23. KING OF THE BALD PRIMATE: THE EFFECT OF ALGORITHMS ON MUSIC
In October 2020, Australian rock band King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard released the separate audio components of the song Automation, a fairly opaque riff on human reliance on machines. The explicit instruction was for fans to create remixes and upload these to YouTube. YouTube had other ideas: its automated copyright detection system compared the remixes to the band's original song and deleted them as soon as they were uploaded.
More of the same
Assuming that this was planned, it falls under a larger umbrella of criticism aimed at music streaming algorithms, the brunt of which is borne by the biggest fish: Spotify, with 345 million monthly active users and availability in 93 markets. From its multiple security breaches to the low amount paid to artists (314,250 streams per month to earn minimum wage in the USA), the Swedish platform has faced controversy for its entire 13 years of existence - even while it fundamentally changed our relationship with music. In 2019, the American streaming market was larger than the entire recorded music market just two years prior.
Half a year after adopting Spotify, the average user listens to 50% more music than before. With this increased access to music comes the most subjective (or perhaps elitist) critique of all: the idea that Spotify's AI system, BART, stifles the creativity of artists and narrows the perspectives of listeners. Using a combination of natural language processing and raw audio analysation, BART assigns characteristics to songs and recommends users those that match the data points to which they've previously listened. Or, in the words of The Guardian's Laura Snapes, "You like bread? Try toast!"
Playing the system
The fact that the algorithm can also be gamed is confirmed by various guidelines on getting your music heard. Ditto Music, for instance, suggests avoiding anything unconventional in the first 30 seconds (long enough for the stream to be monetised), asking family and friends to put your song first in their personal playlists (to increase the chances of it going into the Discover Weekly playlists of others) and linking to your music as widely as possible (as the algorithm rewards bringing in users from different social platforms). And why wouldn't you? After all, you may be up against generic music commissioned by Spotify to fill up playlists while avoiding royalties to record labels.
If you'll allow me to put on my tinfoil hat for a second, I've also noticed two trends which may be informed by the algorithm: an increase in short interludes on albums and a tendency to produce longer albums. Why create longer tracks when the algorithm rewards everything equally after a half a minute? The shorter the track, the more times it can be heard and the easier it is to hold the listener's attention for its duration - crucial, given that the algorithm punishes songs which are skipped. As for longer albums, this is more of a scattergun approach: the length and perceived amount of filler scarcely matters when the objective is to get as many songs in as many playlists as possible.
The way forward
Of course, there's the question of whether this actually matters. Music of all genres undoubtedly reaches wider audiences than ever before due to the removal of the costs of vinyl or CDs and the effort of piracy. And as even Laura Snapes concedes, "the genie isn't going back in the bottle" - the personalisation of playlists is core to the appeal of music for millions who might not otherwise listen. Incidentally, this flexibility is central to Spotify's general ethos. Last month, they introduced the option for staff to work anywhere in the world (with some limitations on time zones), explaining that "work isn't something you come to the office for, it's something you do."
The sharing economy - as typified by Spotify, Netflix, BlaBlaCar and Airbnb - is growing by 35% each year, 10 times faster than the economy as a whole. It certainly isn't perfect, but it also isn't going away. And for all of Spotify's negative points, there's also the environmental benefits to consider: the sharing of resources digitally ultimately means less physical waste. Whether or not the algorithm truly means a 'dilution' of music is probably a question for future historians - but given the rapid pace of software development, I see no reason not to imagine that BART will also grow more creative with time. For the millions who are quite happy to be recommended toast, it hardly makes a difference anyway.