The Automation of Listening: the Impact of Technology on Music Counterculture

I’ve been a professional musician for around fifteen years now, and while the inspirations that first prompted me to pick up a bass guitar all those years ago still remain a constant in my life, the opportunities and media for artistic expression have changed in fundamental ways.

Last year, I decided to take my lifelong interest in graphic design and its possibility as cultural critique and apply to a Masters of Fine Art program at the University of Texas. Entering the design course, I wanted to find a new way to interrogate the things I spent much of my music career exploring. The visceral power of lyrics, guitar riffs and stage performance were things I believed could communicate an energy and a politics in a compelling way — things that were taught to me by punk. Having spent so much time in the practice of music, I wanted to go back to the theory, look at the things that make up protest in musical culture, and see if that viscera and power could be communicated through design.

I was introduced into the idea of punk initially in the muffled strains of Crass and the Clash coming from my older brother’s bedroom in the late 80s, and then in earnest when Riot Grrl hit in 1993. Riot Grrl taught the lesson that accepted tropes of culture should always be challenged. The notion that punk should be a primarily male preserve was a fallacy. It should be oppositional, it should take on combative attitudes to social norms, and its own old-fashioned codes should be broken down.

Understanding this moment had a profound impact on my life.

Later, I spent over a decade touring and recording in Bloc Party and Young Legionnaire and I witnessed many of the changes that have transformed the music industry at first hand. When I first started making music, Myspace had yet to appear: for a brief moment it pioneered a completely new dynamic between artist and audience. Nowadays, Myspace is a footnote in the fortunes of online music, but while there are no sure things in tech, what’s come since has been dictated by the ambitions of corporations first and artists last. Technology has had a dramatic impact on the fortunes of music makers and their place in culture. Arguably, where it leaves us is at an analogous cultural moment to that of punk’s beginnings in the late 1970s.

Those of us who identify with punk culture will have asked at one time or another, what was it about punk that allowed us to engage with it? Punk didn’t speak to me because I could find it ringing from every radio station and television channel. The power of punk was hidden between the cracks, something that encouraged discovery, the building of communities through a shared sense of resistance. Punk was, to steal a quote from Ben Ratliff, something “you went toward.. rather than waiting for it to come to you.

Of course, the way we interact with and discover music is different now. There’s a perceived ‘equality’ to musical forms because technology gives us such instant access to so much music. We are able to interact with the most obscure forms of counterculture at the click of a button. But that access is increasingly built on narrow, monopolised platforms.

Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple represent monopolies that are more dominant over the music landscape than even the major record labels were in the 70s. In the streaming-led music business of today, 80 percent of the revenue is generated by 1% of the content.

Technology allows a smorgasbord of niche forms of music to exist happily in their own channels alongside the mainstream, without ever having to clash with it. Punk theorist Mark Fisher, who sadly died last year, spent many years considering this in his work over the last decade. He’s talked of how thecapacity to make an infinity of choices has replaced the capacity to actually change things.

So who is the arbiter of taste in our current form of music consumption? In the past, music labels, radio executives and DJs were the arbiters — to an extent, these were the people who chose what was listened to. Proponents of today’s technology might say, haven’t we levelled the playing field, in letting the listener choose? But how much do listeners choose what they’re listening to on Spotify or Pandora, and how much of it is chosen for them by an algorithm?

If the algorithm is now the arbiter of choice then it’s the hegemony of the algorithm that counterculture should be taking aim at. What is an algorithm if not an updated version of the faceless, unaccountable cultural power that punk took on?

In design we have this tension between being agents of genuine change and the danger of imposing change where it isn’t needed. By insisting on technological change over and above the need for it, you run the risk of putting the cart before the horse, by looking for solutions where there aren’t even problems.

There are ample examples to draw on of this kind of hubris in design. Take the Juicero — a wifi-enabled juicer designed to ‘squeeze’ a pre-pulped bag of “fresh” juice into a glass for you. After securing $120 million in crowd-funded investment and launching the product at a price point of $700, it didn’t take reviewers long to discover that the pre-pulped juice bags that you had to buy to fit into it could simply by squeezed by hand into a glass. The Juicero became a particularly viral illustration of how arrogant solutions are foisted on non-existent problems.

A good designer should look at the Juicero and say, the wrong question’s being asked here. The question shouldn’t be, how can I have fresh juice with no effort or mess, at the flick of the switch? The question a designer should be asking is, why is the experience of juicing outweighing the real benefits of the juice?

If making music is making juice, then music services like Spotify are in danger of becoming the Juicero — by putting the convenience of music ahead of the labour of making it. As Blake Morgan, the music advocate behind I Respect Music points out, what Spotify is selling isn’t music, it’s Spotify.

And then there’s Youtube. It’s easy to look at Youtube as a giant library: to bastardize the words of one recently departed punk hero Mark E. Smith, it’s “the biggest library yet”. There is a utopian idea in the concept of this great library in the sky, where all music and video can be accessed instantly and for free. But what other library chooses your reading for you, spies on what you read, and then sells that information on for profit? Technology has built a living archive of content that can prove enormously profitable to companies like Google and its sponsors, and yet anything but profitable to those who actually create its content.

As Jonathan Taplin points out in his book Move Fast and Break Things, what Google and other streaming services offer is a reliance on user data, by endlessly tracking what you watch and listen to, in order to give you more of it. What data supplies is a picture of what’s already popular, instead of what might come next. If punk began as an idea of upending the past, what we have in the current model of music is the complete opposite of that: the same cultural present, over and over again, yet with consistently diminishing returns.

This isn’t just a problem for artists. In becoming so ubiquitous, while at the same time, in the case of Spotify and Youtube, paying so little to the artists, these platforms are increasingly having an impact on what music sounds like, not only the way artists compose music but in the way we think about and listen to it.

Journalist and writer Franklin Foer has talked about about the ‘automation of thinking’ that the algorithms we interact with make commonplace. We already know how algorithms have shaped social media and political debate, but we’re only starting to see how they could impact creativity. As musicians, punk or otherwise, we like to think that what we do is so uniquely human that it can never be replicated by a computer. But “no human endeavour has resisted automation,” says Foer. “Why should creative endeavours be any different?”.

The automation of listening goes beyond the age-old debates of disco versus rock, or guitar versus synthesiser. More and more what we listen to is not chosen for us in just of terms of the social or genre connections but through their compositional similarities. On Spotify content is increasingly channelled through made-up mood-based playlists — “ambient” and “indie chill” and so on. For a song to have value within that listening dynamic it’s important that not only does it not stand out, but that it literally sounds like something else. So music starts to become more and more function of the background, something to fill a sonic gap irrespective of its cultural intent. Add to this the expectation we have not to pay for music and what we’re left with is exactly the thing we didn’t think could happen: the automation of music itself.

This is not meant to be a Luddite tract, to expose technology as the enemy. Punk was never about this either: the electric guitar, after all, was a technological innovation that radically transformed not only the way we understood music but our ability to use it as a springboard for change. But I do think we should be wary of this increasing automation of ideas. When you hand over the reins of music’s place — its compositional, cultural space — to automation, isn’t there a danger of making it peripheral to human culture altogether?

In the 60s, Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote of the concept of the “consciousness industry”, an idea that in being given access to more and more technological and cultural choice, we are effectively formed in the image of the status quo, no matter how free-thinking we believe our access to culture is.

But what Enzensberger argues for is not to turn our backs on technology, but to engage with it, reshape it in our own image. He notes that “the writing of history is always manipulation” and that therefore “a revolutionary plan should not require the manipulators to disappear; on the contrary, it must make everyone a manipulator.”

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: if you’re being manipulated, become a manipulator.

So what does this mean for cultural resistance, for punk in the modern context? It’s really the difference between resistance to technology and resistance through technology. In many ways the true punk musicians of our times have turned away from classical tropes of punk to embrace some of this technology. We should look to use technology in new ways, to circumvent the ways it manipulates us.

Punk isn’t simply disruption. It isn’t just an nihilistic snubbing of present and future to no discernible end. Punk, surely, should be a ripping off of the emperor’s new clothes, a warning of the false idols we’ve come to revere. If punk tells us anything, it is to participate, to combat, and repurpose.

If the modern form of power is now technology, and the way we interact with technology becomes the only way we are able to interact with that power, then all of us — punks, designers, academics — have just as much responsibility to confront that power and subvert it.

That, I believe, is the punk thing to do.


This piece is a version of a talk I gave at UCLA in February 2018 at the Curating Resistance conference. Thanks to the Herb Alpert School of Music and Punk Scholars Network.