Continuing our reunion tour, we welcome back our friend Andy Doe to talk about algorithms; how they work, and how they affect music listening.
Listen to The Next Track: Episode #141 – Algorithms.
Every week I’m excited to check out the latest album releases. They are the gift that keeps on giving. But that gift feels different these days, more like receiving flowers or chocolate and less like anything you might receive as a keepsake.
It’s becoming very rare these days for me to fall in love with an album the way I used to. I miss it, but there it is. […] But to some extent, it just feels as if I don’t have the time to invest (i.e. in repeated listens) in the way albums — good ones — truly deserve.
I feel the same way. Perhaps there is too much music. While those 50 million tracks on streaming services are tempting, perhaps they are too much of a good thing. Streaming services keep recommending new music to you – new, or at least music you haven’t heard – because the logic is that you’ll get bored if you don’t see new content. But perhaps that’s the wrong way to do things. Maybe streaming services need to help listeners find albums that they can appreciate over time, rather than just assume that every listener wants to flit around from one thing to another.
This said, I’ve been playing Brad Mehldau’s latest album Seymour Reads the Constitution! on repeat for the past week, and it’s the first time in a long time that I have been so immersed in a new recording. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) It’s full of catchy tunes, and I find myself humming parts of them during the day. If piano jazz is your thing, check it out.
The band is back together, and we explain our new approach to the podcast. We then discuss how music may change as more people use voice assistants to request what they want to hear. And, of course, we present our own next tracks.
Listen to The Next Track: Episode #140 – The Reunion Tour.
Back in the day, when you wanted to listen to some music, you’d go through your record collection – LPs or CDs – and look for something you might like to hear. Perhaps you had a hankering for a specific album, and you just needed to find it (assuming you hadn’t alphabetized your collection). Or there was a record you wanted to hear, but you couldn’t remember exactly what it was (if you had a really big collection), and needed your memory jogged by the album cover. “The white one,” perhaps, or “the one with the car.”
You can sort of do that today with a digital music library. You can search by artist, album, or track, or you can “flip through” your albums, seeing what you have, identifying music by its artwork.
But if you use a digital assistant to ask for music – Siri, Alexa, etc. – you don’t have that option. For example, I just asked Siri on my iPhone, “What’s the Beatles album with the white cover?” The response:
The human brain can only remember so much. One of the reason that phone numbers are seven digits long – or seven digits plus an area code – is because the brain can’t really remember longer random elements. Try remembering a 10-digit number; unless you use it regularly, you won’t be able to. Splitting numbers into groups – such as xxx-xxx-xxxx – makes them easier to remember, but for most people, memory has very strict limits.
You can remember your favorite songs and albums, but your brain can only hold a limited number of them. If I were to ask you to name, say, ten of your favorite songs, you’d be able to do that pretty quickly. But if I asked you for a list of 50 songs or albums, that would be a lot more difficult.
When you ask a voice assistant to play music, you won’t be able to flip through a virtual record collection to find something to listen to. You’ll be able to easily likely ask for something recent and popular, or something that you’ve listened to recently. But you won’t be able to ask it to play that record by the Rolling Stones, you know, the one with the zipper, that a friend played recently, because you don’t know its name. You won’t be able to request a record that someone gave you for Christmas when you were in college, because, again, you’re not sure of what it’s called. And forget about trying to get a voice assistant to play a specific version of a classical recording… So how will you request music? You’ll ask for the handful of songs or albums you can remember, or you’ll ask to hear music by a specific artist.
Many people listen to streaming music in playlists, and if you do this, you’ll remember their names; this is why record labels are targeting playlists as a way of getting streams. However, the kinds of playlists you’ll ask for are most likely dynamic playlists that change as new music comes out and as older tunes become less popular.
But the rest of the music you’ve heard all your life, the stuff you may have owned on record, will you ever think to ask to hear those albums? Probably not. And the longer you go without hearing them, the further they’ll be from your memory. You can certainly listen to genre- or decade-based radio stations to jog that memory from time to time, but you won’t have a record collection to search as in the past.
The more we use voice assistants to request music, the narrower music will become. We’ll essentially be listening to radio again, and, since most people don’t buy any music at all any more, we won’t have our own purchases to browse when we want something specific. And since streams will be concentrated among a smaller number of tracks and albums, the rest of the artists won’t get much play, and won’t get much money. This will lead to less new music being made, and we’ll be the poorer for it.
I bought another refurbished lens today from Fujifilm. I’m in the UK, and they have an extensive refurb store, in parallel with their direct sales of new gear.
After the purchase, they gave me a link to share with friends that provides a 5% discount on any order from the Fujifilm online store. Apparently I will also get a 5% discount on my next purchase, so it’s a win-win for everyone.
If you do use Fujifilm cameras and are in the UK, check out their store. I’ve bought several lenses from them, and they are usually around 25% off. I’ve not bought a body or full camera, but the discounts are similar.
Non-anglophone artists can thrive in this ecosystem. I’ve seen it for myself: in 2018, I reviewed London shows by Balvin, pop-reggaeton golden boy Maluma, Monsta X and BTS. The venues heaved with excited young Londoners, who sang along, lofted flags and generally did their nut over being in the same room as their heroes – all of which is par for the course at pop shows. What was different was that almost none of the songs were in English, and most of the fans couldn’t understand the lyrics.
When I moved to France in the 1980s, and got to know some French music, I often discussed music with people I met. I asked many people whose command of English was limited why they listened to songs in English. They all said the lyrics didn’t matter.
However, when they told me about certain French artists I should check out, they often said, “And the lyrics are great.”
Music in other languages has always been an edge case in English-speaking countries, because of the cost of releasing and promoting records in those countries. So many artists would sing their songs in English, with a hope of getting international airplay, having a single noticed, and then release an album in the US or UK. Now, with streaming, there are no borders, and there’s no reason for these artists to deny their cultural heritage.