Amazing or Malaising: Discovering new music online in 2016

Wednesday, September 21, 2016 - 5:43pm

In “Amazing or Malaising,” Daily Arts Writer Harry Krinsky decides if a piece of culture is wonderful or trapped in malaise.

Apple Music and Spotify have a bunch of problems, but it’s easy to overlook them because only 10 years ago the music industry was hemorrhaging from an epidemic of illegal mp3 downloading.

For example: one of the tabs in the Apple Music app is called “For You.” The tab features a constantly updated list of playlists that Apple Music thinks you will like based on the music you already listen to. Spotify has a similar feature. They are both effectively useless.

Here are the playlists Apple Music has curated for me and stored in the “For You” section of the app.

1)               I Aint Saying She a Gold Digger…

2)               Meek Mill vs. Drake

3)               Inspired By Lauryn Hill

4)               Gucci Mane Essentials

5)               Hipster’s Paradise, Vol 1. (Which features hip underground artists like Kanye West, Tyler the Creator, Lupe Fiasco and Frank Ocean.)

I have basically never used the Apple Music “For You” section. The only two playlists I have found remotely useful have been “Lil Wayne Guest List 2000-2010” and “Drake’s Pop Culture Lexicon.” The main problem with these computer generated playlists, is that they have the distinct feel of something made by a computer. They are not mixtapes your significant other made you, or even the “Summer Pregame 2015” playlist your roommate whipped you up. They are the product of algorithms. I recently listened to Gucci Mane’s new album, so they hit me with the “Gucci Essentials,” I listened to Erika Badu the other day. Lauryn Hill. Possibly they know I just moved into an Airbnb in Williamsburg, “Hipster’s Paradise Vol 1.” The point is that the playlists are entirely predictable. It is so clear that an algorithm sucked up my listening data, and spit out some set of lame playlists that I will likely disregard unless they have the words “Drake” and “Lexicon” in them.

The “For You” tab is corny and robotic. It’s easy to see where technology came in and pushed the amorphous “soul” of music discovery out. For some reason, though, we don’t look at the tab to the left, the “New” tab, in the same light. While “For You” features pseudo-personalized recommendations that we see through immediately, the “New” tab helps users find music that’s not just new to them, but new to existence. I think the normal reaction to finding out there is tab that helps you find new music is probably somewhere between excitement and ambivalence, but the truth is, this feature is something every fan of creative, non-homogenous music should be afraid of.

Today, music discovery is so accessible that it’s a legitimate millennial hobby. Like, I spend between 30 minutes and two hours a day scouring blogs for new tracks by new artists. This hobby is so ubiquitous that finding new songs comes with its own sort of social capital. Every friend group has the friend who “always finds music before it blows up.”  There are entire websites devoted to supplying readers with new music. I think the music blog sphere, while at times overwhelming, is certifiably amazing. We are in the golden age of music discovery. There are a seemingly infinite amount of tracks scattered across the internet, with no barriers to entry other than access to a computer and time. There is an entire ecosystem of blogs with different tastes they cater too. There are blogs that post every 20 minutes, sharing strange interviews or obscure shitty mixtapes. Then there are blogs like Hypetrak that post less frequently, filter out a little of the garbage, but are often steps behind those high output blogs. Then there are websites like The Fader or Complex, whose posts are more often a validation of fame than a stepping stone towards it. Yeah, it can take two hours of scouring the internet before finding a mildly likable track, but that’s the point.

(Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. I’m 21 and I’m already lamenting the loss of a simpler time. But when culture and technology move so fast, it’s a lot easier to get nostalgic.)

The first problem with Apple Music’s discovery platform, is it distills the blog scouring process into something anyone can do. More importantly, it distills the blog scouring process into something anyone can do in five minutes. There are playlists like “Apple A-List Hip Hop” or Spotify’s “Rap Caviar” that search the internet for trending songs, and spit out the top 15 most trending songs. Those playlists are then presented to the user in order of popularity. In other words, it tracks the popular “about to be popular” songs.

Yeah, I’m salty that Apple Music has made my literacy with the music blog-sphere a nearly useless quality, but that isn’t why these playlists bum me out so much.

Right now these playlists track and identify hype. They notice what is trending and synthesize it. The same robots who made the laughable “For You” tab make the unfortunately legitimate “New” tab. Though, the true reason to worry about these playlists goes beyond the inauthentic distillation of hype. We should worry because the logical next step for these behemoth distribution platforms is for them to manufacture hype, not just track it.

It’s important to note that the tab in the center of the Apple Music’s app is the “radio” tab. Similarly, it’s important to note that the only Spotify advertisement I ever hear is for their weekly discovery playlist. The internet is slowly but surely killing radio, so why did Apple Music invest millions in deals with Drake, Zane Lowe and Dr. Dre to produce radio shows? When Spotify was first explained to me, it was pitched as Pandora but with the ability to choose your own songs. So why is Spotify pushing a feature that chooses the songs for you? Why is radio back from the dead, resurrected by the technology that killed it?

The Answer, I think, is that the next frontier of these big companies is to control exactly what we discover. In cornering the music discovery space, Apple and Spotify are effectively mass producing trendiness. They are Urban Outfitters for your ears. Most music fans roll their eyes at mega popular songs because they often feel like they were manufactured for radio, but openly embrace songs that haven’t yet become popular, even if they are destined to do so.  It used to be that the underground or the yet to be discovered artists were the ones pushing the envelope of music. I think this is still true, but can anything that can be found on the front page of Apple Music’s mobile app really be described as underground?

You would never think any of the “For You” playlists are actually for you. Why would you think anything in the “New” category is actually anything new?

Internet Music Discovery in 2016: Malaising