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By Wieland Rambke
Look at a lava lamp. You always see the same thing while the shapes within keep changing. In presenting you with a visual stimulus that is in perpetual motion, it is as predictable as it is surprising. Everything that happens inside the lava lamp merely confirms the limited range of what it does. There is something hypnotic and soothing about staring at the lamp. It really is no wonder that it was a fixture of 1970s drug culture.
In the 1920s, the American Major General George Owen Squier was granted the patent rights for a system that made it possible to transmit information signals via telephone lines. Thanks to the Major General’s invention, music could now be distributed cheaply and quickly in a time when radios still were rare and expensive. The technology was soon employed for distributing music en masse. Payments for this service were made through the customers’ monthly electric bill. A company was born that used this new technology to deliver a stream of generic, shallow and interchangeable compositions with the purpose of stimulating the productivity of factory workers, who now found themselves working the assembly lines guided by the rhythms and the feel of the music oozing from the loudspeakers above their heads, like galley slaves rowing to the rhythm of the drum.
This music was just like the lava lamp: You could follow it in the moment, but you could never remember what the music actually was. It was just an endless stream of compositional tropes and devices without any unique character. It moved within a fixed range of possibilities. Like everything bland and faceless, it was just, sort of, there. These compositions were strictly controlled by the company. The name of the company was “Muzak”.
In 2020, the crisis that began with COVID-19 forced millions and millions of people to work from home, while a company called Spotify provided access to a massive database of music that can be streamed on demand. Home office workers would get their work done under the guidance of an endless stream of music bundled into playlists that they would call “Home Office” or “Ambient Study”. The rhythm of the music was different. It appeared to be picked by the users themselves. But inevitably, it would just be soothing and reassuring enough to get the work done without getting distracted, with no other purpose than to create a workflow. The home had become the assembly line.
The mechanism is as fluid and as internalised as it is in any other app that makes a lot of money today: The users feel they are making a decision, while the real decisions are made by hidden algorithms. What you see and hear on Facebook, on Instagram, on Netflix, on Spotify: It is based on automated calculations. The music you get recommended on Spotify is a result of nothing else but algorithmic references. The actual connections are never known. Where is the decision in picking from a selection that someone else has thrown before you? I understand, it all seems so great, but it’s just more and ever more of the same thing. By no means is this the fault of the user. These systems are simply engineered to do this, to hack into, and then hi-jack the user’s inclinations, and they do it really well. When you get more and more of the same thing, then life in a bubble is the result. Your expectations will not be challenged, and the illusion of individual choice remains intact. “It’s just SO Me!” But what, then, is this “It”? It is not me.
Many users of Spotify get hooked on the workings and forget what it is like to go out and search for music yourself. There seems to be no world outside of the bubble anymore. When talking about politics and society, we have come to call this “the echo chamber”. And Spotify is just as much of an echo chamber, applying the same principle to music. There are no unexpected encounters anymore. I have picked up countless albums in record shops based on completely arbitrary factors: An odd cover design or a confusing band name can really spark up your curiosity. “Hey, what’s this?” Many treasures can be found just by opening your eyes. And by Jove, I know full well how time-consuming this is. But using Spotify makes these happy accidents impossible. With your eyes rolled back inside your skull, you see nothing else but the inside of the bubble. Yes, it takes a lot of effort to not rely on some “service” making your decisions for you. But streaming services didn’t just simply speed up the process, they have completely changed it in accordance with the law of capitalism that says “There must be no thing that is not a product, and every product must be available at all times.” And what about the music that simply is not found on Spotify? It will remain outside of the bubble, unnoticed.
Spotify does not like silence. The flow is gluttonous.
In 2019, a US court ruling proposed a 44% increase of streaming revenues paid to US artists who offer their music on streaming platforms. The ruling was promptly blocked by Spotify and Amazon. And why should they not? Spotify makes massive amounts of money from the situation as it is, and the system works all too well for them: Premium users pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to music offered on the platform, while the free version makes for a lot of money through advertisements. As a business model, this is working great for the companies. So it comes as no surprise that they simply see no need to pay their artists any more than the company sees necessary.
About 25% of Spotify is owned by investment firms like Baillie Gifford (11.8 percent), Morgan Stanley (7.3 percent), and T.Rowe Price Associates (6.2 percent). Good money, this is. And like every other company that is heavily backed by investors, Spotify of course has a fancy mission statement and all kinds of values and beliefs that are fronted to mask what the actual mission is: Money. And on top of the money made from users, it is also a massive dairy farm for musicians who get milked in line forever, making a fraction of what actual sales would return them. Let’s not forget that platforms like Spotify do nothing else but distribute what users and artists contribute. Streaming services are like estate agents: Making a whole lot of money with very little work necessary. And for them, it just works all too well to be changed. Frankly, it is straight-up weird to be paying rent for music.
When the stream becomes incessant, the silence disappears. You have to make an effort to stop Spotify from playing. Spotify does not like silence. The flow is gluttonous. John Cage was right: In a composition, the notes are equally as important as the space between the notes. But this goes for music itself, too: When the music just keeps on playing forever, with no pause, and on no end, then the music becomes irrelevant, it becomes indistinguishable from stationary inventory, it becomes furniture: Something that is just there, instead of something that occurs. It ceases to be in time, and becomes space. The more you have of something, the more irrelevant it becomes. And if it just doesn’t stop flowing, then even the most distinguished and challenging music inevitably becomes Muzak.