Is AI messing up your relationship with music?

In the setup of Cass Sunstein’s newest book, “Republic: divided democracy in the age of social media”, he addresses the modern web’s emphasis on curation and recommendation as follows:

“Countless people have discovered new favorite books, movies, and bands through this route. But it might well be disturbing if the consequence is to encourage people to narrow their horizons or cater to their existing tastes rather than allow them to form new ones. And this concern is amplified because many people aren’t even aware that this filtering is happening.”

The book continues to explore how content curation is impacting the political spectrum in a myriad of ways, strengthening extremes, promoting falsehoods, and more. But as a music lover, I got stuck on this paragraph for a little while. Sunstein is perfectly articulating something I’ve been feeling for years. New music distribution platforms which offer smart playlists based on machine learning are narrowing our tastes.

In response, I thought I would share a little bit about the meticulous way I’ve been organizing my music collection for the past 5 years. I started doing this because I felt new streaming services were destroying my ability to form a personal relationship with artists, but it’s becoming even more relevant than ever. Especially now that machine learning playlists are dominating the way many of us experience music.

I’ve been curating my music library as if it were an art gallery.

Music is such a mysterious obsession. We all have such unique tastes, and many of us have had profound emotional experiences with music. Art lovers know that cultivating a deep relationship with the artist is a huge part of the puzzle. But when it comes to music, digital distribution, streaming music players, and artificially intelligent playlists are disrupting our relationships with musicians. We just toss on a smart playlist and it curates songs for us; we often have no idea who the artist is, and it’s starting to seem like we don’t care.

A few years ago, I started to notice I was losing the focus on artists. It felt like I was drowning in a sea of singles. Songs would come and go without context. I missed the feeling of an artist growing on me over time; I simply rejected anything I didn’t like immediately. I missed forming personal relationships with unique voices; music existed in a vacuum with no context of who the artist was or their previous catalog.

This growing feeling led me to run a bit of an experiment. I stopped using smart playlists entirely. Instead, I took inspiration from an art gallery, and began to run my music collection as follows:

  • I demolished my entire music collection and created two categories of artists in my collection: residents and applicants.
  • The residents category is a collection of no more than 20 of my favourite artists. For these 20, I give myself access to their entire catalog. They are likely to stick around for a while, similar to the static collection at an art gallery or museum.
  • The applicants category is a collection of no more than 20 specific albums which I can listen to from beginning to end. Applicants are like visiting exhibitions at a gallery. When I hear something that piques my interest or read about a new artist, I do some research to pick the right album to try, and put it in the applicant category.
  • Whenever I’m planning to listen to music, I can either put on one of my favourite artists (residents) for guaranteed enjoyment. But if I’m feeling exploratory, I can browse through applicants and listen to a full album I’m less familiar with from beginning to end.
  • Since I only ever allow myself 20 residents and 20 applicants at one time, when I get curious about a new artist, I’m faced with a choice. I have to pick which existing applicant I want to replace. If the decision is especially hard, I may check to see if there’s a resident I want to kick out and replace instead.

Through this process, I have maintained and cultivated deep relationships with individual artists. Instead of listening to playlists, I challenge myself to explore a wide range of genres and artists fully. Applicants are guaranteed several full album listens so I have an opportunity to fully explore their work before I keep or abandon them. It’s been a wonderful experience and has led me to some interesting insights:

Music is richer when you understand the humanity behind it.

Music is a human tradition that gets deep into our emotional selves. It’s a powerful force that brings people together. It has the potential to give us direct experience of diverse perspectives and feel the catharsis of knowing we’re not alone in the universe. It gives us the potential to discover and explore the wide spectrum of human experience through an emotional medium which sidesteps the limitations of language. When I limit the number of artists in my collection, I find myself forming deeper relationships with them. I listen to their full albums regularly and naturally become curious about who they are. I find myself learning about their lives, watching videos of them perform, listening to interviews, and this deepens the experience I have with their music.

Music you hate at first can become your favourite over time.

Music which doesn’t bring you immediate pleasure can still cultivate a curiosity and draw you in to explore something new. Often someone tells me about an artist and I immediately ask “what’s their best album?” Then I add that album as an applicant. At a later date when I’m feeling exploratory, I have a listen and sometimes I don’t really enjoy it at all. But with this system, it feels premature to kick them out of my collection, so they hang around for a while. I end up naturally trying them out in different moods and situations, and sometimes they grow on me in interesting ways. As I form a relationship with that artist and immerse myself in their work, they have the potential to change my world unexpectedly, opening me up to new perspectives, new genres, new sounds, and new communities.

Musicians provide much more than “background music” for your life.

If all you ever do is tap a smart playlist and let it run, you’re downgrading music’s potential in your life to “elevator” status. If your love for music leads you to dive deep, you’ll find and realize it’s full potential to move you. It’s more than candy. Music provides an incredible experience which can challenge you in personal, emotional, social, and spiritual ways. Tossing on a smart playlist and never following up with any of the recommended artists or only listening to individual songs with no regard for the musician’s catalog ignores so much beautiful context. But challenging yourself to go beyond pleasure in search of depth can broaden your horizons and form interesting new connections in your mind.

Music reflects our culture in an emotional way.

The term “artificial intelligence” conjures images of robots, terminators, cyborgs and humanoid dolls. We often talk about AI in terms of some future eventuality, but the reality is that it’s here and already shaping our lives. Your news feeds, search results, and playlists are all relying on machine learning to serve you exactly what you want, but as we’re seeing with fake news and filter bubbles, getting exactly what you want isn’t always a good thing. Having robots shape your musical taste is not nearly as dire a situation as shifting political views and ideologies, but as always, music is reflecting culture. The fact that machine learning algorithms are gathering data about us to optimize our playlists for pleasure is perfectly analogous to what’s happening in other sectors of society. Music seems to be inheriting some of the unintended consequences we’re seeing in politics, economics, media, and more. Perhaps the deep emotional loss I felt 5 years ago is indicative of where other artificially intelligent technologies will take us if we’re not careful. Machine learning is incredibly powerful, but if we only ever incentivize it to maximize the immediate pleasure of the individual, we lose a lot of depth.