Musical game changers

By Jeremy Wilson on April 10th, 2012

It’s late 1869 and things are looking up for Richard Wagner. His years in exile are behind him, he’s building up a dedicated following and a rich patron, King Ludwig II, is bankrolling his life in a luxury Swiss villa.

But instead of finalising his epic opera cycle Das Rheingold, the German composer is buried deep in logistics. He has heard mixed reviews about the recent premier of Brahm’s cantata Rinaldo in Vienna and is desperate to hear the piece for himself. A second performance has been scheduled and Wagner is once again considering an epic road trip to get his musical fix. This time it would be an 800 mile round trip to the city of Jena.

One hundred and forty three years later, I’ve fired up Spotify and could have told Wagner not to bother. Certainly never in danger of finding its way onto the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now, Rinaldo, the musical equivalent of wading through blancmange, wasn’t Brahms’s finest hour.

The Wagner anecdote may be a little crude and obvious and is indeed largely fictitious. We know that recording and distribution technology has changed beyond recognition the way in which music is consumed and much ink has been spilled over the music industry’s future in light of the downloading evolution. But what has it meant for our relationship with music? By looking at the way technology has given rise to new listening practices, enterprising companies can look to ride the new wave of ever-increasing availability and access, while consumers of music can judge the way they react to the streaming revolution.

We may see the stony-faced commuter cocooned in a world of their tinny white headphones’ making as a scourge of the modern age, but the phenomenon of solitary listening has been taking hold from the moment technology made it a practical possibility. Bewilderment at this emerging practice is illustrated by an article in a 1923 edition of Gramophone mocking the prevailing conservatism towards this new musical experience:

“Again, to show how ridiculous our inhibitions are, let me ask what you would say, if, on visiting a lady or gentleman, you found her or him solitary, listening to the music of his own gramophone. You would think it odd, would you not? You would endeavour to dissemble your surprise; you would look twice to see whether some other person were not hidden in some corner of the room, and if you found no such one would painfully blush, as if you had discovered your friend sniffing cocaine, emptying a bottle of whisky, or plaiting straws in his hair.”

The ability to sit alone, listening to a disembodied voice emanate from a wooden box, was as incredible as acceptance of the procedure was revolutionary. Music consumption before the phonograph cylinder was a social activity by necessity; the readiness with which a private approach to listening became ubiquitous in spite of preconceived notions, reveals a recurring reality of listening habits over the past century.

When given a choice, people will actively integrate music into their personal space. Andreas Pavel understood this when he conceived his Stereobelt; Grundig, Philips and Yamaha didn’t when they ridiculed the invention. Steve Jobs understood this when he created the iPod; Mark Zuckerberg and Daniel Ek might be advised to pay more heed to it lest they end up with a public relations nightmare that a “private listening” option can’t fix.

While the emergence of private listening is not to be underestimated, it has not replaced the desire to engage with music socially. On the contrary, for many listeners, sharing meaningful discourse about music is as an essential part in understanding and appreciating their own musical world as it has ever been. When, for instance, people actively share a Spotify link on their Facebook feed, 75 per cent receive comments. Managed properly, and allowed to flourish in an unforced environment, this new – yet relatively straightforward – form of social engagement is a virtuous circle for both user and service provider. The more engaged a user is with a service, the more likely they are to become a subscriber.

It goes without saying that the future of music accessibility is being thrashed out before us, as service providers, music executives and musicians are dragged kicking and screaming into the future by streaming companies. While the outcome of the cloud-based music landgrab is uncertain, we can reasonably expect an unabated march towards low-cost access to virtually every available piece of music, à la Spotify.

It is our engagement with this unfettered instant access to an infinite sonic smorgasbord that is and will be of the most consequence to our relation with music. As music flows into our homes and accompanies us outdoors via over-the-air data streaming, the last obstacles to any notion of musical time, place and occasion are being eroded. While the changes to our behaviour that this freedom engenders may initially seem limited, we are facing changes as profound as the emergence of solitary listening. Will the license to explore free from prejudice lead to fulfilment, or will it trap us in an omniscient listening booth with itchy trigger fingers glued to the skip button? It is our response to this unprecedented accessibility that will come to define our relationship with music.

Big data

Major technological advances aren’t prerequisite for considerable shifts to take place in our musical psyche as illustrated by the simplicity of shuffle. The iPod may be responsible for the deconstruction of the album and popularization of the playlist, but it was the shuffle function that disrupted one of the most deep-rooted aspects of music listening.

By and large, we’re predisposed to go through phases of musical preference; essentially our preference increases as we build emotional connection through repeat experience until increasing repetition causes our enjoyment to wane. It’s a difficult cycle to guard against, which makes the elegance of the shuffle solution even more satisfying. My music player might think that I want to listen to the next, less compelling track on Good Girl Gone Bad but shuffle knows I want to listen to Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Given the success of this serendipitous function, it is perhaps a touch ironic that one of the biggest trends in music technology aims to replace shuffle’s gleeful distain for order or purpose, with the quest for meaning in cold, hard data.

One of the first companies to foresee the impending surge in appetite for music data in the digital music age was Gracenote (formally CDDB) which started off by supplying the identification data for music files ripped from CDs. Soon realising that the real market for music data was not in providing descriptive data to digital music files, but in powering recommendation engines for digital music providers, Gracenote expanded into the business of analysing music sonically. Their software now powers the iTunes Genius playlist generator. The diversification from naming tracks to audaciously trying to sonically understand every available piece of music illustrates the increasingly important light that music providers see “big data”.

Where Gracenote led, others have followed; the world’s largest music database now belongs to The Echo Nest with more than five billion data points about thirty million songs. Perhaps the most pertinent point about this staggering number of data points is not the data harvested by audio analysis software but information gleaning from blogs, reviews and social media; it’s indicative of a belief that music service companies need to understand the listener.

Of the major clients that The Echo Nest supply, such as EMI and Vevo, it is their dealings with Spotify that spark the most interest. The Echo Nest’s data is cross-referenced against millions of hours worth of Spotify listening data to power Spotify’s radio. The ambition is ultimately to build a radio application that can truly understand why an individual likes a song, but can any algorithm ever achieve this holy grail?

While it’s true that Spotify will generate unprecedented amounts of listening data, none of it will ever reveal the experience of the listener. Take this mildly bizarre example for instance. On New Year’s Eve, Spotify detected a spike in plays of ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” in Norway. It doesn’t matter how much social data is crunched or how many correlations are drawn between past and future plays of “Mamma Mia” and any other song. I suspect Norway’s decision to take a collective hit of 70s gold will reveal little of any individual’s experience of the song. For the personalised radio dream to ever fully be realised, the radio will have to understand how we perceive, interpret and evaluate our intensely personal experiences with music.

Conspicuous by their absence from the mainstream arena are the heavyweight popular musical tastemakers of old. Melody Maker was absorbed by NME in 2000 and NME circulation has been on a plummeting downward spiral since 2003. This collapse of a long-held monopoly on music criticism coincided perhaps unsurprisingly with the explosion in filesharing and the emergence of the music blog. As people began to fill their hardrives with torrents of instant gratification, the obsession of mainstream critics with particular genres and artists began to seem more and more irrelevant.

The blogs of the early noughties reflected the hedonism of overindulgence as thousands of bloggers set to work sharing and critiquing every niche of the new mp3 world imaginable. Many blogs fizzled out after the initial buzz died down, but the sizeable community of dedicated bloggers that remained continued to build respect and trust in their isolated pockets of the internet. That isolation is beginning to change with the help of music blog aggregator HypeMachine, perhaps the best execution of an aggregated content platform around. Exhibiting all of the qualities that made the early filesharing and music blogging so exciting such as ease of discovery, the occasional quirkiness and ease of access, Hypemachine shows that a fresh era of engaging content discovery is possible.

Gamification of music

One of the first major attempts to fill a social discovery sized hole in the streaming music arena is (currently US only). Turntable allows users, represented by avatars, to create or join a genre-themed music room. A designated user acts as DJ, playing songs from the Turntable library or the user’s computer. Those listening in can vote a track as “lame” or “awesome”, and when there are enough “lames” voted in, the DJ is replaced.

This gamification of music certainly has an appeal to a certain type of listener and has attracted a clique of users drawn to its blend of music banter, discovery and the addictive nature of approval. Billy Chasen, the CEO of, admits the market he is gunning for are the algorithm-driven music-recommendation services such as Pandora and “It’s powered by people,” Chase tells WIRED, “so the level of discovery is much higher.”

By providing the arena for people-driven musical discourse, may well be powering musical discovery, but it is carving out a new function for music which is alien to Pandora and’s function as essentially personalised radio services.

Perhaps in more danger of eating the breakfast of Pandora, et al is the rise of internet radio platform Mixcloud. Mixcloud allows anyone to upload a pre-recorded radio show or mix legally and for free. The uploaded “Cloudcasts” offer a huge choice of ad-free content, connecting the listener to a range of enthusiast curators. Overlooking the potential of radio has famously been done before and the potential for a platform like Mixcloud to transform the way a certain type of listener engages with music should not be underestimated.

That people consume music in different ways is self-evident. Splitting music consumers into the crude simplification of passive and engaged listeners is an effective way to understand how some of these differences play out.

Passive listeners don’t have some sort of inferior engagement with music; they simply aren’t as active in seeking to understand the role music plays in their life. They are more open to a wide range of influence on their musical tastes, listening to other people’s music and generally happy to let music into their lives by the easiest route. That passive listeners are the biggest consumers of mainstream radio is no accident, and the chasing of these consumers by streaming companies offering Pandora-type experiences is already becoming a feature music distribution.

Passive listeners of course aren’t pigeonholed in a box of limited musical engagement, and a natural inclination to be more absorbing of eclectic tastes leaves ample scope for technological innovation and radical shifting of listening habits.

While technological innovation has profoundly changed many aspects of our engagement with music, the broad underpinnings of why we listen to music have remained the same. Ever since Aristotle outlined the power of ancient Greek musical modes to alter mood, music has been seen as a stimulant for altering or enhancing out state of mind.

Consciously or unconsciously, when we seek out music we are looking for the fix that will work for us in that moment, to enhance or echo our mood; or to pull us out of and push us towards a new mood. It’s the fundamental failure to realise that they are sitting on a galactic pill box that is leaving the biggest hole in streaming companies’ revenue streams.

The issue is illustrated by Moodagent, currently the sixth most popular app on Spotify. Does this app engage with the innermost workings of our soul? No, rather it offers you a selection of four “moods” which, after thirty seconds of trying to navigate the senseless user interface, you will have whittled down to just one: “angry”.

Sure more engaged users are aware of what they need and when they need it, but until an application can engage with our emotional state, streaming services will have to stick with their algorithm-led selection systems playing hit and miss with passive listeners’ prescriptions.

At first you might think it’s a minor aberration, but staring blankly at the limitless opportunity accorded by the Spotify search bar can become an annoyingly repetitive reoccurrence. As Caggie so eloquently mused in the opening sequence of Made In Chelsea: “You might say that we’ve got it all, but having whatever you want can make choosing that much more tricky”.

Accessibility is rendered meaningless if our ears are simply ingesting the same old crap and it is breaking down the cerebral wall created by unlimited access in which the future of music innovation lies.