✘ The Future of Music Curation: Two Divergent Paths
And: The long tail's sting; How one music venue uses Discord; An artist perspective from Rilles; Beyond the hype for NFTs; Short essay on community
How do you speak about the algorithm? Do you speak of a singular one or in plural? If you stop to think for a second, you’ll quickly check yourself and remember there’s not a single algorithm. YouTube has its algorithms, and so does Spotify, and TikTok as well. All of those rule most of our worlds, and definitely have a big impact on our listening habits and the types and styles of music we listen to. With the growth of streaming over the last years, so has the power of these algorithms grown. Naturally, we accuse them of bias and that’s where we often start to talk about them in the singular form. It’s an almost anthropomorphic tendency - we read human nature into the algorithm, giving it a form of agency that it doesn’t possess. But whatever we think of it, the recommendation algorithms of the major music streaming services have significantly impacted our broader curatorial practices. Now that we’re hitting peak streaming, let’s explore two divergent paths that this will probably take and the value they can create for the music industry.
Path 1: curation for the masses
This is basically the continuation of what we’ve seen happen in recent years: mood-based playlists, activity-based playlists, etc. These can be humanly curated, but will mostly be driven by algorithms and machine-learning tools that can put tracks in order according to certain metrics (which key it’s in, beats-per-minute, etc.). The value here is usually created for the platform that the playlist lives on. Whether you listen to music on Spotify, Soundcloud, or JioSaavn the goal is to keep you, the consumer, on the service. This is where DSPs are most closely related to radio. Both exist to just keep you listening. The big difference, however, lies in the profitability of these two formats. Spotify, Deezer et al still make significant operating losses. Radio, on the other hand, runs on advertising and sponsorships and, importantly, often has different licensing structures. Radio pays on-air talent to present and talk about music - and other things - while streaming services hire a host of curators and let their algorithms do the talking - as well as podcasts, of course.
One thing that mass curation in any format focuses on is a laidback listening experience. While the curation should be aimed at keeping the listener on the platform, it shouldn’t be too invasive. Of course, when it’s a running playlist, you want upbeat music. But in the main, selections that focus on mass appeal draw towards what’s commonly known as ‘popularity bias.’ In other words, they will reinforce what’s popular and give you, the listener, more of the same. This is not to say that this is necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re looking for new music to discover these selections are probably not your best bet.
Path 2: community-focused curation
When you’re looking for new music, a personal recommendation is always the strongest. It doesn’t even have to be a friend, as I spoke about back in September 2021 it can also be a favoured radio DJ. Moving beyond that, though, there are many new ways to think about curation. There’s the slow, or fast, drip feed that exists in many Slack or Discord channels. There’s the collaborative playlists that we make with our friends. And, there’s the niche blogs or even curated NFT marketplaces like Catalog who bring focus on niches from across the world through their curators.
What we see throughout these smaller scale, niche curation efforts is that the curators and those that receive can often agree on a value that exists in the curation. This runs counter to the overload of information that is always at our fingertips. Instead, there’s a trusted source who recommends something, and perhaps there’s even a place where those that receive the endorsement can discuss about it. The value here is less for something else, like a platform company such as Spotify, and more for the community. There is, as well, more of a value exchange happening. The curator has a prominent role, of course, but the community has just as much of a role to play. What’s more, the curatorial role can potentially be decentralized across the community. There’s a great use case for the blockchain here, which could help organize a community like this. Each member of the community can begin to recommend to the rest, putting this recommendation on chain and adding a little note to explain why a song matters. A wonderful example of this is Folklore, a project by Rafa the Builder which uses Forefront’s OnPulse to curate together with a community.
A fork or a crossroads
It might well be that these two paths cross, or perhaps they cannot align at all. What’s certain is that they both serve a purpose. However, if you look at the value added benefits of both paths, it’s clear that the first adds value for a third party, while the second aims to add value to a community of people. If you want to understand the power of curation, I encourage you to explore the second path. Bring a group of people together, friends or otherwise, and start sharing music. Along the way, you’ll build up an archive, especially if you do it in a way that aims to outlast those who initiate the community.
🪁 The Long Tail’s Sting: The political battle over content moderation and music’s dilemma (Tristra Newyear Yeager)
“DSPs may also throw up defensive walls, with things like specialized, geographically specific pre-upload filters, maybe akin to those posited (and denounced) to deal with new European UGC-related laws. In this new world, it will no longer be quite as simple and dirt cheap to get music out there on commercial services. The tail may shorten. And DSPs may quietly find a way to lose all those orphan tracks with very few streams that they already have.”
✘ This is a must-read. Tristra goes into a lot of the big legal issues currently being challenged in courts in the US and how that could impact the way the music industry is structured.
✨ How one music venue uses Discord (Colin Kirkland)
“The communal experience of going to a live show can’t be rendered online, but the anticipation that inevitably builds in the process of chatting and planning before a show is a natural phenomenon that Layton thinks Discord provides, though he hasn’t seen venue promoters making use of this opportunity yet.”
✘ It would be great to see more music institutions play around with different community models. I firmly believe the appetite is there in terms of desire for interactions.
🎶2022 in review and 2023 plans (Rilles)
“i’m also excited about the year ahead. i have some new music in the works, both electronic and indie folk, and i’m eager to spend some real time recording. i recently picked up an e lektron syntakt and a few more eurorack modules, which i’m very excited to play around with, and i’ve been experimenting more with sampling, which i hope to get better at in the coming months. also, i’m happy to announce here (in this blog post that will largely go unread, lol) that i’ll be releasing a cover of the Tears for Fears classic “Mad World” on march 22nd.”
✘ We need more artists sharing their perspectives, writing down what’s keeping them busy creatively, what their goals are, how they look back on what they’ve created, etc.
❓ Web3Music, NFTs, Metaverse - is it all just a hype or what? (Amke Block)
“In Web3, every participant, i.e. person, software, smart contract program, even thing, is identified by a crypto ID, which means that every participant can be directly controlled. Only through this unique ID can a unique associated value be assigned. This is precisely what the term Internet of Value (IoV) stands for, which, like the term Web3, is used to describe the new evolutionary stage of the Internet.”
✘ A welcome overview that goes into what next steps could be for NFTs as tools to help artists build their networks.
🛼 Short essay on community (Finn Lobsien)
“Designing means shaping how something works and what it might become. Design is proactive. The process forces you to empathize with people and envision how a community might address them. When you design the right building blocks and let the community figure out the rest, you can create nourishing spaces that proliferate by themselves.”
There are moments when I love it when music wraps its noisy blanket around me. Sometimes with a lush beauty and sometimes with a more terrifying menace, as is the case with much of what Ben Frost has put out. You may know him from his soundtrack work, but his own records are deep listening experiences for me.