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Are We Heading for a Future Where Musicians Are Obsolete?

Drew Millard

Drew Millard

How algorithms are not only changing the way we listen, but are changing the way we write music.

This story appears in VICE magazine and Noisey's 2017 Music Issue. Click HERE to subscribe to VICE magazine.

In the online era, curators rule the day. Josh Ostrovsky, the social media prankster known as the Fat Jewish, parlayed an Instagram feed full of other people's jokes into a book deal. We consume the news that Facebook decides to slide into our News Feed and applaud DJ Khaled's prowess in cannily pairing hot rappers and producers. This reality is particularly stark in the world of streaming music, where we no longer pay for individual albums but for access to an all-you-can-eat buffet of nearly every recording ever made. Within a sea of musical information, the entities that hold the most power—like Spotify and Apple Music—are those with the resources to organize and control the flow of it. As these powerful curators turn music into a kind of public utility, they're upending our very understanding of what it means to be a musician.

"We're not in the music space," Spotify founder Daniel Ek told the New Yorker in 2014. "We're in the moment space." While Ek's statement seems counterintuitive, it's important to remember that Spotify makes monthly payments to rights holders in exchange for the right to stream their catalogs, from which its data-driven algorithms draw when recommending songs to users. It also uses this raw material to populate its hyper-specific curated playlists, which center on microgenres ("Christian Dance Party," "Coffee Table Jazz"), moods ("Melancholia," "Confidence Boost"), and activities ("Coping with Loss," "Williamsburg Brunch"), and often have hundreds of thousands or even millions of subscribers.

Because Spotify does not disclose exactly how its algorithms and human playlisters select which songs to highlight, artists hoping to be featured on these playlists must rely on dumb luck—or harness the rules of streaming economy in their favor. Befuddlingly indomitable EDM duo the Chainsmokers told Billboard that they began their career crafting up-tempo remixes of popular indie songs in an attempt to climb the pages of the music blog aggregator Hype Machine. They achieved ubiquity by releasing "#Selfie," a viral novelty song with a grating vapidity that seemed to simultaneously mock social media culture and benefit from it. In the past year, lo-fi house producers such as DJ Boring and DJ Seinfeld––whose tracks bridge the gap between classic Chicago house and chilled-out indie pop––have earned millions of plays on YouTube, in part because the site's algorithms have determined that if these songs start auto-playing after another video, the passive listener is unlikely to object. When the genre started gaining traction in the music press, its algorithmic rise—more than the producers themselves—became the story.

When streaming services prioritize whatever music their data tells them subscribers want to hear, an artist's idiosyncratic musical and personal brand can start to matter less, and the ability to curate sounds that yield algorithmically desirable songs can be paramount. One employee of a large indie label, who spoke to me under the condition that she remain anonymous, told me that artists with sizable fan bases can struggle to generate streaming revenue, because their songs don't easily fit within the algorithmic parameters of playlist culture, whereas lesser-known artists might overperform on streaming because of their music's adaptability onto many different playlists.

We no longer pay for individual albums but for access to an all-you-can-eat buffet of nearly every recording ever made.

One extreme example of streaming's anonymizing tendency can be found in Spotify's recent "fake artists" controversy, when it was discovered that unknown, pseudonymous artists––many of them affiliated with a royalty-free music company that shares an investor with Spotify––had been racking up millions of plays through placement on the service's ambient playlists. When asked to explain exactly what was going on, a Spotify rep told the New York Times, "We've found a need for content. We work with people who are interested in producing it."

Ultimately, it's this treatment of songs as atomized, nonspecific widgets—not the shoddy payouts or the incentives to game the system—that represents the greatest challenge for artists in the era of streaming. Where we once thought of music with identifiable creators as "art," and the Muzak we hear in malls and doctors' waiting rooms as generic background audio, streaming muddies that distinction. It encourages us to think of all types of music as a tool for creating "moments" that enhance our lives.

In this moment-based economy, some musicians may give up on the prospect of ever making a living off their art. As one musician friend put it, "Working an eight-hour shift feels so much less stressful than being the sort of person who'd devote time to gaming Spotify." If we're not careful, we might end up in a world where musicians are not artists but instead "creatives," members of the nebulous class of people who produce music for juice bars and workout classes while retaining a veneer of rebellion by wearing skinny jeans and sporting at least one semi-visible tattoo. Or, we could wake up one day to discover that musicians themselves have become obsolete: Google is currently working to adapt its neural networks to create original music, while Spotify has hired a computer scientist specializing in teaching AI to emulate popular music styles.

But before we rail against a future ruled by machines like we're in a real-life Terminator movie, it's worth remembering that not every artist is in it to make money in the first place. Those who create from a place of passion and produce work that grapples with an increasingly confusing and alienating world won't quit doing so out of a fear that a computer program won't throw their song into someone's brunch playlist. But if by some stroke of technocratic luck that does happen, maybe those who discover the track will find meaning in it that lasts long after the meal is over.

Drew Millard is a writer based in North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter.

This essay is part of a special series we put together for the Music Issue called Musings on Music: Four Writers Reflect on the State of Music Today. Read the other three essays:
Lil Wayne Changed the Internet Forever
That Time the Foo Fighters Got Censored on FM Radio Because of 9/11
God Bless Women Who Sing Candidly About Fucking