural movements, instead of a stream of data delivered via software agent. That might work for automated radio stations and elevator music, but real music lovers get their beats from humans.”
NFTs, in theory, have the potential to create a more direct funding source for artists; however, the concept is built on the back of extreme exclusivity and hierarchical privilege. Consider how NFTs have been used thus far—Grimes’ album’s complementary art sold for $6 million, and Kings of Leon have made $2 million from pre-release sales in the form of a token. These artists have a large enough fanbase that a select few fans are able to afford the elite perks that come with owning an NFT.
Technology such as Spotify’s “enhance” button and algorithmic approach to playlists, convolutional neural network-based song recommendations, and NFTs play into controlling what we listen to and how we listen to it.
In your own streaming habits, have trust in yourself. Discover Weekly may have insight into similar music you enjoy, but so do those around you. Stumble upon an artist you haven’t heard, engage in active listening when you enter a store or ride in the car with a friend. Browse a record store, make your choices your way. Humans have shaped the trajectory of music without incessant influence from apps and algorithms. We have discovered the underdogs on our own, and we don’t need a crutch to continue to make history. It may seem convenient to rely on a pre-built playlist, but it’s time to reclaim what’s ours.
Corporations capitalizing on limiting our choice must be held responsible. Ideas like curated playlists that may seem harmless actually utilize legions of data being mined to strengthen a network, leaving independent artists lost in the fray. Expanding cryptocurrency into the world of music paves the way for music distribution that is increasingly classist, benefitting only those who are already at the top of the ladder. It’s time to urge lawmakers to act on bills concerning digital privacy. There are no concrete rules defining what is and is not allowed in this digital landscape: let’s make some. Let’s reclaim music—it belongs to us.
Dugan, Kevin. “What are NFTs?” Rolling Stone, 2020.
Giacaglia, Giuliano. “Behind Spotify Recommendation Engine.” Medium. DataDrivenInvestor, May 14, 2020. https://medium.com/datadriveninvestor/behind-spotify-recommendation-engine-a9b5a27a935.
Gottsegen, Will. “Grimes Just Sold Her Crypto Art NFT Collection for $6 Million.” Decrypt. Decrypt, March 1, 2021. https://decrypt.co/59827/grimes-nfts-crypto-art.
Hissong, Samantha. “Kings of Leon Will Be the First Band to Release an Album as an NFT.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, March 11, 2021. https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/news/kings-of-leon-when-you-see-yourself-album-nft-crypto-1135192/.
“How to Get Your Music on Discover Weekly & Release Radar.” Ditto Music Distribution. Accessed March 18, 2021. https://dittomusic.com/en/blog/how-to-get-your-music-on-discover-weekly-and-release-radar/.
Strange, Adario. “Google Exec Dings Celeb-Driven Services like Apple Music in Op-Ed.” Mashable. Mashable, September 14, 2015. https://mashable.com/2015/09/14/eric-schmidt-artificial-intelligence/#qiUkaMjg6gqm.