Big Data, Little Music
Established musicians are speaking up about the state of the music world, and they are not happy. They report that there’s no money available to make music, and no money to be made from it. Some have blamed fans for killing the business, by insisting on getting music for free. Others decry the fact that now that everyone is making music, there’s an abundance of dreadful stuff around because the technology that’s used to make music sounds so cheap, and because real musicianship and original musical ideas no longer seem to matter. The complaint that the magic of human performance is lost as music is more often programmed than made by people actually playing together, has only picked up steam since it emerged in the 1980s. Readers and viewers have responded to statements such as these in various ways, but the majority seem to dismiss these viewpoints as out of touch with current reality, and say good riddance to the music world of the past.
But to see this as merely a generational rift is to miss the bigger picture. What is at stake is the devaluation of music as a form of artistic expression at the same time that it is being repurposed for every conceivable commercial and technical end. At the root of this phenomenon is the fact that music is increasingly being treated as data, pure and simple. This was beautifully captured in a headline on the front page of the March 7 business section of the New York Times: “The Sweet Streaming Sound of Data.” The article is about yet another technology deal in which music companies are both buying and generating data in order to find the next big hit, using “metrics” to guide them rather than ears, hearts and minds. This transformation from music to data affects every aspect of the music world — production, dissemination and the experience of listening. How did it come to this?
In the 19th century, the era of industrialization, the historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote that he was living in the age of “brutal simplifiers.” What he wanted to describe was that as the material conditions of society became more complex, social relations seemed to become more simple. Translating his idea into the contemporary context, Richard Sennett has suggested that as our technologies have become more and more complex, we use them to simplify our relations to each other. An example would be texting, where communication is simplified to the bare essential word, but so much of the embodied, affective and cooperative aspects of communication are streamlined out to make conveying information easy and efficient. I want to take this argument further and suggest that the current technologies have simplified both our relationship to music and music itself. As Sennett suggests, throughout human history, people have made tools and only later figured out how best to use them, but “the first impulse in using a new tool is to simplify the social relations that existed before.” In the case of music, our complex technologies take production out of the fully-equipped recording studio and into the basement, and make online dissemination both easy and immediate. But in the process, they increasingly make music itself simple — as so many bits of data. Simplicity in this sense is not neutral; the word “brutal” that qualifies it connotes a form of violence. Music, like any expressive art form, should not be simple.
While in an earlier period, the transformation of music into electronically coded information was a purely technical process, now it is decisive. No longer just a matter of technological sound reproduction, this form of simplification is the underpinning of the entire new music economy. Licensing the rights to music and merchandising celebrity-themed items are what drives this economy, not the “content,” if you will, of music or its inherent aesthetic and expressive properties, which in any case are no longer really for sale. Music companies in the past actually produced music and therefore used to have more of an aesthetic interest in the product, even if that interest was always in tension with and frequently overshadowed by commercial imperatives. Now, most of the major music companies have outsourced their Artist and Repertoire functions and their related staff, reducing them to selling not music but the rights to exploit it for commercial purposes such as advertising and ring tones. Aside from streaming music and selling subscriptions, music distribution services are also (some would say, primarily) in the business of collecting and selling consumer information. Pandora recently announced that it’s using music to track users’ political affiliations so they can more effectively target political advertising. In all of these cases, music has value only as a means to something else.
And it’s not coincidental that the audience for music is referred to in that way — as “users” rather than listeners. Portability, ease of use, and lowered (or no) cost has made it possible for us to have music everywhere, all the time, and to accompany every activity, situation or mood. But another facet of the brutal simplification of the new technologies is that they are being used to promote a utilitarian as opposed to an aesthetic orientation to music. The degree to which the music service providers promote this orientation under the guise of “discovery” is striking. For months last year, the first thing one saw on the Spotify website was: “Let Spotify bring you the right music for every mood and moment. The perfect songs for your workout, your night in, or your journey to work.” iHeartRadio launched “Perfect For”: a new set of stations based on activities and moods. Apps like Moodagent allow users to manage or regulate their mood by manipulating a set of colored bars indicating the intensity of the mood one wants to establish (e.g. yellow for happy), then searching one’s personal music library (or Spotify) and generating a playlist. It would seem that the criterion of value is not that music be good in and of itself, but that it be good for something else. Where previously, the company associated with program music and ease of listening distinguished its product from music, per se, by calling it “Muzak,” now every type of music is being purposed this way and made available for programmatic use.
What is more, brutal simplification has made our experience so personalized that serendipity is taken completely out of the equation. Indeed, the internet’s promise of discovery is one that consistently returns us to ourselves and the algorithms that codify our “taste.” Music service providers filter out anything unfamiliar and potentially unpleasant, giving users a “frictionless” experience. But what is art if not something that creates friction by asking us to see, hear and feel in new or deeper ways? If we don’t have to listen to a whole song, let alone a whole album, to invest our time or try our patience with something we don’t immediately “get” on the first hearing, our experience is diminished in that we no longer have to engage with the difficult, the problematic, the potentially rewarding, or anything that falls outside of the realm of our established sensibilities. And of course, if we haven’t bought the CD or the concert ticket, we have no incentive to do so. All this is made worse by the devaluation of critical expertise that could prod or enlighten us, challenge our assumptions or encourage us to explore.
The evidence of this simplification and its erosion of the aesthetic value of music is also clearly reflected in the quality of the very devices we use to make and to hear music. Sound reproduction technologies that used to be manufactured for the highest audio quality have been discarded in favor of technologies that compress rather than enlarge the acoustic register, making music easier to access and faster to disseminate. According to Jaron Lanier, MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), the basic platform for just about everything we hear, was originally designed for a single limited purpose: to coordinate multiple synthesizers and keyboards. It was not programmed and never intended to capture the eccentricities or imperfections of the human voice, the “wavy” lines of a saxophone or the resonance of strings. MIDI is, in the music world, a “brutal simplifier” as are drum machines and auto-tune, because they are linear rather than lateral, and force music into rather than outside of the box.
And of course, there is perhaps no stronger evidence of the anti-aesthetics of simplification than the fact that so few musicians can make a living, even a minimal one. The system valorizes the DIY culture that, not coincidentally, compels everyone participating to buy the same standardized products. And it glamorizes celebrities who can sell not only music but perfume, greeting cards, clothing lines and sneakers. Everyone in the middle, where most of the artistic and experimental activity occurs, is facing a terribly precarious labor situation, with falling wages for club dates and tours and few other options now that recording work for jingles and soundtracks has largely evaporated.
Ironically, the truth of this situation has for too long been obscured by a narrative of democratization that seems blind to the monopoly character of the technology companies that are running the music show. Instead, musicians and fans alike have applauded the widespread availability of the new technologies for the possibilities they open up for individuals to make music, and for musicians to have direct contact with their audiences. Perhaps in the years to come, we’ll figure out how to make the best use of all these tools, so that we are not sacrificing the complexity and beauty of music to the technological imperatives of simplification and the commercial imperatives of utility. In the meantime, let’s not blame the fans or anyone else for using the tools that are put in front of them, and remember that if these same tools had not appealed to musicians, they would not have been developed for widespread commercial distribution. With any luck, the current grumblings could be the beginning of the next phase, when we pause and rethink these “gifts” and how to use them for humane and artistic rather than commercial ends.