This is about the deadening of music culture by streaming services like Pandora, Spotify and SiriusXM. You’ve been there more times than you’d care to know: in a restaurant, a bar, a satellite-fed car, a friend’s house or possibly your own. The music keeps coming and coming, but even if you like what’s playing, if you’re not tired of it in 25 minutes then you haven’t been listening. Instead, you have entered a realm of cookie-cutter song selection, a void of limited imagination, and a world of banal content; so welcome, welcome to The Sonic Wallpaper Zone.
Streaming services rely on computers, specifically algorithms, to drive their play lists. Song analysis is at their core, dissecting tunes along a myriad of parameters of which tempo, key, tonal qualities and over 100 other quantifiable characteristics “define” each song. Hence the cookie-cutter, where every song’s job is to be much like the song before it.
You like it, therefore, the reasoning goes, you’ll like it even better by the baud-load. There’s no room in the streaming algorithm for expanding the listener’s exposure to other music or appealing to the imagination. Anything that is outside the parameters of what you told them you liked precludes you from hearing to something you might like. This cultural attenuation is so prevalent that social scientists like Eli Pariser, who study the impacts of technology on society, have coined the term information bubbles.
In closing, we turn to the libraries from which the playlists are drawn, since the streaming services’ music libraries are responsible for the banality of their playlists. This realization came while listening to “Willie’s Roadhouse,” a SiriusXM channel that caters to alt-C/W tastes. To its credit, this channel has a dose of “genuine” but it fails, and fails hard, on content — what each song is about. No heavy drinkin’. No hard druggin’. No bad behavior allowed! And absolutely, positively nothing with sociopolitical content! Songs about love found, love lost or nothing in particular are okay though.
When it comes to building the bubbles around our musical, moral and sociopolitical horizons, music streaming services are okay too, in fact they’re experts at it.