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Something about the clinical sterility of anonymously-assembled streaming service flagship playlists has really been getting me down lately. I truly distrust the rise of the coveted and cosseted "playlist" as one of the main hallmarks of the streaming era.

Now don't get me wrong. Spotify's Discover Weekly (and to a lesser extent, Release Radar and Daily Mix) is one of my favorite things in the world. I exult in the weekly discovery of the coolest, weirdest music that has been algorithmically curated for me and me only. That's because I was born in 1995 and I'm a narcissist.

On the flipside, it's those naggingly uninteresting Spotify-curated playlists that make me despair for the state of the industry. The widely-held assumption that you should, frictionlessly, pull up Indie Mix or Pop Rising to soundtrack your shower or meal prep session or pregame or whatever, is deeply offensive to me.

In examining this gut feeling, it seems to me that the blandness and genericness I react so negatively to is a result of the playlists' facade of anonymous perfection. Don't question it, they seem to say. This is what you should be hearing right now. Trust us. And who is us? Well, if you did enough digging you could probably find the names of some of the people on the backend who are pulling songs from blogs and tastemaker tweets and Hype Machine and sending them up the algorithmic ladder. But Spotify's whole game is that you're not supposed to know– and even worse, that it's not supposed to matter.

Apple has many of the same problems, but where they make up for it is the practically frothing-with-personality Beats 1 Radio. I'm not an Apple Music subscriber quite yet— their interface makes me want to claw my face off— but there's something truly beautiful about being able to switch on Beats 1 and hear Ezra Koenig waxing poetic about the Grateful Dead, or Kevin Abstract from Brockhampton spinning his favorite early-2000s R&B, or even just one of their stalwart DJs like Zane Lowe giving us the Hottest Frickin Records Ever In The World every day.

Spotify's assumption that I don't, and shouldn't, care about the "man behind the curtain" is offensive to me, as an intelligent consumer of culture. I'm happy to be recommended music on occasion by the Discover Weekly algorithm, because it is the future, after all. But when the central delivery mechanism for new artists on the biggest independent streaming platform involves stripping songs of all visual and textual context in favor of an endless flow of anonymous recommendation, "placements," and "looks," I have to wrinkle my nose.

(This isn't even to mention the behind-the-scenes prostrating, pitching, bargaining that artists and teams have to performatively engage in to even be considered for a spot on major playlists. It's embarrassing, honestly.)

I love finding new music from Twitter, from Instagram, from Beats 1, and even from terrestrial commercial and non-commercial radio, because when I have context about who is doing the listening and the recommending, it informs and enhances my experience of listening, and affects the way I go on to share the music in turn.

I make new heavy-rotation playlists every week or so on Spotify, adding my favorite new tracks and just-discovered gems. I share the playlists with my friends, who in turn take their favorites and add it to their own playlists, like a Moebius mixtape. Despite valiant attempts to dive in, I don't think a single song on those weekly personal charts has ever come from an "official" Spotify playlist. They just make me so sad!

Anyway here's this week's so far:

Feeling Feelings

As someone who deeply respects my mother and her advice, sometimes it can be hard to consider it objectively and question whether it is right for me. Cause she’s my mom, so of course she’s right…. right? Well….

Her lessons of modesty, privacy, and restraint, which could make up a whole book on their own, surely seem old-fashioned in this era of full disclosure and emotional transparency.

Yesterday she texted me, concerned because I hadn’t tweeted in almost a week. But I’d been feeling the stress and strain of the post-college job search, and the only things I could’ve thought to tweet would have been depressing, kvetching moans about job rejections (I’ve received many) and crying in the car (I’ve done it a lot).

I told her I was following her guidelines, staying mysterious and not blowing my problems up in public view. Because when your problems become your identity… then it’s much harder to escape them.

There are definitely those for whom public vulnerability forms a central part of their personal brand, and they are all the better for it. I’m just not one of those people! The exigencies and algorithms of social media may tempt users into favoring their most dramatic and revealing content, in a self-fulfilling feedback loop of feelbadness. It’s kind of scary.

The temptation to self-exorcise publicly in return for interaction has never, in my experience, paid off. It has always been better to step away and calm down before returning to social media, rather than issue my issues (so to speak) to an audience of over a thousand. And look— today I’m feeling better, and I’m back to tweeting about stupid shit :) Same as it ever was!

Great Good Fine OK at Irving Plaza

Last Friday night I went to go see my friends Great Good Fine OK play at Irving Plaza for the final stop on their Spring Is Sprung co-headlining tour with Smallpools. Both amazing bands that I was excited to be able to see play to their hometowns.

I’ve been seeing GGFO live since early 2015, so it’s no news to me that they’re a fantastic live act. But this show took things to a whole new level.

All of the elements that make up a great live show, GGFO put into play at Irving Plaza. The band went above and beyond to make the set an incredible experience for the audience.

Firstly, there were the glow sticks and light-up balls tossed into the crowd before the set, ensuring that fans had souvenirs of the performance, and that they were made to feel like part of the show.

Then there was lead singer Jon Sandler’s charming interaction with the crowd, from remarking on his parents in attendance celebrating their 48th wedding anniversary (!!) to joking on the single-ness of their drummer Danny. Often stage banter can feel rote (though that’s not always a bad thing!) but Jon was so utterly personable that it felt like he was having an individual conversation with every member of the audience.

I’ve heard the phrase “surprise and delight” used in regards to how an artist should create content for social media, but I think it should apply to live shows too. In the middle of GGFO’s set when keyboard player Luke took a surprise trip to Smallpools’ drum kit to have a drum-off with Danny, I was utterly delighted by the unexpectedness and sheer fun of the moment. Same goes for whenever Luke would walk out from behind his station to rip on the keytar, having solo-offs with guitarist Carey.

The personalities of each member of the band were spotlighted so authentically and organically throughout the show. Despite having seen them play so many times before, I found myself as excited as if I was seeing them for the first time.

All of the effort they put into their set combined with the energetic setlist, high-quality sound mix, and enthusiastic audience, made for a tremendous experience. All bands could stand to take the same kind of care with their sets, creating a new, different, and more special experience than just streaming the albums— especially pop bands where it’s always possible to lie back and rely on tracks.

Good job GGFO, and congrats on finishing your tour!

Streaming Economics

Been running around NYC for the past few days… don’t have a good reason why I’m here other than the good old “why not?”

Today I stopped by AWAL’s Northside Festival artist lounge in Williamsburg and got to hear a really enlightening panel by Will Page, Spotify’s Director of Economics.

He touched on a ton of truly fascinating points, looking at the music industry from a perspective of behavioral economics as it relates to streaming and contemporary digital strategy.

Firstly, Page was adamant that “catalogue” as a category of music was obsolete. The 18-month cutoff for new music, after which it becomes catalogue and ineligible for charts, was the product of the transition from vinyl to CD, in which people replacing their vinyl collection with new CDs drove up sales of old records and led to them outpacing new music on the charts.

But this makes no sense today, a transaction-based ruling in an era where music data is consumption-based. Page touched on the specific case of Imagine Dragons, whose streams of an album rose 177% in the 18 months after the first 18 months of its release.

He compared streaming-equivalent albums to “fax-equivalent emails” and deemed catalogue music a square peg in a round hole.

Then he transitioned to the next segment of the panel by declaring that it is much more prudent these days for an artist to be optimizing for audience rather than optimizing for streams.

This led into a data-driven examination of Tom Misch’s release strategy leading up to and following the recent release of his album Geography (an AWAL release). There was much comparison of demographics down to the percentage, and a discussion of the merits of the “drip-feeding” single release strategy to maximize fan engagement.

I liked what Page had to say about scaling independence, e.g. the possibilities for streaming services like Spotify to help an artist out via programmed playlist to get to a place where they don’t “need” them anymore, with fans having reached a critical mass of loyalty.

However I did have to agree with one of the question-askers during the Q&A afterwards, who expressed discomfort with the idea of maximizing fans instead of streams, given that other areas of the industry such as festival bookers, publicists, agents, and press still like to see those big streaming numbers.

In order for the fan-focused strategy to truly take precedence, the numbers would need to be given as much prominence by the service and importance by the industry as streaming numbers themselves.

Also, I am always slightly dissatisfied with the idea that tastemaker approval is necessitated for success and engagement. I’ve had a lot of experience that says otherwise…

But overall, it was a really enlightening afternoon, and the free tacos were really good.

Radio's Future

I spend a lot of time on music-focused subreddits, specifically /r/popheads, /r/indieheads, and /r/hiphopheads. It’s great to get linked to breaking news and good music, but what I love best is reading the commentary by the anonymous members of the communities.

This comment thread above, from this /r/popheads thread discussing a Rolling Stone article, is super interesting.

Now, it’s a given that radio isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
And it’s also a given that the commenters above are a super-passionate subset of pop fandom and don’t necessarily represent the interests of radio’s GP.

But I love the intuitive assertion here that “most people these days are constantly looking for the new bop to play.” I’ve seen this in action in my own role as new-music curator just among my friend group. I’ll send a new song to a group chat and hear it blasting in my friend’s car just a day later, or on repeat in a roommate’s shower playlist through the bathroom door.

There absolutely is demand and desire for the presence of independent curators in the music industry. Mainstream streaming services, with their anonymous playlisters, opaque inner workings, and major-label dominance, are not effectively filling that niche.

Beats 1 probably comes the closest, with its artist-helmed shows and on-air personalities, but interfacing with it requires use of the intolerable iTunes or iOS/Android Apple Music apps. And streaming it in a car, outside, or on the go requires use of cell data, which is a dealbreaker for the average listener.

SiriusXM, another competitor, is prohibitively expensive, and has a tendency to partake in the same kind of playlist hegemony as terrestrial radio.

The platform that can do what neither radio or streaming is doing, and do it in a way that both satisfies the existing desires of omnivorous, pan-genre modern music consumers and surprises and delights them with new discoveries, will find itself occupying a very important position in the industry landscape.

• Maybe it’s something that combines elements of on-demand/interactive with real-time/non-interactive, allowing fans to listen live as well as after the fact, like a DVR.

• Maybe it’s something that, impossibly, ends up shared between streaming services. If an individual artist can distribute/license their music to multiple platforms, who’s to say a service or show or on-air host’s brand can’t be distributed the same way?

• Or maybe it’s even something with a live-stream element, a la Twitch.

Who knows? Not me ;)

PS: I see a lot of independent curators/internet personalities making multiple versions of their personal playlists for their fans on different platforms to allow everyone to listen, or even fans having to manually copy the songs over themselves... that shouldn’t have to be a thing. Right????????