Music technology has changed – but do we actually listen to songs differently?

The digital revolution has turned pop into a world of smart playlists and surprise albums. Yet the way we engage with music remains remarkably similar.

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After 34 years of the compact disc, 15 of iTunes and almost eight of Spotify, digital technology has destroyed the old music industry. This has provoked a number of reactions from musicians, from Radiohead’s groundbreaking pay-what-you-like system in 2007 for In Rainbows – and their surprise release, this week, of A Moon Shaped Pool – to Beyoncé’s concept of the “visual album” for Lemonade.

But, with the dust settling and the trauma beginning to fade, commentators are finally able to look beyond the technology and question its effects. Now that we can get access to all the music, all the time, are we doing so? Is the choice liberating us, or paralysing us? Has power moved from the producers to the consumers?

In Every Song Ever, the New York Times jazz and pop critic Ben Ratliff attempts to tackle these questions head-on. The recommendation software of streaming services such as Spotify – the “You might also like” function – creates not more choice, he argues, but “an atrophy of the desire to seek out new songs ourselves, and a hardening of taste”. His book, with its handbook-style subtitle (Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now), suggests new routes to discovery, avoiding genres and looking instead into our peripheral vision. He links songs by themes such as slowness, loudness or sadness, connecting tracks by artists as different from each other as, in one chapter, Duke Ellington, Kesha, Steve Reich and Ali Akbar Khan.

It’s a great idea but it hits a wall fast. Ratliff is an expert on John Coltrane and the volume of suggestions from what would be the “Jazz and Experimental” section, judging by genre – Derek Bailey, Sunn O))), Merzbow, Nurse With Wound – is too much for most music obsessives, let alone the general-interest reader. His writing style is equally difficult. What is the “ennobled innocence” he hears in Chic’s “Everybody Dance”? Does the pianist Hildegard Kleeb really play “as an eater, holding a fork, breaks the surface of a buttery cake – with the understanding of it as a luxury”?

It would matter less if this were posited as a book of essays on musical topics. Discussing different uses of high volume or finding connections between Bing Crosby and the Fall is interesting but it is not useful, and to pretend so seems bogus. Moving from one artist to another through connections in sound, influences or performance style – in other words, genre – is surely a more realistic way of discovering music. Joining the dots from, say, the Rolling Stones to Howlin’ Wolf – “going upstream”, as the (jazz) guitarist Marc Ribot calls it – is more enjoyable and more fruitful, as well as a perfect use of the “celestial jukebox” of the internet.

Ratliff has an answer to this view: it comes, he writes, from the “completist-music-collector impulse”, which he calls “an upside-down understanding of what music is for”, born of “anxiety, sentimen­tality, infatuation, identification”. Fine – but those four abstract nouns go a long way towards defining the attraction of popular music. He believes genre is “a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure, and ultimately for the purpose of listening to less”. When most people listen to popular music, however, it is about context almost as much as the notes played.

In his world, Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” is about “entering a physical space of great possibility, and then, once inside the physical space, gaining psychological entry to the music that thrills you . . . It is a song about listening: one of the greatest ever made.” This simultaneously over-praises and under-represents a near-irresistible pop song about the experience of arriving at a party – or, indeed, a concoction of funk and tacky Europop, expertly welded to the narrative of the good-girl-gone-bad Miley.

In The Song Machine, a gripping investigation of modern hitmaking, John Seabrook describes such focus-grouped and mass-­auteured masterpieces of the digital age, with their context attached, as “industrial-strength products, made for malls, stadiums, airports, casinos, gyms and the Super Bowl half-time show. The music reminded me a little of the bubblegum pop of my pre-teen years, but it was vodka-flavoured and laced with MDMA . . .”

Seabrook’s writing is as sleek and swift as a dolphin, combining analysis, character and story with the skill you would expect of someone who used to teach “narrative non-fiction”. His four-paragraph encapsulation of how iTunes “disembowelled the labels’ profit margin” is glorious, as is his explanation of how the Swedish songwriter Max Martin (who “eclipses all previous hitmakers, including the Beatles, Phil Spector and Michael Jackson”) invented pretty much all current pop by crossing the streams of “black” and “white” sounds. So, too, are his insights into the power of personalities, from an earlier Swede, Denniz PoP, whose unashamed love of Def Leppard and reggae proved crucial, to Lou “Big Poppa” Pearlman, who created the all-conquering boy bands the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC as part of an elaborate business fraud, and Rihanna, whom he calls the first “digital icon”, able to create an old-money-album’s worth of impression in a single track.

Seabrook describes how, through a deep analysis of listening habits and the use of digital composition techniques, pop music became a precision-honed tool that created its own version of the super-rich, with “77 per cent of the profits in the music business accumulated by 1 per cent of the artists”. He is balanced, always seeing the creative genius in the focus-grouped cynicism, but there is no denying that the story is, like Ratliff’s, about narrowing the template.

Guy Zapoleon tells him about his Hit Predictor technique, developed after research showed that listeners have to hear a song three times before they can tell if they like it. “Zapoleon’s solution was to replicate the rule of three in a two-minute remix.” In South Korea, the national pop music, K-pop, is controlled, down to a singer’s gestures, in a process that the magnate Lee Soo-man calls “cultural technology”. Meanwhile, the American hitmaker Dr Luke specialises in songs that sound naggingly like other recent hits but are just different enough to avoid legal recourse.

The narrative eventually returns to Sweden. Seabrook notes: “In enabling Spotify’s playlist culture, [its co-founder Daniel] Ek has done as much as his countryman Max Martin to break down traditional genres like R’n’B, rock, hip-hop and pop.” Still, he writes, its social-media-assisted reading of your habits, likes and relationship status prompts the question, “Are you playing the music, or is the music playing you?”

This is very much the preoccupation of 21st-Century Perspectives on Music, Technology and Culture, a collection of essays by music and literature academics. In the introduction, the editors write, “Impersonal machines and equations are doing what friends, acquaintances, DJs and record-store owners once did: recommending music for us to listen to . . . Unlike a piece of sheet music, vinyl LP or cassette tape, these new musical objects are actively listening to us, too.”

Perhaps stymied by the academic’s need to see evidence over the journalist’s freedom to generalise, the contributors offer intriguing insights but never quite put forward a full theory. Jeffrey Roessner points out that, despite the vast libraries of iTunes and Spotify, we set iPods and phones to shuffle: “We still seem to crave the spontaneity and surprise.” Richard Randall observes that online streaming services mimic the clublike atmosphere of liberated outsiderdom but are wholly public and that, because these services use our data to get advertising, we are “working” just as much as they are – and so streaming services aren’t really given to us for free.

Underpinning much of the writing is a resistance to the digital. Kieran Curran’s essay on a subculture favouring cassettes finds participants putting this tokenistic interest in a dead format down to “a sense of too much choice” since the arrival of the internet. One participant, the writer and musician David Keenan, tells him, “Part of the fun thing about cassettes was the effort you had to put in to put together knowledge – it was initiatory. Googling something and reading a Wikipedia entry does not make you an expert, and has no initiatory effect.”

This has echoes in a passage in Every Song Ever. Ratliff watches a boy on a bus who is listening to a song on his phone, noting his power over music because he “can take that song or leave it. There are a million others like it.” From this, Ratliff extrapolates: “He can walk out of whatever styles of music raised him, and into others as yet unknown to him, where he has complete access because listening gave it to him.” This is all true, but not new. The boy always could, if he had the desire and the will. Music is simply cheaper and easier to reach now. The decisive factor – “sentimental” though it may be – is what one US record company executive points out to John Seabrook at a K-pop concert: the connection between artist and fan, “the essence of pop music”. That’s what drives most of us to discover more.

Digital Signatures is a survey of the artistic changes caused by digital technology in music-making, written by two musicologists from the University of Oslo. They conclude that it has created innovative possibilities, not least the ability to correct mistakes and start again, “stimulating the creative process and encouraging a generally more experimental mindset”. Largely, however, the digital revolution has merely made things musicians could already do easier and quicker. Perhaps, when we look beyond the question of money or technology, that’s all it has done for listeners, too.

Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now  by Ben Ratliff is published by Allen Lane (259pp, £20)

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook is published by Jonathan Cape (338pp, £16.99)

21st-Century Perspectives on Music, Technology and Culture: Listening Spaces edited by Richard Purcell and Richard Randall is published by Palgrave Macmillan (204pp, £60)

Digital Signatures: The Impact of Digitization on Popular Music Sound by Ragnhild Brøvig-Hanssen and Anne Danielsen is published by MIT Press (188pp, £18.95)

This article appears in the 12 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump

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