The way we listen to music and words has changed, changed utterly
Individually tailored streaming means we are now all living in our own bubble of sound
Spotify’s Family Mix looks at the listening habits of you and your nearest and dearest to come up with a playlist which supposedly reflects those habits. The result is distressing. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
You may not be interested in audio streaming, but audio streaming is interested in you. Right now we are smack bang in the middle of a radical reordering of how we listen to music and to words. It hasn’t been given the attention it deserves, because similar forces are at work in the more glamorous and lucrative film and TV industries . But sound has its own very particular set of dynamics, not least in a culture like Ireland’s, where words and music have a particular resonance.
So, even if you still rely on tottering stacks of CDs for your musical fix, and you haven’t figured out where the podcasts live on your phone, music and podcast apps are inexorably eating into the services you grew up with and will ultimately replace all but a tiny remnant of them. Record companies and radio stations are to the mid-21st century as blacksmiths and lamplighters were to the early 20th.
This transformation is usually seen through the lens of business or technology coverage, or from the perspective of those who are losing out, most notably the musicians who find the publishing and performance royalties which previously sustained them have eroded away to almost nothing. Such developments are very significant, of course, but there’s been less attention paid to how actual listening, whether as an individual and or as a collective experience, is also changing. One immediately observable effect is atomisation, with listeners gravitating towards the niche and away from the mainstream. After all, why endure an hour of radio programming when you don’t care about half the stuff they’re covering?
In disruptive technology jargon, the process is known as “unbundling”; readers and listeners no longer have to play by the old rules, where they had to buy into a whole package to get the bits they actually wanted. Broadcasters, newspapers and other legacy providers bemoan the loss of serendipity that comes along with this. You will never hear that fascinating story on a subject you didn’t know you were interested in, they say. And you won’t hear that song the DJ is playing, because it doesn’t fit with your user profile. Perhaps so, although my algorithmically-generated Spotify Discover Weekly and Release Radar playlists throw a more eclectic and interesting range of new music at me than do most radio programmes (with a couple of honourable exceptions). In any case, the argument is academic. The old bundles are dying. But what’s replacing them, and how is it changing our behaviour?
Would the extraordinary flowering of jazz in the 1950s have been possible without the invention of the 33rpm LP by Columbia in 1948?
All around us, traditional media are being replaced by individually tailored niches. It’s surely no coincidence that, in audio, this atomisation is accompanied by a surge in the popularity of headphones. The individual listening experience becomes more personal and intimate, and that in turn has an effect on what’s most popular. At the moment, at least, people seem to prefer podcasts and music that make them feel as if they’re alone in the room with the performers. And that in turn has an appreciable effect on the kind of music and talk that’s produced.
Inevitably, there are gains and losses. The history of recorded music is of technological innovations driving creative change: would the extraordinary flowering of jazz and other forms in the 1950s have been possible without the invention of the 33rpm LP by Columbia in 1948? Where would successive waves of dance music and electronica have been without the 12-inch single?
Where atomisation becomes most apparent when you see attempts to push back against it. Irish Spotify users with family accounts may have come across the Family Mix which the company has been trialling here recently, and which rolled out in the UK this week. Family Mix looks at the listening habits of you and your nearest and dearest to come up with a playlist which supposedly reflects those habits (crucially, naming the guilty party responsible for each track).
The result is distressing. Spotify claims the mix is “filled with music the whole family can enjoy together”. This is not true. It’s actually filled with music some members of the family can shout “what the hell is that horrible noise and whose fault is it?” at other members of the family. On one level, this is reassuring for those (I’m speaking in the abstract here, obviously) who deplore the trend of recent years for parents brainwashing their offspring with their own musical tastes. Far better, we (I mean they) say, to have a gulf of mutual incomprehension and contempt separating the generations on matters of music.
But as we all turn back with relief to our individual listening devices, is it worth considering whether it’s really such a good idea in our day-to-day lives to be so inwardly focused, so cut off from others and the world at large?