Lean back listening. Think you’re making your own music choices? Think again.

The paradox of choice, ‘real’ engagement and homogenisation (or how global streaming is changing the way we create, curate and consume music).

Melanie Bainbridge
Aug 4, 2019 · 6 min read
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As local, original musicians, The Pack Australia’s Founders have wiggled their way down the rabbit hole of music streaming, to dig up the dirt on how your music choices are being influenced by algorithms, machine learning and plain old ‘big-end-of-town’ greed. And while it was always there in plain sight, the slightly arrogantly overt gaming of the streaming music system still managed to surprise us.

Setting up the invisible inequities — divide and conquer.

Instead of dividing a given listener’s subscription across the artists he or she has streamed, funds are pooled and distributed on the basis of aggregate play counts across the platform, taking any direct control an artist might have over his or her earnings via personal intervention off the table. Individual dividends fluctuate based not only on an artist’s own performance, but on the performance of artists across the platform — in essence, the better their colleagues and competitors do, the less money an artist makes.

This sets up an inequitable, competitive system between artists, and simultaneously disempowers listeners. There is significant research around the ‘paradox of choice’ which signals that too much choice, and access made too ‘easy’ might not necessarily lead to more meaningful engagement.

Forcing your hands off the steering wheel — introducing ‘lean back listening’ and automating your choices.

But while the major streaming services promote themselves as enhancing discovery on the back of these figures, I wouldn’t necessarily characterise it so. What they enhance is access and automation. They give consumers endless choice. But sheer volume, coupled with minimal friction, does not necessarily increase meaningful engagement with music. In fact, just the opposite.

Artists have long criticised Spotify’s interference and commodification of users’ listening habits, describing it as creating a new ‘gatekeeper’ in the system, engineering yet another barrier to entry for independent artists. Writer Liz Pelly described this phenomenon as “the automation of selling out.”

A recent study by streaming analytics company, Chartmetric, found that Spotify’s context-driven playlists (i.e. those defined around a specific mood or activity, like chill-out or jogging, or around a time-specific event, like Christmas) have significantly higher follower counts than content-driven playlists (those focused more on specific genres, languages or geographies). Annual follower gain for context-based playlists also outpaced content-driven ones at 84.6 percent versus 62.3 percent, respectively.

But just what does this mean for artists?

With the interference of algorithm influenced content and recommendations, users have incredible, almost overwhelming choice, but it is coupled with a lack of emotional, or even physical investment in that choice. The consumption of music is becoming automated, and as such, made superficial, and passive.

As music ‘choices’ become less deliberate, and consumers become disengaged from discovery; they are more likely to simply accept automated recommendations based on previous listening, no matter how incidental or accidental that might have been. They are also more likely to be influenced by others whose preferences they value, whose ‘taste’ will therefore influence their own. Just as Facebook generates echo chambers of opinion, so too does Spotify create echo chambers of music consumption.

Digital strategists have named this streaming-induced phenomenon ‘lean back listening’. It has created a new type of music consumer, one less concerned with engaging with artists or albums, and more driven to allow ‘hands off’ music selection for generic emotions, moods and activities.

This automated ‘group think’ removes the active individualism from the process of music engagement. It strips from consumers that unique feeling of having ‘discovered’ a new artist and having interacted with that discovery in a meaningful way (i.e. having valued, and potentially paid for, that discovery).

Coupled with the streaming ideal of ‘free’ music for everyone, selection automation also undermines the cultural value of music ownership. Spotify works with over 200 petabytes of data to manage these personalisation products (perhaps more aptly named ‘de-personalisation’ products), more than five times that of its nearest competitor. TL:DR — Spotify and other global streaming services are investing a huge amount in making you believe that automation and machine learning is the same as you having active choice and influence.

Systemically undermining the value of music and driving musicians towards a creative ‘dumbing down’.

It also changes the creation of music itself. In the pay-per-stream model, played out in a crowded marketplace (Spotify boasts over 35 million songs, Apple Music around 50 million), artists are motivated to accrue plays, rather than genuine ‘fans’ or interactions. Research shows that artists are responding to this financial incentive by releasing shorter songs more frequently, while music not conforming to norms of radio-friendly consumption gains less traction and becomes less visible and therefore, less viable.

As slightly unconventional musos ourselves, we’re more than a little concerned that this will ultimately lead to diminishing uniqueness. If an artist is afforded the same tiny fraction of a cent per play for a two minute song, versus a five minute song, the financial incentive to create anything longer disappears. If an artist is only likely to generate streams by using formulaic songwriting techniques and conforming to popular norms, the incentive to be creative and innovative further diminishes. No disrespect meant to every pop princess and hip hop artist out there creating carbon copies of each other ad infinitum… but to us that’s not an industry, it’s a factory.

Pelly’s article, The Problem with Muzak also argues that the influence of algorithms on discovery is homogenising the creation of music. It compares this phenomenon with Muzak, a commercially driven enterprise that created, programmed, and licensed songs for retail stores throughout the twentieth century in order to drive productive worker and consumer behaviours. Pelly argues that “The similarity between the objectives of companies like Muzak and Mood Media, and the proliferation of mood-based playlists on Spotify, is more than just a linguistic coincidence; Spotify playlists work to attract brands and advertisers of all types to the platform.”

Like all consumer marketplaces, streaming is no stranger to market forces, and it is reasonable that streaming services, all of whom rely to some degree on advertising revenue as a means to ensure their own sustainability, would court favour with brands and sponsors. However, it seems that the direct influence of these brands on playlists and popularity may not be immediately obvious to artists, listeners or the music community at large, and as such pose invisible threats to an already precariously unbalanced industry.

We, like Darren Hemmings writing for the Industry Observer, see these issues as major impacts on the music landscape, but we do not see them as insurmountable. In fact, we see them as an opportunity to reimagine the streaming business model to address some of the core issues the technology has, perhaps inadvertently, created.

We’re working towards a music streaming service that profiles local, original artists, providing a platform for the emergent, the independent, the different and the creative, to ensure that music of all genres stays unique to its context, and continues to be a creative reflection of culture and community.

If you’d like to know more about how The Pack Australia is working towards addressing the impacts of global streaming on local music communities, download our White Paper here.

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