When I was a 90s kid, my family got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a Nielsen Family. Pre-internet and pre-black box, they sent us a survey packet in the mail and we had to write down which TV shows we watched and when. I vividly remember my mom writing down that we were watching PBS when actually we were watching Family Matters on TGIF. “Well, we want PBS to stay on the air,” my mom said. “They don’t need to know what we’re really watching.” These days, with households either having some kind of black box attached to the TV or streaming shows via the internet, big data knows exactly who watches what and when. There’s no way to cheat the system. And the same goes for music streaming services.
Last Thursday night’s Mixcloud panel on the Future of Music Discovery at Good Room had a line stretching around the block outside in the rain. I think some came just to see David Byrne say some wacky things on stage, but most likely others attended with a genuine interest in the modern and intimate relationship between music and data. Nico Perez from Mixcloud moderated the panel of four music experts: music legend David Byrne of Talking Heads; Emily Friedlander, Editor-In-Chief of Vice’s Thump; Ryan Schreiber, founder of Pitchfork; and Alex White, founder of The Next Big Sound (recently acquired by Pandora).
The four, who clearly live and breathe music, talked about their own personal methods of music discovery. Everyone acknowledged that they have one or two go-to friends who tip them off to new tracks. In an era where curation—not just in music—is often automated by robots, this was really refreshing to hear. “I’m someone who likes to discover tracks through human relationships,” Emily said. David Byrne agreed: “A lot of it still comes from your circle of friends, people you trust… accidents, live shows,” and all other music he sources from the internet. And then he added that he relies on The Financial Times weekend section for album recommendations and reviews.
There’s a legitimate need for music curation when we live in a world with an overwhelming number of songs at our fingertips. As a music fan and DJ who tries to keep up with new music, it’s nearly impossible for me to do so. I would guess that this information overload is one reason vinyl record collection has surged in popularity. Collecting vinyl condenses your music selection into whatever you happen to have on hand. And with vinyl, you have the opportunity to reestablish a personal relationship with your local record store clerk.
“Everyone is going to go home and stream Drake,” Alex asserted; Pandora’s data reveals Drake as their most popular artist right now. He also mentioned that the number of views to a band’s Wikipedia page is something that can actually be tracked, and is usually a pretty good indication of whether a musician is about to blow up.
There are some of obvious flaws with music algorithms and predictive selection. Ryan told a story about how he created a playlist of 40 ambient songs perfect to go to sleep to, and started listening every night on repeat. Quickly, Spotify’s Discovery engine picked up on his new slow-jam favorites and started integrating chilled out tracks into his weekly suggested playlist. Maybe some day backend programming will catch up with humanity on the front end and learn that as emotional beings, we have needs for certain types of music in specific situations (and at certain times of day).
David Byrne wondered if maybe we’re putting too much trust into music recommendation engines. After all, how do we know that Chance The Rapper’s PR team hasn’t paid for that seemingly random placement? It could be just like the old days of payola, and as Byrne put it: “It’s a machine, but it likes me.”