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music, passion and algorithms

While I was at uni, in the heady early days of the web, I followed a few exceptionally ranty proto-blogs. Nobody used the word 'blog' yet, they were just episodic 'home pages'. I didn't agree with all of them, but I certainly loved the fire in the belly that drove them.

The original sites are all gone, but there are a few that other people somehow kept copies of and reposted. They meant enough to someone out there to spend the time to archive it. To preserve something from the early web wild west. Of course these mirrors are also ephemeral. They too shall pass.

Anyway, one of these was Blind Wino, by Mark Driver. I was talking to someone about music recently (which will surprise nobody who knows me enough to be reading this) and was reminded of this quote:

There are three things to be said about music:

  1. Some music almost everybody likes. It is meant to be that way. It is music made primarily for money, and everybody likes it because everybody else likes it. This is where bad music comes from.
  2. Some music almost nobody likes. It is meant to be that way. It is music made primarily as a reaction to music that everyone likes, and of the few people who do listen to it, only very few truly love it. This is where OK music comes from.
  3. Some music some people like. It is meant to be that way. It is music made primarily because these musicians don’t know what else to do with themselves. This is where good music comes from.

This remains one of the best things I've ever read about music. The whole post is good but this has stuck in my brain well enough that I could nearly quote it verbatim somewhere in the region of 15-20 years later.

It's not just music of course. People have passions that don't make sense. They have things they need to get out of their heads, because that's how their heads work. They write, paint, shoot video, write code, make music, build things. When you're exceptionally lucky your passion also makes you a living. For many their passion does not make money and so they count the minutes when they can leave the grind and get back to their life.

Yeah those three things to be said about music have inherent judgement in them. That will no doubt upset a few who truly like popular music, just like the beer drinker who has sampled every craft beer and genuinely prefers a commercial lager. But it is really just a fact that pop music of every era (and the pop end of any genre) is produced to be popular.

Just as blind tests show the major beers are indistinguishable, mainstream music is algorithmically same-y. It is produced to a formula that can be unpicked with a rudimentary understanding of music theory.

The Blind Wino post reflects a pre-streaming era where music discovery was harder and more expensive. You couldn't just fire up Spotify and click the related bands and listen to their most popular tracks. But on the other hand I think these days it's harder to form a decent connection to an artist's work, because you are directed to the most popular songs from their entire back catalogue. The awesome b-sides and album lurkers may not bubble up, because even for less mainstream music they are still data-driven.

When you hit the Spotify listing for The Cure, the top song by a mile is Friday I'm In Love and the top ten is mostly the happy boppy tracks. If you know the back catalogue you'll know most of The Cure's stuff is not happy and boppy. This leads to some incredibly confused (and bored) people at gigs who truly don't know what to do during the fifteen-minute version of A Forest.

So algorithms don't save us, because their data still weight heavily to popularity... to say nothing of most music services still promoting things entirely separately from algorithms anyway. iTunes and Spotify consistently tell me about new pop releases on their banner pages - stuff I have never listened to and basically never will. But labels are still buying popularity by telling people which artists to like.

In the old days you'd dig through crates of music at a local store; if you were lucky they'd let you listen to them for a while before you bought them. I spent a lot of time in my youth holding broken headphones together, with the volume cranked up trying to get a sense is this album for me? I found trash and treasure this way.

These days you still have to dig down into the earlier releases. Keep scrolling until Spotify stops loading new albums. See what bubbles up on YouTube. Kick off custom radio stations using seed playlists to see what it can make of aggregated data. Avoid the 'new releases' tab in Spotify and ignore the iTunes homepage - there is no data behind those recommendations; and you won't find anything that way that you won't hear on commercial radio blaring into every public space you visit.

We are yet to reach the era of post-label music. Patreon's investors wanted to crank up the fees and you still need to be well known before you can Kickstarter your way to recording an album. Artists still have to produce work that algorithms like, to get to the front page of Youtube or get reposted on Facebook, to drive subscribers and build a base. It's a new grind that at least has less smelly vans than touring pubs in Bumblefuck, Nowhereville... but you probably have to do that too, because most musicians actually want to perform to a room full of actual people and not just the recording LED on a digital camera.

Meanwhile fans know that nothing beats a gig. You can never ever get the same feeling watching a recording as you get in the moment, in the heat and energy, treading down the dropped beer cans and screaming for an encore. Plus the artist probably makes more from that cheap, formaldehyde-stinking tshirt you bought than they did from the past year's streaming royalties. Just like they used to make more from merch than they did from you buying their CDs.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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