As we approach the end of what has been a monumental decade in terms of the way music consumption has shifted, it’s worth taking stock of how our relationship with this great art form has been fundamentally altered by streaming and subscription platforms.
In short, music is overworked and underpaid.
Music is becoming increasingly functional. Simply charged with making the dullest of tasks just vaguely more bearable - as opposed to being something we do or enjoy in its own right.
Now more than ever, the way that music is marketed to us as insatiable consumers is for it to be defined by its everyday usefulness to us, in some pseudo-Marie Kondo fashion. We’re told what music is good for. What banal activity it should accompany. Instead of asking ourselves how much does this song affect me?
Playlists are categorised less so by genre and increasingly instead after the moment you’re lead to believe you should listen to them in.
This musical ‘tasking’ - reducing music to a simple functional operation - sets a dangerous precedent. Not only does reducing hours of the artist’s blood, sweat and emotional toil to Coffee Morning Concentration feel a bit unedifying, but marketing music purely as an aid to facilitate or concentrate on something else entirely, constitutes the thin edge of the wedge for creativity.
Bland, generic music prevails because it’s functional.
Not because it really moves the listener or pushes the envelope - quite the opposite in fact. It exists in the background attempting not to bother you or connect in any meaningful way (what is known as ‘lean-back’ listening, often associated with algorithmically generated playlists). Great if you’ve got an essay to finish or your VAT return to do.
Labels ask 'when would fans listen to this?' Not 'would they like it?' It’s the 21st Century iteration of their age-old question 'would they buy it?' which of course, now largely ceases to exist.
If streaming represents new revenue, it’s only natural that those concerned with the bottom line gravitate towards types of music that can be constantly “on in the background” as that earns more. Dido was once famously described as “music you can microwave pasta to” and she’s sold over 40 million records. Sigh.
“Playlists like Sunday Morning, centred around an activity or a particular time of day, can result in plenty of streams but more often than not, the engagement is fairly low.” - From AWAL: Behaviour & Algorithmic Playlists.
And whilst there is evidence that music played at around 70dB (i.e just loud enough that it stops you over-focusing on the task yet not so loud that you begin to pay attention to the sound), as a musician, starting the songwriting process with half an eye on producing something that should basically be sonic wallpaper doesn’t represent any kind of future I want to be part of.