Music Ocean, Channeled Streams

Music distribution and consumption in the Spotify era

Published Feb 21, 2024
All streams run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; To the place from which the streams come, there they return again. — Ecclesiastes 1:7

As our content arrives to consumers more directly, we are inundated with the ceaseless, rising wave of cultural media. We want the luxury to choose for ourselves, but are resigned to the time-consuming responsibility of curation. To make unique choices from the vast expanse of unfiltered content is no small task, yet we still want access to it. The sea of media arrives to us through rivers, yet we question the quality of its water. In music, this paradox of wants has been resolved through streaming.

In the streaming era, we aren’t forced to wade through unmediated, disorganized content to find what we are in search of. The age of Spotify has necessarily implemented curation strategies of its own: the playlist, the algorithm, “Discover Weekly.” While this format may be most beneficial to the consumer, it proves to be bad for actual music. Beyond artists complaining about low payouts and algorithmic favoritism, there is little separation of demographic, target audience, or general aesthetic sensibility. Artists themselves have even begun to feel boxed in by their prescribed genre.

We were close to hitting the nail on the head in the CD era, although perhaps we didn’t know it yet. Easier, cheaper, more profitable, and less wasteful than vinyl, the advent of CDs sustained both the music store and the industry at large (it was, as the online folks love to yearn for, a “third place.”) The kid’s section versus the adult’s section, the box store versus the indie shop. Our music was organized with a clearer target audience in mind. While many might see these barriers as making music less accessible, they were crucial to how it was distributed and consumed.

The employee pick has been replaced with whoever runs the Pollen playlist. Of course, there is only one Pollen playlist instead of thousands of CD shops. When an artist hits, they’re knocking it out of the park. As popular TikTok songs now make up the top 40, artists must cater to that demographic in order to obtain a hit. What’s popular must be popular to all of us; different from the era when Norah Jones was sold in a Starbucks where only adults were bound to access it (that is, before kids started going to Starbucks, too.) It’s because of this erosion of barriers that adolescent appeal is now the primary influence on contemporary modernism.

It’s indeed strange that Mitski just released her most mature record to date and simultaneously broke into the top 100 for the first time with a viral TikTok song. It’s also no coincidence that Mitski fans have begun expressing frustration about her Zoomer-infested shows.

Artists deserve the opportunity for maturation, and deserve an audience who appreciate the substance of their work. Of course, the new Mitski album is great and young people deserve great music, too. Assuming the most optimistic perspective, maybe the tastes of young people have become so evolved that they deserve to be arbiters of taste for our current society. In fact, a survey from 2018 reported that most (British) people stop listening to new music at around age 30. It could be that the Zoomer cultural domination is a symptom of this, or conversely, it might be that adults don’t consume anything new because popular music is no longer targeted towards them.

However, the point remains clear that there has been a severe breakdown between adult culture and youth consumption. This disintegration is more likely to be the cause of the Pitchfork pivot in the past decade—their 2023 top album was SZA’s SOS, the magnificently stacked pop R&B record where SZA revisits her common lyrical tropes that incur massive adolescent resonance: hating your ex, “nobody gets me like you,” oscillating schizophrenically between braggadociousness and self-consciousness. This appears in contrast to the top record 20 years ago, Arcade Fire’s Funeral, an album that Pitchfork itself described as facing “the trials and losses that come with adult life.” While perhaps this means that the line between these two records isn’t as defined as I've insinuated—that adult tribulations are really just protracted adolescent angst—the mainstream popularity of youthful resonance could also explain the perma-Peter Pan syndrome and general sense of “failing to launch” taking place in the dominant Millennial narrative (that’s why grownups are now flocking to adult Mac and Cheese shops and listening to Olivia Rodrigo while tweeting “i love being a 27 year old teenage girl.”)

This is perhaps a more nuanced take on @being_on_line’s “Pitchfork Goes Pop” post (a take that was lambasted by jaded Pitchfork contractors who probably just got laid off anyway because the music journalist’s purpose has been pretty much erased in an era when an album only needs a couple streaming hits to gain mass popularity, instead of having to be good front-to-back in order to justify a sales pitch of 14$).

I don’t care so much about oldheads who wax nostalgic about the days of crate-digging. These methods of music discovery have been exponentially widened in the digital age, a modern wonder in which we’re able to access a vast stretch of the Western musical canon for 11$ a month. Still, I believe that our days with this model are numbered as artists grow increasingly unhappy with these services, music publications die, and subscription platforms realize they can increase prices, pelt you with ads, and create “tiered” access and people will still pay for them. I wouldn’t be surprised if they started peddling a “general” tier with playlists, top 40, and classics (Michael Jackson, the Beatles) and lock everything else behind a “curator” paywall. 

Just as I recently started torrenting movies again because you now need 5 streaming services to access a satisfying range of relevant or even good films, it will soon be time to buy an iPod classic on eBay and download Soulseek.

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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

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