Will Digital Streaming Push Music Into the Background?
A recent online discussion asked: Is the rise of streaming services as the dominant delivery method making music more of a background experience and diluting its power?
I curate and program Ambient music for a living, so this question is of fundamental importance to me. When the Ambient genre was identified and named by Brian Eno in his "gentle manifesto" of 1978, he pointed to an emerging socio-cultural fact to support it. People, he said, were increasingly using music to create a form of "landscape" in which they lived.
This use of music was enabled and supported by a steady flow of convenient, friction-reducing reproduction and broadcast technologies that appeared after World War 2: the transistor portable radio and formatted music stations, the LP and the record changer, the cassette and the Sony Walkman (the first mass market personal music player), eight-track car players, et al. And let's not forget the jukebox—the original public, interactive, on-demand, micropayment-based music service.
Whatever the delivery mechanism, the point was to provide easy, continuous music, whether foreground or background. Historically the distinction was not new: common folk songs and instrumentals had been used for both background and foreground listening in commercial settings like pubs and taverns for centuries. In the late 19th century, French musician Eric Satie composed extended background pieces he called "furniture music," deliberately satirizing the rigidity of the classical concert tradition of strict attention to music performances. And John Cage's most famous piece after his infamous "Four minutes and 33 seconds" of silence is titled "In a Landscape." In his 1978 manifesto, Eno seemed to hedge the question of foreground vs. background, active vs. passive, "lean-back" vs. "lean in" forms of listening. The notes for his album Ambient 1: Music for Airports state that "Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." In fact, he created something new that worked for both kinds of listening. Today, whether we are talking about radio-style non-interactive streams, or fully interactive "mega jukebox plus" services like Spotify, both the scope of the music on offer and the technical access to it—now measured in milliseconds—have already reached a near maximum degree of frictionlessness, and critical subscribers are focusing on other aspects of the "user experience."
Highly engaged music fans raised on the values of, for example, jazz and avant garde classical will naturally be dissatisfied with the current trends in popular music that dominate these services, but for the average listener the challenge appears to be more a matter of dealing with overwhelming choice. Thus the return of the leading services to curated and personalized playlists like Spotify's weekly "Discover" offering, and continuous radio-style channels and virtual stations like Beats on Apple Music. Optimizing the balance of offerings, the user interface to interact with them, and the quality of the personalization is going to take some time, but should be improving steadily. You have to feel that the time you are investing in exploring is paying off with personally meaningful discoveries, and that your music collection is alive and growing, just as if you were collecting physical artifacts.
The Roon companion player and metadata service (www.roonlabs.com) points to an area ripe for improvement to serve the needs of the more engaged portion of the user community. Spotify has already integrated lyrics in a nicely synchronized user interface for a decent fraction of popular artists. The Spotify "ABOUT" section is spottier and more under-populated when it comes to non-mainstream artists and has more room for improvement, along with nascent extensions into concert listings, ticketing, and music merch. Apple Music is still catching up with music metadata and features, but the multi-media scope of iTunes does provide one impressive advantage: a simple iTunes Store search for a relatively popular artist instantly yields results integrating albums, songs, music videos, TV episodes, apps, podcasts, audiobooks, movies, games, and iTunes U! Even Google would have a hard time pulling all this together. The streaming services of the future will only succeed if they can serve both the commonality and the diversity of the international music audience with compelling, even addictive experiences, while providing fair compensation to artists, labels and publishers. However they evolve, I'm confident that the era of high-friction, high cost, limited information formats will not be missed by music fans.
Stephen Hill, Producer
"slow music for fast times"