Sunday, March 3, 2019

The infinite catalog of streaming music: has it affected our listening habits?

     Over the past decade, technology has offered the music consumer an opportunity: easy access to the entire recorded output of music. Since 2016, subscription model of music access has passed all other methods of consuming music. Gone are the days when the consumption of music would be influenced by budget, radio presence, playback devices, Internet speeds, or regional access to certain genres.

     How has the listener’s relationship with music changed due to access to this infinite catalog of streaming music? Does having expeditious access to the world of music broaden the listener’s awareness of music from a variety of genres and cultures? In this post, I will posit that access to the “infinite catalog” has discouraged repeated episodes of deep listening.

History of Music Collections

     Since music was first etched onto a wax cylinder or piano roll, there has been a hunger to gain access to this amazing new technology. The thrill of hearing Caruso sing in your living quarters or Brahms actually perform on your own player piano was undeniable. At first, the cost of entry was prohibitive except for the most wealthy Americans. But, after the technological developments during WWI, the new technology began to trickle down to the masses. From the years 1914-1921 phonograph record sales doubled. 

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Close up of a wax cylinder on an Edison machine.

     Each future generation would have a music media that would become their own. Jazz and swing music in the late 1930s and early 1940  spread on 78 RPM acetone records. The coast-to-coast popularity of rock and roll in the 1950s was due to the distribution of 45s and singles. The full-length albums of the 1960s and 70s saw the creation of artistic statements that required 23 minutes per side to develop. Cassette and Sony Walkman culture made the music libraries of the 1980s portable. The CD of the final decades of the 20th century brought a digital fidelity to the masses offering clean, clear recordings that were durable.    

     Enter MP3. Computer programmers developed a method to shrink the audio content to a small digital file. This was accomplished by removing the data that would most likely fall outside the range of human perception. These small files allowed easy storage on the computers of the late 90s that had tiny hard drives. MP3s also ushered in the ability to send copies of the file online. The first file-sharing services were not the paid subscription models of today. Early programs like Napster, Audiogalaxy, and Limewire allowed users to "share" their own MP3s. At the same time, they downloaded content from others. Since these services did not pay for mechanical rights or any kind of royalties, this model has clear copyright and ethical issues. Yet, it did offer the consumer a taste of what it was like to have access to a huge catalog of content. It helped to pave the way for its progenitors in the new streaming model. 

A View of the New Model

     Spotify is the name that comes to mind when thinking of the new subscription model and for good reason. Spotify offered a legal alternative to the original file-sharing programs that were plagued with issues of viruses and illegality. As of September 2017, it has been valued at $17 billion dollars and recently went public on the New York Stock Exchange . Other legal streaming services have entered the market (Apple Music, Pandora, Tidal, etc.), however Spotify was the first to make a big splash this decade. While there were a few companies in the oughts (Rhapsody, Zune) that were early adopters of a legal subscription model, these never caught on. In that time period, a subscription model was foreign to a public that was committed to paying $0.99 for a track in the Itunes catalog.  

     With thirty million individuals paying for one of these services, this new modality of music has become a competitive business. The big players in the streaming game charge approximately $10 a month, but there are some newer services that have tried to break into the market by offering cheaper fees. The price of these premium services can be a barrier for some consumers. In Nielsen’s annual Music 360 Report, 46 percent of those surveyed who do not subscribe to these services cite cost as the primary barrier to entry (Ingham 2016 15). It is an interesting point, since the new model, while inexpensive, may not be bringing the well of music to the masses as is often proposed.

A Shallow Listening Experience?

      With the quantity of music available, it has been argued that it is impossible to consume music on a deeper level that is rewarded by repeated listenings. Critics of the streaming model have pointed to personal anecdotes involving how they interacted with music when hard copies were required. These aficionados recall with fondness staring at album art, reading the liners notes, and memorizing minutiae about the sidemen on individual tracks .

     When it came to the actual music, possessing a finite number of recordings forced the music fan to give each recording many listens. As a result, the listener would learn the album inside and out. It is not an uncommon phenomenon to find ease when recalling lyrics or singing instrumental solos of an album unheard of for decades.

     Algorithms that create pre-made playlists for consumption have come under scrutiny. These programs analyze the user's listening habits. They then create customized playlists that contain tracks that contain immediate appeal. In the past two years, Spotify has focused on "chill" playlists. "Chill" playlists function essentially as background music in a style that the user prefers. "Chill hip hop", "chill indie", and "chill R&B" line the top of the latest "Spotify recommends" section of the program. These “chill” playlists operate by keeping away any track or artist that breaks the mode of background music. It also keeps the consumer logged in, thus increasing advertising revenue. As revealed by music journalist Liz Pelly in 2017: “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 effect.” 

     Is this any different than the insipid easy listening radio station of the past? By all accounts, the “rock and roll without the hard edge” radio format become popular in the 1980s and 90s for that reason. Workplaces would be able to tune into one station for the day without the fear of offending anyone. This makes economic sense for both the advertisers and the workplaces. The difference with the "chill" playlist is that Spotify is encouraging shallow listening habits in personal use.

  Spotify is encouraging consumers to adopt a track-based listening experience as opposed to an album listening experience. While the “single” was a trend in the 1950s, the experience of consuming an album in its entirety is one still etched in the minds of the late baby boomers and generation X. A new record release would involve a conscious ordering of tracks by producers and artists to make a larger musical statement. While this still exists in some successful albums today (e.g. Taylor Swift’s “1989”, Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”), it can be quite difficult to pull off in this new medium. The lines that delineate the beginning and end of the album are blurred due to the service’s need to keep the music playing. Reaching the end of an album no longer results in a needle stuck in the inner groove or the gentle whirr of a CD spinning down. In Spotify, the last track of an album now launches an infinite playlist inspired by the previous album.

  Track based listening is also the result of using a digital application. One of the eternal complaints about consumption of social media is that it results in a lack of attention. The user will peruse the news, their friends’ posts, a shared video, or a meme in an unintentional manner. What they decide to gloss over, and what they may eventually explore in further detail, seems to be at the whims of a short attention span combined with a computer-generated algorithm. This tendency can also be seen in how consumers are encouraged to interact with streaming music interfaces. Listening to any track is accompanied by information in the application encouraging the user to click on another track. It draws your attention to lists of suggested tracks, customized playlists, or tracks your friends are currently listening to. The infinite catalog also inspires the “fear of missing out”. With the application nudging you, there is a strong urge to keep exploring while never being in the moment. 

The Author’s Listening Experiment

     In the post-Napster days, I was becoming overwhelmed by the simple (albeit questionably legal) access to music. While exploring the infinite catalog was fascinating, I wasn’t getting deep into these newly discovered albums. I remembered the days having only a few CDs in the mid-1990s in conjunction with my father’s record collection. I played one of my first CDs Bill Evans’ “Portrait of Jazz” so many times I can still sing the solos.

     I mentioned the following story in my blog before but it fits into the conversation. In the mid-2000s, I was longing for the old days of getting deep into limited albums. My car only had a cassette deck and I was looking for music to play for the drive. A record store was going out of business and was liquidating cassettes for 99 cents. Among the purchases made were Solar by guitarists John Abercrombie and John Scofield and Live at the Village Vanguard by Phil Woods. In a type of limitation exercise, I told myself these would be the only albums I would listen to for a year in my car for the year of 2005. 

     What were the results? To this day, the opening choruses of counterpoint from the title track of Solar are burned into my brain. Even the odd moments have been assimilated. For example, there is one striking dissonant line in Abercrombie’s tune “Small Wonder.” Scofield starts his solo by playing this outside line that resolves in an unusual manner. I assumed that it was just the guitarist trying to correct a mistake. That may be true, but after so many listens I have become to love this line. It is the way the solo should begin! For me, it becomes what the audience expected from Ray Nance, Duke Ellington’s trumpet player. While Nance’s classic solo on “Take the A Train” was first improvised on the recording, he played it the same way each night they performed. Why? Because that is what the audience expected. That was embedded in their minds from the recording. Even when the tune is played by today’s big bands that Trumpet 2 part is often notated. 

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Solar: My listening experiment for one year.

     It would be amiss to not mention the positive aspects of this democratization of music choice. Nguyen illustrates in a 2013 study that streaming services had no impact on the quantity of physical media sold. This also correlates with an increase in live music attendance. Proponents of this argument present streaming services as a “discovery” tool. Consumers will discover artists from smaller record companies that they would never have encountered in the old media. As a result, the artist not only has their music played but also benefits from ticket and merchandise sales. 

     Still, there has been a surprise, though niche, reaction against the prevalence of the subscription model: a return to physical media. Why are we seeing a rise in new vinyl pressings over the past decade? The cynics say that vinyl is just another fad where it is fashionable to collect records and that these records aren’t receiving much play on the actual turntable. The convenience of digital consumption (e.g. the download code that comes with each new record) trumps the manual experience of arming the tonearm.

     Contrary to the above, I see the sincerity in the rise of vinyl culture. Vinyl promises the opposite of everything that the subscription model provides. It is not portable. It is finite. To share it means to actually sit down in the same room as a friend and experience the same sound waves. It appears to be acting as a return to conscious, active listening. The long lost experience of liner notes, cover art and most importantly focused active listening is what has been guiding this trend. Setting aside the analog versus digital arguments there is an experiential component that is attractive to those who were brought up on listening to non-tactile music.
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Vinyl: will the resurgence of this format be the savior of our listening habits?

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The infinite catalog of streaming music: has it affected our listening habits?

      Over the past decade, technology has offered the music consumer an opportunity: easy access to the entire recorded output of music. Si...