When I was 12, my friends and I discovered YouTube-to-MP3 sites and became exposed to the entire historical and global span of music. There’s a certain art to procuring good YouTube audio links. I used to spend hours scouring YouTube for videos of songs where the speed isn’t altered, the sound quality is good and there are no added intros or outros. I would then spend even more time editing these newly downloaded songs so that the file showed the song title, artist, album name, and if I was really getting into it, the album cover. This became a very meditative act, and because so much work went into getting these songs onto my iPod touch, I treasured these little stolen three minute audio clips. Then music streaming platforms came along and changed everything. They severed these types of personal bonds with songs and replaced them with algorithms that endlessly feed users with new music. Individual songs lost their sacredness.
Before the countless playlists titled “Chill Vibes,” there was the humble mix-CD. I used to value the time I spent making personal CDs for my friends, specifically tailoring and sequencing songs based on inside jokes and a deep understanding of what kind of music someone might like or dislike. What people more frequently do now is throw on a playlist that the all-knowing gods (Spotify and Apple Music) deliver to your phone. Playlists that are created by algorithms or by multi-billion dollar corporations like Nike and Victoria’s Secret. These playlists are constantly changing and are meant to describe a certain feeling, or as Spotify loves to call it, a “vibe.” These playlists are specifically meant for inattentive background listening. They often make appearances in the background of fast-food restaurants, local coffee shops and library study rooms. They are meant to exist in the background like beer bottles exist atop cabinets at a frat party. They give a vague idea of some sort of “coolness” but provide no actual value or intrigue.
It is easy to tie strong memories to a mix CD or a vinyl record bought at Goodwill, but it is extremely hard to attach vivid memories to some kind of “Chill Mix.” There is no personality to these algorithm-produced lists. Spotify will never throw a Soulja Boy song into the middle of a playlist titled “Lo-Fi Love.” It simply gives the illusion of personability. Spotify and Apple Music both have playlists tailored for individual users that change on a daily or weekly basis. Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlist features the warning that it is “updated every Monday, so save your favorites!” It makes its purpose explicit in this one sentence. This playlist is meant to change. You are not meant to feel connected to any songs on this playlist. They are meant to be listened to once and then never again.
Streaming individual songs also has a minuscule impact on the lives of the artists. Spotify will pay as little as $0.003 for one steam of a song and Apple Music will pay around $0.006 for a stream. For many artists, the only way to seriously make money off of streaming is to hope that one of their songs lands on a popular playlist. This effectively rewards musicians who already fit into a specific mold. Musicians with an easily marketable and easily classified sound receive top playlist spots. Musicians who take creative risks and go against the grain often receive little recognition from streaming services. There is no financial incentive to innovate. Because of this, music listeners are not encouraged to pursue artists that are doing unique things with music. It is incredibly easy to complacently see what is new on a newly updated “Chill Mix” playlist than to seek out an obscure 1970s Zamrock band, but shouldn’t the internet help us experience new types of music? Shouldn’t the internet bring us closer to the farthest reaches of the music world?