Last week I complained on Twitter about a recent Real Life Magazine piece on Spotify and criticism. I’ll admit this main essay jumps a lot, so hopefully next will be a little less keyboard slams. The other note is to say thanks to everyone that subscribed, and if you like it recommend the newsletter to a friend!
I’ll admit I kneejerk when I read about Pitchfork. The site, or better yet Mark Richardson, gave my first professional byline and having written for it since 2012, I get a bit defensive. A recent piece in Real Life magazine spurred that primal response. Since the mid-90s, Pitchfork’s most known export was rightfully, and occasionally unrightfully, mocked snobbishness. They said bands you should like are garbage and ones you didn’t know would change your life. Adam Clair in his essay contrasts their hipster pretentiousness with Spotify’s taste agnosticism algorithm and argues the latter is winning in this present day. Except neither worldview, nor “platform,” were in competition.
Pitchfork is explicitly for music nerds, even in 2017 the site’s basic supposition is deep music fandom. Discovery Weekly, Spotify’s weekly algorithmic refresh of songs you could like, provides music sans texture. Not to deny bonds formed by Discover Weekly, but in a time when artists are constantly in communication with fans such contextless music listening feels oddly out of sync with contemporary fandom.
Playlists and subscriptions are boosting the music industry’s bottom line, but it’s the stuff of Instagram stories and YouTube reaction videos that drives the passion. What is being a Lil Pump fan without looking at his Instagram, who is Mitski without her warm tweets, what is Rihanna without Fenty Beauty or her Puma slides. Reviews always centered on niche audience, but they talked to audiences primed to deeply care about music, and in 2017 there are more, not less, way to do that.
That’s what was so frustrating is that Clair took Spotify’s success at face value, while he held Pitchfork’s feet to the fire. He writes: “Spotify insists that, despite pressure from bands and labels, it never intentionally puts anyone’s music on anyone’s Discover Weekly playlist. Like other social media platforms, it asserts neutrality, following only the information its users provide, but those playlists are sourced heavily from playlists that are prone to all sorts of outside influence.”
Spotify may not bend to pressure on Discover Weekly, but every other part of its service is compromised to help the already successful. Except for corporate brands, the most ads on the platform are by the three major labels, and most playlists themselves retain a quota that majors should be hitting—a recent report showed that Independent acts only accounted for 8% of Today’s Top Hits. Spotify wears many hats: music library, radio, a curation service; but the narrative of its power is frustratingly accepted without much of a skeptical wink.
Press uninformed or simply ignorant will just trumpet Spotify’s own myth making ability without much a second thought. Forbes creates Sean Parker for making Lorde a star, but of course Valleywag (RIP) pointed out that Parker at the time was a Spotify board member. Lorde probably got a boost for being on Timberlake’s playlist, but her initial musical popularity derived through SoundCloud, but why bring up facts.
A profile of Danny Ocean and his viral song “Me Rehuso” by the Fader couldn’t stop mentioning Spotify. In fact his first quoted piece of thanks by the Venezuelan singer was to the Swedish company. (“Everything began when we got into the Spotify playlists...the song just went viral," he said. "I don't think any of this would have happened without streaming.”). The quote isn’t untrue, but Billboard noted the song initially received attention on Instagram, then YouTube with Spotify’s viral charts playing catch up.
Even New York Magazine’s recent Cardi B gave cover story credited to RapCaviar for her success: “Released in June, “Bodak Yellow” moved to Spotify’s influential RapCaviar playlist in July, which helped bring it to open-car-window ubiquity sometime in the hottest months of the year.” Despite the fact that an article in the same magazine back in September accurately pointed out it was Apple Music (“Apple’s Carl Chery jumped on Cardi early, giving her prime exposure on the A-List: Hip-Hop playlist”), not Spotify, who was first on the Bronx rapper.
Apple does the exact same, and YouTube, if Google actually cared about music, would do the same. I say this, because all of these companies will pluck their own success stories and spin the narrative so an artist didn’t find success through their fans, but because of a platform’s strength or an algorithm.
Clair towards the end of his piece muses on the struggle complex art in the face of big algorithms (“Spotify offers not just escapism after work, but often, a lubricant to more easily get through the workday, background music specially fitted for any desk job.”). Except that he’s again just accepts Spotify’s word of a playlist dictating artist careers. The issue isn’t that the algorithm doesn’t care about aggressive power electronics or South African House, but that major labels decided they don’t care. Certain types of music might not be playlist friendly, but this new system is one that forces all genres to comply to a set of rules that might not be conducive to all genres.
An algorithm future of music could be nice, but real fan engagement doesn’t happen because of a playlist. People don’t paying hundreds of dollars to scream along with fellow fans of Figgy Malone. Despite Spotify trumpeting their RapCaviar live series, fans don’t care about Tuma Basa; they care about Lil Uzi Vert, and when the press misreads that, it removes agency of the artists and puts back in pockets of platforms.
Passive music consumption is valid, but pieces like Clair’s in a way over-index for non-music fans, where prior eras perhaps over-indexed the other way—incorrectly assuming that everyone that buys an album devotes themselves to an ideology. A balance is hard, but the same critical eye that questioned Pitchfork’s role within music should be pressed on all gatekeepers.
Links 2 Read
B R E A K U P FACEBOOK, AMAZON, AND GOOGLE
Even though a lot of attention is placed towards the charts, Big Streaming Numbers, and potential gaming of the system by labels; this article highlights how many tactics originated with fans finessing iTunes, YouTube, and even radio stat. Now of course labels would incentivize that with promotions, giveaways, [insert the entire K-Pop industry], but you get the idea. There is a rather healthy back-and-forth between fans trying to support their favorite artists and labels using that energy for their own gain.
Only Sinclair Can Save You - Slate
Just another reminder that the FCC is right now is fucking up media and internet regulations in ways that should be fairly alarming if you aren’t a multi-billion dollar organization.
Why Does Spotify Keep Making Mass Shooting Playlists? - TrackRecord
This is shameless self-promotion, but I really wanted people to just be aware of these playlists, because it’s so strange to me to think about why anyone decided that it was Spotify’s role to provide playlists for every time someone decides to commit an act of terrorism. This is certainly not a new domain, as radio often reflects political moments, but where one could call into a local to talk about what’s going on in the community, this reskinning of generic playlists and offering them as soma for relief is misguided at best, but feels mostly cravenly disgusting.
‘Bad Men’ with Bob Hoffman - Software Engineering Daily
I know this is very not-streaming related, but advertising fraud is a really interesting topic to me. It’s essentially bots click ads, ads being put on sites that no one ever reads, and all of the strange ways that actual fraudsters, Facebook, Google, to even people in the world of protecting against ad fraud are able to profit from these schemes. This podcast with Bob Hoffman, who recently wrote a book on the topic, is a fairly decent entry point into this strange world.
Thanks for reading, and lol feel free to argue with me this week, cause no other way this thing will get better without a bit of disagreement.