Is there anybody out there?
On the dreaded specter of "artificial" intelligence
Having somewhat reengaged with music journalism in 2019, I’ve noted the all-conquering obsession with analytics, biases, and the automation of music recommendation. Back in 2006, I wrote a piece on the relationship between scarcity and “cool,” and how the internet, as a nexus of information with no barriers to entry, was eroding the territory music once occupied in kids’ emotional development, as both an oasis of camaraderie, and an advertisement of the self. It’s a nice summary of what the digital music landscape looked like before Spotify and Apple Music began to function for music the same way Comcast and Verizon have for television.
That analogy is the first and most important point I want to make, though it’s a bit of a 30,000-foot conjecture. The rush of defensive moves we’re seeing to control access to a corporation’s intellectual property are only obvious as regards streaming video. Disney+ is the tipping point where it’s apparent to even the most casual consumer that copyright owners are walling up their content in direct-to-consumer (D2C) services.
The blocker for the last twenty-odd years was the complexity and cost of building and maintaining a globally accessible, secure and performant infrastructure to deliver soup-to-nuts digital rights management (DRM). DRM has the historic reputation of crippleware, of features inserted into platforms like DAT, MiniDisc and VHS to prevent unauthorized duplication or extraction. I went into the history of these moves as regards music in my 2011 requiem for the MiniDisc, but we need to broaden our conceptual view of the practice.
What’s missing from most of today’s essays is that DRM is a philosophy, not a technology. And that blocker I mentioned in the last paragraph? Amazon Web Services (AWS) has cleared it. Every song you stream via Spotify, every Netflix movie you watch resides on their servers and is streaming to you thanks to their infrastructure. Not even five years ago, this was a convoluted problem involving proprietary tech from a host of competing providers (Akamai, Cloudflare), who could cache the content in a geographically-aligned part of the world to ensure low latency and clean bandwidth through to regional internet service providers (ISPs). Added to that convergence, the onerously expensive unicorns you’d have to find to build a world-class mobile app have multiplied astride the simplification of application development in the cloud. In short, it’s now both comprehensible and cost-effective for copyright holders to cut out the service platforms that bring us streaming entertainment.
In this respect, Netflix is Blockbuster.
A few years ago, I nearly became a tech bro. I could see how the same model of vertical control would apply to record labels — and especially independent record labels, who have zero profit margin to play with. I mocked up a wire-frame mobile application that any label could brand, and a cloud-based content delivery system that created secure customer accounts my company would manage. It’s almost laughable how easy this would be to implement in 2019, but the lack of frantic music-vertical activity in the market betrays a larger problem than “independence,” or Spotify and Apple’s shitty royalty rates and algorithms. I mentioned it almost as a throw-away in one of my comeback videos from early 2018. Recommendation engines, play-ola and “platform capitalism” (please stop with this shit) are not the problem/s. It’s that you think the millions of Drake and Beyoncé fans out there would, in an ideal world, rather hear Beabadoobee. Who already has a completely normal Wikipedia entry.
The aggrieved need to “bust” Spotify that’s consuming so many writers is just paranoid narcissism, and it’s stupefying to me how such obviously brilliant thinkers can be led down such ineffectual, irrelevant paths. Spotify’s Discover playlists are not shouting-down your impeccable music taste, or creating a monoculture, or killing the music industry. They’re revealing the music industry for what it is, and what it’s largely always been, shattering the elitist worldview you built while swanning around Silent Barn at two in the morning.
I find it strange that so many music-lovers feel such revulsion at seeing the same patterns independent actors thrived alongside in the persistently-revered 1990s. You have the same setup: evil corporations to blame for how hard it is to make a living as a musician, for how the charts don’t reflect what people are actually listening to. Check. You have the means to stage alternative distribution and promotion regimes — it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to run a record label now than it was in the 1990s, believe me. What’s different is that the potential audience feels bigger owing to the internet, and that’s a delusion you’ve allowed yourselves to internalize.
Yes, there is artificial brinkmanship and bubble-blowing in the mainstream celebrity sweepstakes — and that extends across all platforms, from Spotify and Apple Music to Instagram, TikTok, etc. — but if you look at the figures for the obscure music you love so much, they are generally accurate, not suppressed. Very few people care truly, madly and deeply about the indescribable simultaneous sense of arrival and escape that you and I feel when listening to those precious gems we’ve accrued and shared among ourselves over the past sixty-odd years. Most people engage with music as either lifestyle accompaniment or simple nostalgia, happy to click 90s on 9 in their Yukon XLs.
My message to anyone caught up in hand-wringing over the state of streaming music is one I learned from Werner Herzog, who told a bitter Errol Morris in 1977: “Don’t fall victim to the culture of complaint.” Nothing and no one is holding music lovers back from finding and sharing their beloved songs and fiercely-held contentions with one another. There just aren’t as many of us out here as you hoped.