Pop and technology have always had a close relationship – and fueled each other’s development. The triumphant advance of streaming platforms in recent years is now changing the basic structures in the music market – and it also signifies a fundamental cultural transformation, which the Berlin-based Swiss journalist and author Tobi Müller traces in his two-part essay. We are publishing the text in two parts this week – parallel to the publication of Müller’s book Play, Pause, Repeat, which explores the connection between technology, people and music. First published in German by the Swiss magazine Die Republik, it focuses on a figure who – supposedly – seems to have disappeared: the record dealer. It turns out, however, that a digital revenant of this grumpy gatekeeper is already haunting our music consumption…
Does anyone remember that guy behind the counter of the record store? We’re not using a gender-neutral term on purpose here, for it would be unfitting. His reputation has suffered a similar fate as the Boomer or the Old White Man. You couldn’t be more of a Boomer than one of these cantankerous dudes who kept watch over the wares and knowledge that made you cool in a pre-digital time. You had to earn their esteem by buying the right records and by dropping the right comments at the counter. After a few years, if you were lucky, you’d be greeted by your name.
Nowadays, the guy at the counter of the record store has become a thing of the past. In Vernon Subutex, a three-part social novel, Virginie Despentes erected a monument to his downfall. The book became an international bestseller; the English translation of the first volume was shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize in 2018. The French author’s portrait of that guy is merciless, precise, and funny, but not contemptuous: her sympathy belongs to her hero. Most other people, though, will think that record stores are obsolete. Thank God that time is over, they might say.
Although nostalgia, admittedly, rarely has a good reason, the for-now final-seeming disappearance of that guy is an earth-shattering event; however, the dimension of its destructive force is not readily apparent, because the offering that replaced him is infernally good.
These days, everything is radiant with color, mostly green, like market-leader Spotify’s logo. And at a first glance, streaming via Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, and other such services looks like progress: compared to building a record collection, the cost involved is laughably low. Those who suffer ads can even listen for free.
As good is not needing to subscribe to two, three, or four providers, unlike with video streaming services. What does a middle-class family including a teenager and a child in elementary school pay, on average, so that everyone gets to see the movie, series, or sports event of their choice? 50, 60, or 70 Francs per month? On Spotify, you’ll find everything for a little less than 17 Francs for two accounts, and for a little under 21 Francs if you need six accounts. Streaming facilitates access to music and lowers the social threshold more than ever before: parts of the world that were excluded from the market for decades because the physical commodities of sound were too expensive have become part of the global white noise of pop. Approximately one billion users stream music. Something about it works, it seems.
Other languages have their own words for “user.” In German, for example, one can speak of “Nutzer” and “Nutzerin,” but even in German-speaking regions people prefer the English “user.” This provides a first hint at something dysfunctional. “Users” are not just customers but also addicts. We struggle to get away from streaming; it’s fiendish stuff. And like in the drug business, only very few people earn a lot of money while those supplying the goods, be it a farmer or a musician, don’t get anywhere.
A little thought experiment might be helpful to better understand the magnitude of the situation. Imagine being in a record store but on the terms dictated by a streaming platform:
You enter the store with luggage – a sleeping bag, a laptop, a toothbrush, and a change of clothing – because you know that you can only listen to music in the store…
Objection: why only in the store? Nonsense! Spotify and other streaming services make it possible to be as mobile as you like. You can stream music on your smart phone wherever there’s a network or internet connection, that is, basically everywhere.
Response: Yes, but the comparison isn’t accurate. Spotify is a platform that combines both the store and the listening device. The latter, after all, is not your smart phone but the software provided by Spotify, as much as Spotify is also the store, regardless of whether you pay with your data or a monthly subscription. The crux is that the music you consume is not allowed to leave the store, that is, the platform, that is, Spotify.
Interoperability, the quality of playing a medium like a record on different record players, which we took for granted in the past, is no longer a given in the age of streaming. The things we listen to on Spotify, even those saved to our “library” to be used offline, cannot be moved to another program. We can save the songs locally, but the files are copy protected. That’s why we always remain on the same platform when we listen to music.
It’s exactly the same with video streaming services: what we find on Netflix stays on Netflix; what we pay for on Amazon Prime Video we can only view there. That’s why you brought a sleeping bag and a toothbrush in our thought experiment, the purpose of which is to imagine streaming as an analogue experience. We can check in but never out. Is that still a hotel or already a prison?
Okay, let’s backtrack: you step into the record store with your luggage (sleeping bag, laptop, change of clothes). You know that you can only listen to music in the store. You register your personal data at the counter, and your payment details, of course. Cameras monitor you while you browse the shelves and register which record (or CD) you pick up and look at more closely. You take a little pile to the counter to listen to your selection. Meanwhile, how long you listen to each song is also recorded, as is whether you go straight to a certain song or put on an entire album, or whether you choose one of the many compilations that appear as if out of thin air. Even though you might never bring one of these back from the shelves, they are always at the top of your pile. You might not be into “mid-afternoon work tunes,” but these mood lists are always already there.
All your decisions and the traces of your behavior end up in a database you can’t access, and it’s exactly this data that the store is selling. That’s its business model. And because you can only listen to music in the store, you spend a lot of time there. It’s a good thing you brought your laptop; you can keep working, at least. And a blanket and a pillow also come in handy because this one compilation actually is good to fall asleep to, you have to admit. In the morning, a mood-based playlist, it’s called “Easy Breakfast Breeze,” wakes you up. It sounds a little like an avocado smoothie in song form: you’re comfortably awake and sharp yet relaxed. Nice.
Though one thing is odd: aside from yourself, no one’s there. Where are the other customers? In the first part of 2021, as you find out, 350 million people spent time in Spotify’s record store.
Spotify has been available in Austria and in Switzerland since 2011. In Germany, the world’s third-largest market, negotiations took a year longer. Apple Music and Youtube Music were to follow. The smaller and originally French provider Deezer went live in 2007, but its expansion only began in the 2010s. As a technology, streaming established itself quickly. Because these services give us the opportunity to personalize our experience, we haven’t felt the earth shake from within our taste-lined bubbles. Streaming became second nature, the basic quality of your music consumption, within only a few years.
As a result, we are increasingly isolated in our audiospheres: we do it in algorithmically delineated zones devoid of other people. Personalized playlists constitute one of Spotify’s most successful formats. They always have a slightly different name, and their openings are constantly changing. One of the most popular lists is “Discover Weekly,” which not only contains new releases but also “Gems from Previous Decades.” At this point, the data set immediately becomes subjective: I usually don’t recognize more than half, of the songs, often even more than that, even though part of my job deals with music. Yet, I’m horribly bored. Each mix tends towards acoustic cotton wool, easy listening, background music, music that could work in an ad.
My preferences by no means exclude everything gentle, soft, and elevator-compatible, but the harsh, unwieldy things I also listen to never pop up in these lists. Although we usually know very little about the concrete technologies and surveillance practices in platform capitalism, we know one thing for certain: the most important aspect of the monetization of our data relies on the duration of our stay: our time, their gold. Endless scrolling, long and open-ended lists, a bottomless-pit feed – music provides the best field for data harvesting because users spend more time with music than with the news; they always return to certain songs and albums, while an article has a much shorter half-life.
As far as songs, albums, and playlists go, we only really get in the groove after three listens. Pop is a data collector’s dream – we keep returning to it or, rather, we never leave it. Additionally, we tend to go directly to Spotify rather than by way of social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. For data capitalism, this, too, offers value, but not as much – in fact, nothing has as much value – as the data about the time we spent on Spotify. And the value is increasing without an end in sight. On paper, Spotify is registered in the tax haven of Luxembourg. The company’s capital has long been flowing in from all over the world. Its headquarters are nominally located in Stockholm, where its founder Daniel Ek started his journey. The unofficial center, however, is to be found in another place: One World Trade Center in NYC, where the “Swedish start-up” occupies fourteen floors. The lease runs until 2034. Music has little to do with all of this.
One ought not to say, though, that music does not form the core of Spotify’s streaming concept. In their academic bestseller Spotify Teardown – Inside the Black Box of Streaming from 2018, a young team of European researchers based in Sweden described the situation as follows: Spotify primarily functions as a data broker. Following the book’s publication, the company spared no cost to cut the funding for the team around Maria Eriksson and Rasmus Fleischer – without success. At the very latest, the authors write, Spotify began investing primarily in technology for the study and recording of human behavior in 2015, and to sell their insights to interested parties. As Eriksson tells me in conversation: “Even though I spent five years researching Spotify, I can’t accurately say how their recommendation algorithm works. And had I known it back then, it would already be completely different today.”
The same is true for Facebook and Google. The principal algorithms that determine who sees what in their feed are changing constantly; presumably, even the people at these tech companies don’t know in detail how it works. The core of the business model is a black box, hermetically sealed not only by silence but also by algorithms involving machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence that constantly optimizes itself. Within such algorithms, so-called adversarial networks work against one another and mutually check each other’s outputs.
This new generation of algorithms can do a lot more than their predecessors, which we first saw on Amazon about twenty-five years ago, when the online giant was primarily an internet book merchant. The language is no longer the same as back then, but the principle hasn’t changed. I’ll let Amazon explain the functionality of the recommendation algorithm: “Customers that bought books by Dorothee Elmiger also bought books by Christian Kracht, Deniz Ohde, Christine Wunnicke … (page 1 of 20).” This comparative technology is called collaborative filtering: the greatest overlaps between the purchases of many generate recommendations. If you have access to datasets as large as Amazon’s, you’ll need processing power, but it isn’t rocket science.
In contrast, machine learning is more advanced. What is suggested to us in our highly personalized lists on Spotify only concerns ourselves. “Dancing With Myself,” Billy Idols pop punk hit and the postapocalyptic video from 1982, predicted the present pretty accurately.
As narcissistically optimized and as great as personalized lists might feel, they mean dire consequences for music, or, rather, musicians. Instead of listening to 20 or, at the most, 200 bands and artists, as we did in the past, we now listen to 2000 or more different acts, and most of them have a similar sound. But barely anyone can survive on such fragmented attention, and attention is money.
The amount Spotify pays per stream varies depending on where a song is streamed. Additionally, the platform has different private agreements with labels. In Switzerland, the average payout for a stream is 0.0040 cents, in Germany it’s already only 0.00286 cents, and 0.0011 cents in Brazil, because the subscription costs are different in each country. To earn 4000 Euros in Switzerland, a song needs to be streamed a million times, that is a very high number for a low monthly income. A feat virtually no one achieves.
The effects have been visible for a while: in the age of streaming, a functioning middle tier in pop has almost completely disappeared. Even in the superstar segment, only few newcomers arrive to stay. The stars of the big tours, when tours were still happening, usually were over fifty. At parties, beyond their inner circle of friends, teenagers today sometimes listen to music they already listened to in elementary school – because at least everyone knows the songs.
What brought us to this point at which we like hyper-personalized lists as much as we do? It’s not in our nature; for example, we don’t like books only if we are the only one who has read them. To the contrary, most of us prefer it when half of the people at a table has read the book under discussion. Why is that different with pop? Why do we like music only when it precisely flatters our taste? This form of radical distinction – my taste is unique! – has always existed, but mostly in the worst phases of puberty. Any older and you’d make a fool of yourself. What went differently in pop than in literature?
Streaming is not to blame for everything. That we consider our taste in music to be as important as we do and prefer to listen inward with our headphones on is the result of a long development. It begins, as is often the case for entertainment technology, in war, and it has a history over a hundred years long. It’s the history of a story of individualization whose associated technologies found fertile testing ground in pop during peacetime. A brief flashback:
The German engineer Hans Bredow builds a mobile radio for the demoralized soldiers in the trenches during the First World War. The radio plays music in between the battles. The enemy appreciates the interruption as much as Bredow’s compatriots, and Bredow soon is upbraided by the command. He was accused of “misusing military equipment.” The officers did not notice what the engineer suspected: music can soothe internal conflicts. Everyone is listening to the same thing, on both sides of the front.
Even the most successful I-machine of the century was invented in the military: headphones. In 1910, the US navy contacted Nathaniel Baldwin to order one hundred headphones with two earpieces held together by an arched frame. Baldwin built his “baldy phones” in his kitchen and struggled to finish the Navy’s order in time. In Berlin Gesundbrunnen in 1937, the Beyer company puts together the first dynamic headphones. It’s called Beyer DT 48. “DT” stands for “Dynamisches Mess-Telefon,” literally “dynamic measurement phone,” which hints at the original purpose of the device: transmission technology, radio.
Stereophonics will be invented soon after, during the Battle of Britain. The secret of the German Luftwaffe, which allowed pilots to fly regardless of difficult light and weather conditions, consists of two radio signals transmitted from German-occupied ground in the direction of England. They meet at the point of the planned bomb attack. A long signal tone of Morse code sounds in the right, a short one on the left side of the pilot’s headphones. At the target location the Morse dash (long) and the Morse dot (short) converge to form a continuous tone: the signal for bombs away. Had the British not by accident discovered the “stereo remote control” of German bombers, they might have lost the war, with dreadful consequences for world history.
After the war, headphones created the preconditions for pop to be experienced on the go and, thanks to the stereo effect being put to use in civilian life, to be experienced more intimately than before. The third technological condition also goes back to the “misuse of military equipment”: magnetic tape. Once again, German engineers managed to improve the quality of magnetic tape to such an extent that the enemy mistook the recordings of symphony concerts and reports from the front played at night for live transmissions. Shortly after the war, a US army officer discovered the optimized equipment in Bad Nauheim and shipped two of the devices to California. Only in 1963 did Philips introduced the first “pocket recorder.” It came with a new storage unit: the cassette tape.
They sounded terrible, not nearly as good as the high-end broadband machines of Swiss companies like Studer Revox or Nagra. Soon the quality of the small, handy cassettes improved. According to Philips, the device was “ideal for salesmen and reporters,” but history soon found an even more ideal target group for the tape recorder: pop fans.
At this point, music hit the streets. The recorder, as its name says, could record and re-record, and so the first mix tapes were made. Recorded from the radio or vinyl records onto cassettes, these were the first personalized playlists – with one crucial difference: you had to make them yourself.
In the eighties, sales of empty cassette tapes increased exponentially, and in the music business, people spoke of “piracy” for the first time. The main reason was the Walkman, the gadget of the decade. Introduced in Japan in 1979, and in 1980 also in Europe, the device by Sony combined two known technologies in reduced size: tapes and headphones. The player fitted into the back pocket of a pair of jeans; the headphones had a light metal frame and small ear pieces wrapped in foam rubber. The ads emphasized the youthfulness, mobility, and urban-ness of the product. Few people over thirty carry a Walkman, and no one over forty.
In that decade, the adolescents with their gaze turned inwards were cause for public concern. They walked through the city to their own soundtrack, demoting their surroundings to a mere backdrop, and quite some noise leaked through the headphones and into the world: these were the usual reproaches. As a young person, it feels great to walk through the streets musically self-determined, to be in one’s own world and to disregard the adults. Carrying a Walkman was to silently flip off authority figures: keep on talking; it’s not as if I’m listening anyway. The debate for and against the Walkman is reminiscent of familiar generational conflicts, but new was the degree of individualization offered by the device. Never before had music been listened to as diversely.
The launch of the shamelessly overpriced compact disk, whose price was never lowered, in 1982 was the music industry’s last attempt to dictate to consumers in what order they listened to music. In the nineties, the time in which the CD had supplanted vinyl, the profit margins were so obscene that no one mustered any pity for the destruction of the music market that occurred in the early 2000s as the result of illegal sharing of MP3s.
Among other reasons, Apple became the most valuable company in the world because the iTunes store and the iPod pushed digital personalization to new heights and dominated the market. No one needed to buy entire albums anymore; you could get individual songs through iTunes. The iPod and other MP3 players immediately added songs to a quickly growing music collection, which you could carry in the pocket of your shirt. Random play or shuffle mode allowed you to listen to a completely new mix tape every time you plugged in your headphones.
The cassette recorder in 1963, the Walkman in 1979, and iTunes and the iPod after the millennium: these devices taught us that music consumption could be a matter of extreme individuality. Mobility and individualization have long been coded into pop’s DNA, but audio streaming accelerated this development at a previously unknown rate. There are as many algorithmically devised playlists as there are users, and many more.
The real question is who profits from this restless personalization of pop. It’s not the users but the dealers – platforms like Spotify and the few remaining major labels. Meanwhile, listeners become isolated, musicians face poverty.
There are reasons, then, to miss the guy at the counter of the record store: the specific, local conversation about music, the exchange of opinions about what people like more than oneself, the debate about taste, which is always deeply subtended by personal ideology. It has little to do with sympathy or nostalgia. In the end, it’s only about whether you want pop to survive, or if you’re happy to have a playlist for every mood and every everyday situation. Your call.
That guy is far from done, by the way, at least as far as the economy is concerned. He’s simply goes by a different name: algorithm. And he knows everything – truly everything – about you.