The Illusion of Control
I have a recurring nightmare in which all of my Spotify playlists have been deleted.
As someone who’s been fanatic about recorded music since he could request CD singles for his 9th birthday, this makes some semblance of sense. Music fans of my generation have witnessed more seismic changes to formats — in less time — than any before us. It took about twenty years for society to move from tapes to CDs, but only half of that for us to go through mp3 players, Napster, iPods, iTunes and streaming services.
Growing up, our family’s electronics drawer was filled with rapidly obsolete music delivery models; Walkmans, Mini-Discs, Rhapsody players, SanDisks and multiple generation of iPods classic, mini and shuffle. Don’t even get me started on phones. We leapt between technology with literal abandon.
With every new device comes a new way of organising and categorising what’s important to us. We build up collections, either physically or digitally, only for them to be rendered obsolete in increasingly shorter windows of time. I am about to trade in my teenage car, which I’ve somehow held onto for 16 years. With it will go a lovingly curated and alphabetised mass of CDs that will no longer be playable on anything I own.
Knowing this — and the inevitability of Moore’s Law, especially when it comes to the music industry — why do we continue to build these new artificial structures for ourselves? It’s a weird form of masochism to lovingly create shrines to the art we love with the full knowledge that something new is almost definitely around the corner. (You could probably say the same about people who still have VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray collections.)
There is nothing stopping Spotify from deciding tomorrow that self-curation is counter-productive to their ultimate aims of having everyone listen to Drake all the time or only the playlists that the labels that own significant shares in them approve. That blip when Apple decided to ‘gift’ everyone the new U2 album could easily become standard operating procedure. Our temples of music could — and probably will — all disappear.
I’ve been wrestling with the blind faith I place in tech companies especially when it comes to holding onto the things I deem important. I’ve started to realise that a lot of this comes down to control. When music first went digital, you still had to download it to play it. As a teenager plugged into Napster, I crashed my hard drive multiple times trying to complete my lineup of Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix songs.
If mp3s made music ephemeral (and for many, not worth paying for), streaming has smashed our libraries into smithereens. By its very nature of being it flies in the face of what it means to be a music nerd; to own, index, categorise and arrange the music that shapes your world. It is impossible to do this with streaming. I know this intimately, because as someone with close to 1,000 playlists of his own, I’ve certainly given it a red hot crack.
Equally, I’m cognisant of the fact that thousands, if not millions, of users across digital services of all stripes save no songs and make no playlists of their own, content to simply have content available for every social occasion (‘Cook Like A Boss’, ‘Soothing Study Music’ etc.) without expending the mental power required to actually consider what that might be. Life is short. People are busy. The salmon doesn’t cook itself.
The simple argument is to reject progress, stick to vinyl and just buy what matters. We won’t be grabbing for all the music we cannot see, scrambling to remember music we used to be able to readily access if we can actually see it. That’s true to a point; I know the sequencing and songs on my record collection better than any playlist I’ve ever made. But it’s not enough.
When Spotify first launched, they had a cute quirk that allowed you to port your iTunes library over to their interface. The implication was they’d match the existing curatorial work you’d done over the last ten or so years, including thousands of songs many people actually paid for, and let you progress from there. The reality was slightly different; a service intrinsically designed to be untethered was never going to gel well with music for drives. Hardware sped this up too; my current Macbook can’t store any of my artists past ‘E’. I’m encouraged to put all my music in the cloud, which in the case of streaming, is where is already lives.
There are (naturally) workarounds for all of these issues, aside from what change does to us psychologically. I’ve already discussed how voice removes the visual component of music and forces us to recall a library we already can’t see. Playlisting, even on a superficial level, represents one of the last pushbacks against the automation of creativity, the kind the is supposed to prove democratic but in actuality buries what we love so far away we forget it exists. You can have any song you want within seconds, presuming you know what you want anymore.
Services like Spotify and Apple Music have entire squadrons of teams dedicated to the idea that we know what ‘vibe’ we want, but we don’t necessarily care about the particulars of what we’re listening to. In many cases, these people aren’t people at all, but scarily sophisticated algorithms. If anything, the vanilla streamline of streaming has pushed me back to well-produced music radio, where it’s still possible to hear what curation and dedication sounds like.
Certain personality types approach problems differently. Perhaps my inability to process change, even while actively embracing the innovations that come with it, explain a fascination with collecting and keeping, grabbing at bits and bytes when they’ve long since lost the value I previously assigned to them. I’m not sure. Playlisting isn’t just a thing you do to be popular at parties. It’s inherited from a long and fertile tradition of compilations, burned CDs and 8tracks mixtapes that’s somehow survived over 30 years of staggering progress. Sourcing and arranging the music that matters to us, in the same way we hang art or shelve books, is intrinsic to our relationship to it. Handing this over entirely signifies a certain defeat, not just of the ego, but of the soul.
In an alternate tomorrow, when Spotify succumbs to a hostile takeover bid from Amazon, or TikTok, or Netflix, or something none of us have seen coming, the thousands of hours I’ve put into categorising and selecting and sharing my take on music will disappear in an instant. I’ll be returned to the endless sea of releases, trying to tread water with millions of songs in my pocket. I wish I could say that when that happens, I’ll have learned my lesson. Like a continuously scorned lover, I’ll make good on my vow to never let technology, and the people behind it that so clearly do not care about music, take advantage of me again.
But let’s be real. We’re all suckers for a killer playlist.