The music that we listen to is something that we rightfully see as very important to our sense of self, as well as our individuality. Music is arguably the most powerful, effective, and pure form of art. This is because it can convey unadulterated states of emotion, which resonate in the human mind as if it had been programmed into our faculties themselves. This phenomenon having been recognised and elaborated on by the likes of Schopenhauer and Wagner. Furthermore, music as art also serves an essential function in its emancipatory potential, and its ability to incite and embolden political action. We can see this in folk music going back millennia, but most explicitly in political hymns and chants. The vital role of music, however, is under a severe threat. The threat is both historical, and more generalised, and was reflected on by the critiques of Adorno’s “Culture Industry” and Marcuse’s “technological rationality”. But the specific phenomena I want to tackle in this piece, is the means by which most people consume music today, streaming platforms.
Since the advent and increasing popularisation of streaming platforms, our listening patterns have consequentially changed. Now, instead of listening to a favourite given album or single, which we have determined more organically, through a more “rational” or “thoughtful” selection process, we outsource this task to a streaming platform like Spotify, which conveniently has a playlist which reflects a vague “mood” or genre. I emphasize more organically, because our music consumption has been negatively affected in other ways, such as the dominance and influence of a small number of corporations dominating record sales and radio stations, but I will remain en piste. The circuit of the problem is completed by the fact that each play from a listener represents money, to the streaming platform, the record labels, and if they are lucky, the artist.
One branch of the problem here, is that those who are in control of these playlists are small in number, and are using data, fed into algorithms to determine which songs should be in a given playlist or promoted to people. Thus, these tracks are likely to be played more. This means that, not only are there a very small number of people (also likely to be from similar backgrounds), choosing the music that a huge proportion of individuals are going to be listening to. But these “technicians” of the music industry are also not choosing songs based on its artistic merit, but on what a system of technology has told them will generate the most plays. This example perfectly demonstrates Marcuse’s conception of “technological rationality” – effectively we have passed the buck from our own human reason to computers, therefore limiting the influence of our own agency in determining what we listen to. The problem here, is that music consumption has been reduced down to a quantitative science, devoid of nuance and human subjectivity. There is in a concrete sense of faith-like attachment to technological rationality, which makes our society believe that a “logical” computer system should be in charge of determining which music we listen to. Therefore, our listening choices have simply become about what can make the most money for those in the position to profit from it. I hope this alarms the reader as much as it does me, that something so personal, and supposedly unique to the self as music taste, can be so utterly enveloped by the mechanisms of industrial capitalism. Realising this, however, is the first step towards a dismantlement of this system.
I will now move on to tackle one of the issues most directly associated with the phenomenon of music streaming, and that is the “skipping factor”. Through this dynamic, we have been progressively conditioned overtime to value certain immediate satisfaction from the songs that we listen to, and if it doesn’t give this to us fast enough, we are inclined to skip it, simply because technology has made it that easy. It might be useful here to trace back the listening of music and its relationship with technology, to see what is going on here. When most people listened to music either in the form of a vinyl record, it was not at all convenient to skip tracks, therefore the natural tendency is to let the album play, and simply take in the tracks as they develop this promotes a more thoughtful listening experience, and allows the music to convey its meanings uninterrupted. Going back further, before music was recorded, to experience music we had to have someone playing it in front of us. This is the most pure form of listening, because there is no way of skipping across or through tracks, and there is a human connection with the musician. Emotions can be exchanged across that boundary of musician and listener.
The first major leap into the realm of musical digitization, as well as the increasing the codification and quantization of music, was the CD. Now, society had the means to very easily skip over tracks which didn’t yield immediate satisfaction. One could even comment on the presence of a screen revealing the total, as well as current playtime, begin to make the connection in the human mind between the piece of music as a work of art, but also as a time, and thus a money cost. This brief historical tangent, has I hope revealed the trend in which the phenomenon of music streaming forms a part.
There is an understandable critique of my arguments in this piece, however, because the technologization of music has allowed it to be spread to many more people than it would traditionally have been able to. However, advanced industrial capitalism has led this development. It has used technology, not just to allow music to be widely experienced across the world for human and societal benefit, but it has changed music itself, fundamentally altering its character and function. As I have previously described, music, through the advancements in technology, has been turned into a pure commodity. It therefore dulls its ability to accurately describe the conditions and expressions of “organic” human society, which as a result represses its artistic value. Music under advanced industrial capitalism is pushed into a rational/technological mould. Furthermore, if we are to take Adorno’s line, we would see music as serving a direct oppressive political purpose as well, to keep the minds of the masses away from the issues that matter.
Probably the most personally frustrating impact of platforms such as Spotify, is that they have allowed the big-three record labels to really mobilize their corporate might, to ensure that their artists get the spots on the most important and listened to playlists. What results, is that the music that people listen to is mostly either dictated to them by algorithms, or what a big record label wants them to consume. I think we can agree that this is a pretty sad state of affairs.
What we must do then, as a society, is to take music out of the pernicious grip of technological rationality, and use the technology simply as a means of spreading music as an art form. Some individual actions we can take, even just for ourselves, is to stop practising the lazy attitude of using Spotify’s “ready-made” playlists. I would encourage the reader to search for and explore music more organically, and recognise the systems which lie behind the selections of tracks on your regular playlists. At the smallest level, you may find you enjoy music more, and find better and more independent artists, who don’t benefit from the backing of the large music labels. But changes in the way we consume music, could have more wide-ranging impacts on our society and politics.