Is AI messing up your relationship with music?

Jay Vidyarthi
Oct 31, 2017 · 6 min read

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.

Image for post
Image for post

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

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 you hate at first can become your favourite over time.

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

Music reflects our culture in an emotional way.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store