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Talking to Robots About Songs and Memory and Death
Infinite Archives, Fluctuating Access and Flickering Nostalgia at the Dawn of the Age of Streaming Music
(delivered at the 2024 Pop Conference)  

Let me tell you how it used to be. Songs were written and sung and recorded, but then they were encased in finite increments of plastic, and our control over our ability to hear them relied on each of us, sometimes in competition, acquiring and retaining these tokens. The scarcity of particular plastic could shroud songs in selective silence. A basement flood could wash away music.  

Imagine, instead, a shared and living archive. Music, instead of being carved into inert plastic, is infused into the frenetic dreams of angelic synapses. Every song is sung at once in waiting, and needs only your curious attention to summon it back into the air. Nothing, once heard, need ever be lost. The rising seas might drive us to higher ground, but our songs watch over us from above.  

When I proposed this talk, Spotify held 368,660,954 tracks from 61,096,319 releases, and I could know that because I worked there. The servers of streaming music services are unprecedented cultural repositories, diligently maintained and fairly well annotated. We pour our love into them, and in return we can get it back any time we want.  

That's the techno-utopian version, at least. In the real-life version, the angels are only robots, and the robots aren't even actual robots. The infinite generosity of technology is constrained by relentless pragmatic contingencies: corporations, laws, contracts, stockholders, greed. All those songs are there, technically poised, but whether we are allowed to hear them depends on layers of human abstraction and distraction. This is what people mean when they object to streaming as renting the things that you love. The erratic logistics of music licensing control whether any given song is permitted to escape from the streaming servers. Licensing, in turn, is permuted by artists and labels and distributors and streaming services, and then again by the borders of countries and the passage of time. The song you want to hear again is still there. But that may not be enough.  

"Renting the things you love" sounds bad. But so too, I think, does "purchasing the things you love". I don't philosophically need or want my love to be materialized in a form for which I have to transact, and which I then have to store. I want to be able to recall joys effortlessly. The system model of instant magical recall, which is an illusion that streaming can sustain under conducive network conditions, is what I think we want, what music wants. If renting is reliable, maybe it's fine. But how reliable is it?  

If you don't work for a streaming service, you can only really assess this by anecdote. Joni Mitchell objected to Spotify's podcast deal with Joe Rogan, and revoked its rights to her whole catalog. Because rights are complicated, though, it didn't entirely work. When I proposed this talk, there was one Joni Mitchell song still accessible on Spotify in the US, a stray copy of "A Case of You" from a random compilation released in roundabout evasion by some label other than hers. If you didn't know this context, you would have no immediate way to tell Joni wasn't an emerging artist with just the one complicated, hopeful first single so far. A complicated hopeful first single with 103,102,704 plays, apparently, so you might wonder a little bit. Promising, I think. I'd like to hear more.  

Since then, the license police caught up to that rogue compilation, and "A Case of You" is gone again. As of my drafting of this talk, Joni Mitchell's Spotify catalog was a 10-song 1970 BBC live album, and a single pointlessly overbearing cover of "River" by somebody else that was gamed onto Joni's Spotify page by the trick of labeling it as a classical composition, which causes Spotify to treat its composer as one of its primary artists. If the only artists with the power to withhold their songs were ones of Joni's stature, that would actually be fairly manageable. The plastic tokens of Blue are not scarce or expensive. If only artists had the power to withhold songs, actually, this would be a conversation about art and the limits of authorial control, and whether Joni is allowed to come take your copy of Blue away from you if you listen to Joe Rogan.  

If you do work for a streaming service, though, and you can manage not to resign in protest of anything it does that you disagree with, then you don't have to rely on annecdote, you can use data. So I did. I ran the historical analysis of all post-release licensing gaps in song availability from 2015 to 2023, both overall and aggregated by licensor. In practice, in turns out, almost all songs available today have been available for streaming continuously since release. There are a handful of licensors whose tracks are routinely retracted, and there are good reasons for this, which I'm not allowed to tell you but I can reassure you that those are not the tracks we're worried about. Actual licensing gaps for actual songs with actual audiences are, statistically speaking, vanishingly rare. I made a nice graph of this.  

If you work for a streaming service, however, you can also get laid off by that streaming service, which I also did. When this happens you have a surprise 10-minute call with an HR rep you've never seen before at 9:15 on a Monday morning, and then your laptop is remote-locked and you don't have those graphs any more. The robots are not allowed to talk to me now. Who will sit with them when they are sad? The problem with externalizing our memories and our note-taking into the cloud isn't technological reliability, it's control. The problem with renting the things you love is not the fragility of the things, it's the morally unregulated fragility of the relationship between you and the corporate angels.  

We'll be OK without that graph. It was not, shall we say, the "A Case of You" of data graphics. The things that really belonged to Spotify, Spotify can keep. The goverance models for modern corporations are still painfully primitive. We understand that local democracies and a little bit of international law are a better model than crusader feudalism for communities of place, and I feel like it's morally apparent that corporations, as communities of purpose, ultimately deserve the same models and protections. If you move away from a city, you're still allowed to come visit. I should probably be allowed to visit my graphs. I like to imagine Joni ripping copies of her own CDs and adding them to Spotify as local files just as a jurisdiction flex.  

My listening, on the other hand, is my own. Consumer protections are slightly more advanced than employee protections, so you can request your complete listening history from Spotify any time you want. For much of the decade I spent working at Spotify, though, I also maintained an abstruse weekly annotated-playlist series called New Particles, so I have my own record, not just of what I heard, but what I cared about. Over the course of 454 weeks, I cared about 35,900 tracks by 13,951 different artists. This is small for data, but big for annecdotes. What I find, going through it, is that almost every week beyond the recent past has at least one song that is now, or at least currently, unavailable. Some of the earliest lists from 2015 are missing 3 or 4, but by 2017 and 2018 it's usually 1, plus or minus 1.  

Counting is not an emotional exercise, though, and all interesting music-data experiments begin with some kind of counting but don't stop there. So I went through the playlists I was listening to in my birthday week each year, cross-checking the specific tracks that had gone gray in Spotify, to see if I could tell a) how missing they really are, and b) how much I care. This is mostly what my job at Spotify was like, too: short bursts of math, and then the long curious process of trying to understand the significance of the resulting numbers. And I did consistently say that I would be doing this even if they weren't paying me.  

From my March 31st 2015 list I am missing the song "Kranichstil" by the Ukrainian/German rapper Olexesh. His albums before and after seem to all be available for streaming still. This one isn't, but the song is easily found on YouTube. It's still sinuous and boomy and great.  

2016: I'm missing "Rolling Stone" by the Pennsylvania emocore duo I Am King. They're still putting out sporadic emo covers of pop songs, which is one of my numerous weaknesses. "Rolling Stone" was an original, and I admit I don't remember it super-well, so maybe the version that is currently available on Spotify is different from the unavailable one I liked in 2016, but it's definitely close enough.  

2017: "Por Amor" by the Chilean modern-rock band Lucybell. I had the single of this on my playlist, and you can't play that any more, but the slightly longer version is still the first track on the readily-available album Magnético, and still sounds like a stern Spanish arena-rock transformation of a New Order song.  

2018: The whole album MASSIVE by the K-Pop boy-band B.A.P. is unavailable, but the song I liked, the cartoonish rap-rock rant "Young, Wild and Free", was originally on a 2015 EP, which is still available.  

2019: The trap-metal noise-blast "HeavyMetal!" (no space between the words, exclamation point at the end) by 7xvn (spelled with the number seven, then x-v-n) is off of Spotify, but you can still find it on Soundcloud, which in this case feels about right.  

2020: A gothic metalish song called "Menneisyyden Haamut" by the Finnish band Alter Noir. Their Spotify page is empty now, and if you Google this song, the results are the orphaned Spotify page, two links from their own Facebook page to that empty Spotify page, and then my playlist that I put the song on. I sent myself an email to see if I knew what the story is with this, but I haven't heard back from myself yet.  

2021: "Fuck You Nnb" by lieu. I am old and do not know what "Nnb" stood for, but I do know that lieu was supposedly a 15-year-old kid deliberately switching between distributors so their songs would end up strewn across disconnected artist identities. Perfect public memory of what we thought was a good idea when we were 15 is not necessarily a civic virtue. In some cases forgetting is probably the right way to remember.  

2022: ANISFLE were an ornate Japanese rock band, or at least a heavily embroidered impression of one. Their Spotify profile is blank, their web store is empty, I guess something catastrophic happened to them. But there are still a few of their videos on YouTube, and they're still ridiculous and magnificent.  

2023: The only new thing I loved last April 4th that didn't even survive for a year was a maskandi song called "UYASANGANA YINI" by uMjikelwa. It seems to still be available on Apple Music. One of his other albums is on Spotify, and I will be completely honest that although I adore maskandi and follow hundreds of maskandi artists to make sure I have a constant supply of new maskandi to listen to, I usually pick one random song from each album and I do not pretend I can really tell them apart. If you snuck into my web archives and swapped this for anything similar, I would almost certainly not notice.  

I think I can live with that much loss. Individual human obstruction occludes individual archives, but the network of archives, from the well-regulated to the unruly, tends to route around suppression. It's hard to make everybody forget.  

And meanwhile, my database memory is far, far better than my brain memory. How many of those 13,951 artists could I list without looking? Some. Lots, but not most. But this is how I live, now. How old was my kid when we had the birthday party where their best friend's brother fell on a brick and had to be taken to the ER? I don't remember, but I can look through Google Photos and find it by the pictures we took before the panic. Which China Mieville book did I read first? I don't remember, but I bet I can find the email I wrote you right afterwards. Or maybe I sent it from a work address and so I can't.  

So yes, our technically perfect externalized memories are imperfected by our insistence on staging them behind our contentious and fluctuating rules. We produce a compromised projection of our archives by fighting over their access controls. Our human systems hold back our information systems.  

But I think we'd rather have that than the other way around. If my record store, in 1989, had made a ridiculous deal with Joe Rogan and Joni had pulled her whole divider out of the M bins, we had no collective recourse. We could check the used stores, but who gets rid of Joni Mitchell albums? Recovering from this, later, would require re-shipping a case of Blue to, oh, Canada? And everywhere else. The grayed-out tracks on Spotify playlists are more like the coy ropes across the wine shelves in Whole Foods on Sunday in blue-law states. Not only are we ready when the laws and processes finally relent, but we are reminded, every moment until then, how arbitrary and ridiculous it is that they still have not.  

What would better laws and processes involve? What we need here, I think, is a legal and syntactical structure for asserting music rights as layers, starting with the artist. Right now, each licensor of a recording makes a deal with its artist, with terms and dates, but then turns around and sends the streaming services only enough data to assert that licensor's own isolated claims. If licensors were required to pass along both the span of their claim, and the underlying artist ownership to which the rights will subsequently revert, then royalty attribution could fluctuate without affecting availability. And by the way, while we're building that, we could also use the same structure to embed the composition rights with the recording rights, eliminating the completely insane indirection in which the publishing rights for streaming songs have to be re-asserted separately by writers and then rediscovered separately by collecting societies.  

If this last idea appeals to you so much that you would like to read it again in print, it also appears in my upcoming book, titled You Have Not Yet Heard Your Favorite Song: How Streaming Changes Music, which comes out in June on Canbury Press. A book is another kind of externalized memory. It's good to remember how we thought things were. In my case I wrote this one while I was working at Spotify, but not because I was working at Spotify, and at least I got laid off in time to edit a bunch of present- and future tenses into the past before they were printed on paper. Memory, too, is a system: of layers and contingencies and adaptation and revelation. Underneath, somewhere, there's always love. We fall in love three minutes at a time, and we might forget the songs but we won't forget the falling.  

Meanwhile, we improve the world when we can, with whatever tools and influence we are currently allowed. When we can't, we try to preserve it's potential in hiding, if not in angelic invulnerability, then at least above the water line. We leave the robots on guard, not because we trust them, but because it makes them feel useful and we don't have the heart to tell them that they aren't real. We let new songs invoke the ones we're not supposed to hear. We name our loss, and we try to not die before the day when we're allowed to remember everything again.  

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