Thursday, January 8, 2015

New year, same old scene

Though I try to change the routine, shake the system, I’m apparently a slave to repetition and nowhere more so than in my listening habits.

At each year end I find myself surveying the critic’s choices to discover what I’ve missed and where I agree, or generally disagree, with their verdicts. No sooner had I written last month’s post on that very subject when I discovered the NME had assembled a poll of polls that did the work for me.
It was easy to be disillusioned by some of the choices. I simply couldn’t get on with St Vincent and have to assume I am missing something. All I heard was a modern-day Laurie Anderson  which forced me into the same lazy and reductive habit I have of comparing new with old. In a similar vein I was tempted to reflect that Sleaford Mods were likely to be this (or last) year’s Flowered Up. In my case it seems that those who can remember the past are condemned to review it.

It’s appropriate to note of course that critics make choices of things that they feel we should be listening to. I’m particularly guilty of that – an overbearing sense of musical snobbery that those of us who consume a lot of music fall prey to. It’s understandable because without it we’d all just be picking the same things that people are buying and Ed Sheeran & Taylor Swift really would rule the world. It’s possible that they already do.
I spent large parts of last year trying to find something new, catching up with old and new music using a spectacularly primitive non-algorithm-based list of artists I’d heard or read about and then perusing them on Spotify. When it came time for Spotify to tell me it’d surveyed my listening habits during the year none of those acts appeared on it. I’ve always found fault with the streaming service’s choice of recommendations for me, thinking that it was based very largely on my listening at home and rarely factoring in the stuff I sample on mobile. This was an unscientific belief rather than a rational calculation but I always detest getting a recommendation for an artist it should know that I’ve already listened to or the very lazy associations that it should credit me to make on my own.

Perhaps I’m being unfair and others are incapable of drawing lines between similar artists but I have a tendency to think that most Spotify premium users are huge music fans, it being still in the ‘early-adopters’ stage. At any rate I discovered that Spotify seems incapable of adding up, suggesting that my listening habits were 68% indie/rock and 33% funk & soul. It is little wonder that musicians don’t trust them! This illuminating blog from a singer/songwriter highlights other glitches and discrepancies in the system.

In an age of big data we expect more from the recommendations we get, perhaps music is so varied and people’s tastes are so wide that we’ll never get there. Once you get past the writer’s crushingly hip tastes, the number-crunching in this Guardian piece is very interesting and suggests that Spotify will crack it but we will see.
One thing is fairly definite, the way we consume music has changed. Physical sales and downloads have plateaued, streaming is on the rise and the competition between streaming sites will only get more intense. This very long piece from CMU documents the current position with some precision.

What seems unfortunate or at the very least retrogressive is that the road to great success is still policed by the music industry and record labels in particular. They’re still the only ones breaking acts, investing in talent and reaping the rewards. As much as it all changes it all stays the same.

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