A recent random email turned me on to the work by Berlin-based pianist and ambient music impresario Nils Frahm. Through him, I stumbled upon Anne Muller, a cellist with highly minimal compositions. I ended up listening to both of their work on YouTube Music (which comes free with my ad-less premium YouTube subscription.)
Frahm’s work is so unique and unfussy, so minimal, and yet so complex. His new album, “Empty,” is a collection of eight solo piano pieces. In many ways, it reminds me of the streets of our cities: empty, haunting, devoid of life and humanity. They are achingly beautiful. I ended up listening to him for two straight days, interspersing his fantastic piano work with Muller’s new recording, “Heliopause.” I am particularly in love with the track “Nummer 2.”
Including these two, I have bought a total of four albums so far this month. The other two are Emancipator’s “Mountain of Memory” and Thievery Corporation’s “Symphonik.” I bought these on Bandcamp*, which has built a great platform that puts artists first. I have started to become increasingly disillusioned about the larger platforms, especially how they seem to coming down ever harder against the smaller and lesser-known artists.
Spotify, while extremely competent and convenient, has started to transform itself into a data-driven, radio-like service. I used to love their curation, but now I find like almost all large platforms — Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook — it has started to become very heavy handed in pushing the algorithmic autocracy on me. It autoplays the music it thinks I want just because I listened to one track. And it forces its choices down my throat.
The system is not in favor of the smaller, lesser-known artists I prefer. However, like radio, Spotify does help me discover many like-for-like artists, and that isn’t such a bad thing. The irony of that last sentence isn’t lost on me — but that is the real duality of technology and large Internet platforms. That doesn’t mean I have to love them unconditionally. Scale does strange things to even the best of intentions.
“Spotify has more than forty million individual songs (a vast database) but only a few, intentionally oversimplified ways of browsing them (a minuscule interface), and no way to do fair-use blends.”
That was from an article in The Art Forum from two years ago. Since then, the Spotify experience has only become more algorithmic and even perhaps a bit more autocratic. The service, with its increasing mix of podcasts and non-musical content, is starting to be radio. In the “Made for You” section, all you see is “Your Daily Drive,” “Daily Sports” and “Your Daily Podcasts.”
I didn’t ask for these. I don’t need these. Talk about being dumb data. It should know that I usually listen to music in pretty much fixed locations, and that I have never clicked on the sports offerings or the daily podcasts. For a company that was once the epitome of soulfulness, Spotify is starting to feel soulless. But in many ways, that is okay. They have to be big. They have to grow. They need to become a one-size-fits-all solution for hundreds of millions, not just me. I get it.
My decision to buy has nothing to do with owning the music downloads (I do prefer to occasionally buy a vinyl record that I love), but it is more to support the artists. A lot of my thinking about this is informed by a recent The New Yorker article that noted:
“As social-distancing rules have been put into place around the globe, a special kind of chaos has ensued for musicians, and for the performing arts in general. Almost overnight, the income from tours, festivals, and live performances has vaporized, which, in the age of streaming, means that a vital portion of the average musician’s yearly income has also disappeared.”
“In 2019, the industry surpassed eleven billion dollars in revenue, with nearly eighty per cent of that amount earned through streaming. This past week, Spotify announced a covid-19-relief effort of its own, pledging up to ten million dollars in matching contributions, a figure close to just 0.05 per cent of its estimated market value of twenty-two billion dollars. The same Princeton survey reported that only twenty-eight per cent of musicians earned any income from streaming revenue, and, when they did earn money, that amount averaged out to a hundred dollars per year.”
In the end, we need to figure out how much we value the music and the musicians. That way, we can use our dollars to encourage them to keep creating. I would argue that we need them, especially at a time when our world is in such chaos.