How the internet is changing the way you listen to music and what you can do about it

We talk to New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff about his new book Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now and how the algorithms that power music streaming services are changing the way we listen to music.

I recently talked to someone from Spotify and they certainly see what they do as unlimiting people’s music listening experience, but is the premise of your book that using streaming services passively, letting the service chose your music for you, or clicking through related artists, is a limiting way to experience music?

Yeah, that’s precisely it. The word that streaming services like to use is 'discovery'. Because discovery is really nice, it’s nice to have a discovery of something a day. But, there are different kinds of discovery. Ultimately, the streaming services need to typify you as a listener in some way. That's how their algorithms will do their job, and it's that part I struggle with. I see the ideal behind it, but I'm against the reduction of the listener to types because I think we're all bigger than types in terms of what we might be able to understand.

Is this argument coming out of the experiences you’ve had with these services, or is it observational, is it how you’ve seen other people using it?

It was observational to some degree, with some research. It’s hard to get good numbers from Spotify. But I work at a place with some other reporters who are getting as good number as it’s possible to get from Spotify. But I’ve been watching the way people consume music. I've been watching people in general be thrilled by and charmed by recommendation engines, and listening to streaming services in such a way that they don't have to worry anymore about searching – the machine will do the job for them. And I've wondered about that sense of relief that people feel.

I think the conversation around the abundance of music that is available to us now, always seems to pull towards this idea of, 'Oh, isn't it oppressive?' There's too much out there! How are we going to deal with this problem of there being too much music!', and I wonder about that. When you go into a really great library, and you feel that sense of ‘Wow people have written a lot of books’, is that a bad feeling? Do you think, ‘Oh I'm such an idiot, I'll never know all these book?’ I don't think so. More likely, you're going to feel something thrilling or positive or, ‘Wow, people have done a lot of studying and writing and who knows, maybe the more I learn and the older I get, I'll have more reasons to make my way into these stacks and to read more of these books.

So I sense this anxiety around music and I do wonder sometimes if it's partly caused by streaming services that are telling you, in effect, ‘Isn't it terrible? There's too much music out there, let us do the work for you and you will no longer feel the shame and anxiety and embarrassment of not knowing what to listen to’.

Ben Ratliff

Do you think they’re doing the work because they see, through their data, that most people only listen to a limited amount of music and therefore may not be using the service as much as they could be?

Streaming services want to become indispensable to you and that's just good business. They do that by making you feel that you can turn to them everyday and depend on them for an experience you view as positive, and they're thinking about moods, they're thinking about times of day, these are sort of pleasant, genial ideas – what music goes best with a certain mood or a certain time of day. And they're sizing you up as a type of listener. They're retaining some control, they're re-confirming what they already know about you and your choices as a listener and feeding back to you the general area of music you've shown you like, for the most part.

So do you consider the moods playlists in the same way you consider the algorithmic recommendations?

Even moods are reduced by streaming services. Even times of day are reduced. I just don't want to live a life that is based on moods and times of day that are characterised by streaming services. I think joy or sadness or the end of the week or getting up in the morning just don't conform to one type of song, one type of emotion.

Do you ever listen to your discover weekly? What do you think of that experience?

Once in awhile they'll get me exactly right, almost embarrassingly so. And I'm very impressed by that. It's so confusing and flattering. And it certainly makes you want to look at it again. But of course they get me exactly wrong just as often.

When I'm using Spotify actively and doing my own searches, I listen to a wide variety of things from all over the map and I do listen to some things that are quite obscure, because I'm a music critic. And sometimes I get the sense that the algorithm has profiled me as a real hunter, and maybe I'm kind of ‘cool’. So in Discover Weekly, they give me a lot of ‘cool’ stuff, a lot of which I think is total garbage.

Left to my own devices, in my normal life, I listen to lots of jazz and lots of baroque music, but they never seem to feed me jazz before the late-50's and they never feed me Bach, and I wonder about that. Maybe it's because those kinds of music are not very ‘cool’ and they've got me pegged as a ‘cool’ listener and feed me lots of Father John Misty and I don't care!

As a critic do you hear that abundance and access looping back through new music? Are people making music differently now they have access to an unprecedented amount of music to listen to and draw from?

Culture moves in funny ways and when you spot one tendency it's very difficult to say, ‘This is what's happening...’ because often the exact opposite tendency is happening at the same time. I guess I do hear a lot of new music that sounds thoroughly market-tested and bland and not necessarily genre bound, but sub-genre bound. At the same time, I hear a lot of music that seems to completely crash through genre. I wrestle with this as a critic all the time. Readers and editors want us to typify music in some way so that readers at least know what ballpark we're talking about. Is it hiphop? Is it country music? Give it a name. And a lot of what I seems to be writing about these days, stuff I think is good, it's just really hard to call it anything it's always off to the side of something or a confluence of something. Kanye West records are far more than hiphop now.

The book starts with an argument against streaming services but the bigger argument is against genre and I think at this point, just because of the amazing access that we have, genre doesn't need to matter much.

So what’s the advantage of experience music without genre, or, to use the subtitle of your book, through the 20 ways of listening to music?

The advantage is – and these 20 ways are not canonical, they're not what I'm saying everyone should use, I'm just suggesting them as a beginning for coming up with a new vocabulary for listening – if you find that you're interested in repetition, that can lead to you focus on it when you come across Steve Reich, and when you come across Chic and make a connection.

There are so many ways to bump into music that we've never heard before, just in daily life: the radio, social media, something you hear in a movie, or out shopping or out on the street, or in a neighbourhood or country you're not familiar with. All the time you hear things that you don't recognise. And at that point you have a choice. Either you can say, ‘This has nothing to go with me, I don't need to learn about this’. Or, you can hear it and try and figure out what it has to do with you and try and figure out whether it has a connection with something you already know.

So I'm just suggesting that we can have a basis for understanding much much more if we don't think about genre and instead we think about types of listening experiences, be they repetition or density or speed or whatever.

Is that how you listen to music when you’re at home, not listening for work?

It is. Absolutely! I do think about music and a totality, that's partly a function of my job. It's part of my job, having to come to tears with all kinds of different music and develop some kind of vocabulary to write about it. I guess more and more I see all music, in the long view, somehow related and more and more I feel like my job is to make connections between one kind of song and another. And genre doesn't really work for me anymore. Tradition is great, but I think tradition is different than genre.

Is that your job now because that’s what the algorithm can’t do? Your job as consumer advocate has changed a lot now that anyone can just try something out for 30 seconds and decide very quickly if they like it.

It has. When I started doing this 20 years ago, what I could write about was limited to a fixed number of recordings that would be officially released each week. now, everybody has access to much more than that.

I also think that the past and the present are blending into each other in an interesting way because of the internet and because of accessibility. Especially young, hungry listeners are probably always going to be really concerned with what's new this week and that's great, but beyond that specific group of listeners, I think I can live in a really indeterminate time frame in terms of listening to music. And music from the 16th Century can have as much relevance to you as music from the 1950's and 1980s and now. Because it's all evened out by this access that we have.

Do people not give music as much of a chance because they haven't made that purchasing commitment, they can just click onto the next song?

I have two ways of look at it. I do remember before all this happened, before music was easy to come by on the internet, I would listen to an African music show on a college station here in New York and I would tune in at the very end of the show and I might hear the last minute of an amazing Congolese record, and then the record would finish and the announcer would forget to to say what it was and I'd think, "oh no! What am I going to do? That was the greatest record in the world'. I Might have to call around to see if other people were listening to it or research about whatever tiny bit of information I might have known about it. So i might figure out, just by process of elimination, that it might be by a certain Congolese band leader, but I still wouldn't know what song it was. Then I'd have to go ask people where I'd get a record like that and I would be told about a store way out in Brooklyn that was only open for three hours on a Saturday and I'd make the journey out there, talk to the proprietor, but the record, and then listen to it over and over because I only had a finite amount of records in my collection. And I'd feel a sense of 'Wow, this means a lot to me'. So that was what life was like pre-1993 or something.

But now we have a categorically different experience. Let's say you're 17 years old and Prince means very little to you. And all of a sudden you  look on your phone and you notice that prince dies and lots of people seem to be talking about it. So you're like 'Alright, Prince. I gotta figure this out.' Within about two minutes you can basically get the full outline of everything he did, see a list of all the records he made, you can find a website that rates them all from best to worse, you can click on a couple of songs understood to be his best, listen to five seconds each, whatever. Within two minutes you can get this outline of such a huge amount of culture and then you can either binge listen for the next couple of days or spend the rest of your life slowly learning about it. But the difference between now and then is that very quickly you can get the general outline. And I think that is good and positive. And even that two minutes intensely involved in 'What's the story with this Prince guy?' is some sort of investment of energy and focus. The way we absorb information these days is just so different than the past but I find it really hard to say 'Back then something was at stake with our listening. And it had value and now it doesn't'. I can't quite say that.

So you’re not a nostalgic person? The book doesn’t paint you as a nostalgist.

I hope not. I really do like this idea of the past being as important as the present, I'm not anxious about loving music from the past anymore. I just think they're on totally equal footing and the past informs the present and, in some weird way, the present informs the past.

With all my questions answered, we talked about new music and I asked the New York Times jazz critic what the best recent jazz album was and he recommended Masabumi Kikuchi’s Black Orpheus, the first posthumous album from the Japanese jazz pianist. When we hung up, I went straight to Spotify and looked it up. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t anywhere. Kikuchi’s label, ECM, doesn’t put its music on streaming services, it still just sells CDs. Years since I bought a CD, I immediately knew I’d probably never hear it.

Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now is available now through Penguin.
Listen to a Spotify playlist of music mentioned in the book below: