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20 March 2024 to 29 September 2014 · tagged essay/listen
Spotify's Loud and Clear site includes an analogy between musicians and football players, ostensibly to explain how "aspirations" to make money from creative/athletic pursuits are more widespread than actual career success.  

This comparison is not original or unique to Spotify, and does make some limited sense. With both art and sports, you can choose to spend your time on them, and the process of making music or training for football is labor in the sense of requiring time and effort, but most of the people making this choice are not going to end up being financially compensated for their labor. A small minority are able to make a living from it, but you cannot join this minority simply by wanting.  

The key difference between music streaming and football, however, is that in music, every stadium is Wembley.  

If you are an amateur soccer player, you know that you are an amateur soccer player. You play on an amateur team, in an amateur league, probably with amateur referees in a random city park that has other uses the rest of the week. No matter how astonishing a goal you score, it is a goal in an amateur game in a park on Sunday.  

In music, however, everybody plays in the same venue, nominally in the same league. Any song on any of the major commercial music-streaming services could be streamed 1 billion times tomorrow. Structurally, in the music version of football, an amateur player from a local park could kick a ball and it could slip past Caoimhin Kelleher in the 121st minute to send Liverpool crashing out of the FA Cup.  

That game was at Old Trafford, not Wembley, but the point is that this mostly doesn't happen. The statistical economic dynamics of music and football are very similar, which is why the analogy presented itself in the first place. But the aspirations are exactly why it doesn't work. In football, not only do you know your current status, but you can see the potential future steps in your career, and how they might happen. You could impress a local scout with your park goal, and get a tryout for a local semi-pro team. You could lead the semi-pro league in assists and get signed for a year by a second-division team. You could captain your second-division team to promotion, and like a fairy-tale, three years later you are getting crushed 7-0 by Manchester City and trying to claw your way out of the relegation zone so your dream can continue just a little bit longer.  

In music, there used to be a story like this. You played club gigs in your hometown, and gave demo tapes to your friends. Somebody who ran a local label maybe heard you and liked you enough to help you put out a record. Maybe that record got played on college radio a little, and got you a chance at a deal on a minor major label. Maybe your minor major-label debut had a minor hit. Maybe your label stuck with you and you got to make more records. Maybe your third album has a song about getting drunk alone in your hometown and introducing yourself again to your friend's mother and it blows up and suddenly you are playing in Wembley. Or Fenway Park, at least.  

Streaming offers the tantalizing illusion that these laborious steps have been eliminated by technology. But really they haven't. Music is an attention economy. The dominance of the biggest attention companies used to be reinforced by constraints of physical distribution, but it mostly survives the format shift. Most of the songs on the biggest playlists still come from the three major labels.  

Which doesn't mean that the story of your potential career hasn't changed. The new steps might involve playlists instead of clubs, viral videos instead of college radio, and maybe a judicious distribution deal instead of an old-school contract with an advance you will never recoup. And these new steps, if they happen, could happen more suddenly than the old steps, and thus it can feel like they could happen suddenly at any moment.  

But, still, mostly they won't. Mostly the paths to big success still go through labels, particularly major ones. Mostly the old major-attention economy survives through minor adaptations. Whatever aspirations they have, or labor they expend, most of the 10 million artists on streaming services will never get beyond semi-professional status in the most marginal sense of "semi". I have songs on Spotify, too. They took labor to make. A few people have streamed them, and I have been paid a few cents for those streams. Last time I checked, my lifetime earnings from streaming music were well on the way to $5. From $4.  

But I am an amateur. I know I'm an amateur, I'm not trying to make a living by making music. If streaming services all start imposing minimum stream-thresholds for royalty payouts, I may never get to that glittering $5 in the distance, and that will be morally disappointing but practically fine.  

If you're trying to become a professional, it's not fine. If regressive thresholds take away your sense of progress, that's not fine. If the successes you aspire towards operate like lotteries, so that you can't work towards them, that's not fine. If the people who operate the economy in which you will or will not be able to make a living sound like they are dismissing you as a non-participant, that's not fine.  

I like the football analogy, actually, but I think it applies the other way around: if you own a stadium, and you invite all the players in the world to come in and play in front of all the fans, you don't have to promise them all glory, but you better not try to tell them that some of their goals won't count.
I like legislation as a tool for social change, so I'm positively predisposed towards the Living Wage for Musicians Act as a tactic, and I agree with its goal of making it possible for more people to make better livings as musicians.  

But I don't think this proposed law, as written, will work.  

Here's how it would operate:  

Music-streaming subscriptions in the US would have a federal government fee of 50% added to them...  

This ought to be in the headline of every article covering this story. "Make Streaming Pay", the UMAW slogan for this effort, sounds like a vendetta against streaming services, especially coming from the same people who brought us "Justice at Spotify" previously, but as a music listener you should understand that the people who would pay this time are you. The proposed bill would add fees to music subscriptions. Fees are a well-established tactic, but not exactly a well-loved one. It's at least faintly ironic that Congress is scrutinizing Ticketmaster's excessive fees at the same time that this bill is proposing to add one to music streaming.  

And 50% is a lot. A $10.99/month subscription would get an added $5.50 government fee, raising the total to $16.49. The bill even specifies a minimum of $4, so a $5.99 student subscription would rise to $9.99. While I don't think either of those are unreasonable prices for all the music in the world, they're giant relative jumps. I would fully expect them to be publicly unpopular as a proposal, and thus hard to find support for in Congress. If enacted, they would probably cause many existing subscribers to downgrade to free (ad-supported) alternatives. Enough people doing so could cancel out the monetary benefit, so this should not be proposed without careful modeling of likely price flexibility. I doubt that has been done, and certainly no evidence of it has been presented by the bill's advocates. I would also expect most or all streaming services to lobby vigorously against this change because of these effects, even though the fee itself is not paid by them. Except...  

and music-streaming services would have a 10% tax on their "non-subscription" (meaning mainly advertising) revenue in the US...  

You can't add fees to free, so here's the other half of the plan. Most streaming services already pay ~70% of revenue to licensors, keeping ~30% for themselves. A 10% tax on revenue thus cuts gross advertising profit by a third. Since Spotify (whom I single out here only because as a public company they report music-specific financial results, which Apple/Amazon/YouTube Music as divisions of larger companies do not) has mostly not turned a net profit at all, this proposed tax will almost certainly be taken as intractably punitive, and I expect all the services with ad-supported tiers to resist it. Spotify probably cannot afford to threaten to pull out of the US like it threatened to pull out of Uruguay when a (different) version of this idea was proposed there, and would presumably not want to increase their own prices again having only recently raised them in most countries, making it hard to take the tactic they are taking in response to a 1.2% tax in France. So I would expect Spotify to lobby against this as if it is an existential threat.  

There's also a very important question here about what constitutes a music service, and in particular whether YouTube (not YouTube Music) and TikTok count. The bill doesn't address this, although the UMAW advocacy for it strongly implies that YouTube, at least, is meant to be included. I do not expect Google to quietly accept a 10% tax on any meaningful subset of YouTube advertising revenue.  

which would be collected into (and by) a new government fund/agency...  

Streaming music royalties are already split into three different components: to licensors, to publishers (for songwriters), and to performing-rights agencies (also for songwriters; it's a long story). This bill would add a fourth. That seems to me like the wrong direction, and grounds for skepticism even before we get into how the new fund would work. As an example it also implies that every country would need to create a similar fund of their own, although the bill as written seems to ignore the fact that it applies to the flow of money in only one country, while the music itself is global.  

which would also collect and tabulate monthly streams by unique master recording...  

This detail is unexplicated in the bill, but introduces a very serious technical requirement. Music is delivered to streaming services by licensors in releases composed of tracks, and it's normal for there to end up being many different tracks that have the same original audio, e.g. a single and that same song on the subsequent album and the same song again later on a compilation, and all these again in many different countries. Reconciling these requires audio-analysis software that can correctly match two tracks of the same recording even if they've gone through slightly different processing, and correctly differentiate between two different pieces of music even if they contain substantial similarity (like a song and a remix of it that adds a guest verse). And even after you've correctly matched tracks by their audio, their credits might differ, so you have to figure out which credits you're going to use. I can testify from 12 years of involvement with the process at the Echo Nest and Spotify that this is all not a trivial problem, and can be error prone even in a long-running production system. The administrators of the new fund are going to have to hire more programmers than they probably realize.  

impose a cap of 1 million streams/month on each such recording...  

This is arguably the most critical, progressive and interesting detail in the bill. Rather than just increasing all artists' current income by a small proportional amount, the bill attempts to specifically support artists who might not currently be making a living from their music, by effectively redirecting some or most of the money from songs with >1m streams back into the payment pool. This is why the recording-matching has to be accurate, but sadly is also the key to trivial manipulation of this scheme to evade its intent. Each detected "unique recording" is subject to a 1m cap, but it's not hard to produce multiple tracks that sound the same to listeners, but intentionally defeat the usual methods for automatic matching. Were this bill to be passed, I expect it would become normal practice to do this across releases and services, to make every track of the same recording register uniquely, so that each one gets its own 1m cap. The producers of very popular songs would have a strong incentive to also try to do it over time for each song during a given month, hoping to accumulate N million streams 1m at a time across N variations of the same song.  

The 1-million-stream threshold here is arbitrary. The bill itself doesn't justify or explain it. Rep. Tlaib has mentioned in speaking about this bill that it takes 800,000 streams/month at a current average rate of $.003/stream to make the equivalent of minimum wage, which is correct math, but that's per artist, not per track. The unavoidable market truth about music (like most non-commissioned art) is that financial reward is not a function of quantity of labor. You can spend any amount of time making a song, and maybe nobody will play it. If we really want, as a society, to give people a living wage for the labor of making music, as opposed to lucking into popularity, then we need to spend our government energies on grants or Universal Basic Income, not on streaming taxes and fees.  

and then divide payments proportionally by capped streams...  

This sounds like just unremarkable process, but is sneakily the most serious flaw of the whole bill as written. The fund combines all streams from all services, and all money from all services, and distributes that combined money according to those combined streams. This sounds like the pro rata royalty-allocation method already in use by all major streaming services. The crucial difference, though, is that services do not do this with one big pool of money and streams, they do it with an individual pool of money and streams for each payment plan (in each country). This is essential, because the revenue per listener varies widely across countries and plans. A stream from a Spotify Premium subscriber in Iceland is worth considerably more than a stream from an ad-supported listener in India.  

By combining all the streams and all the money, this plan would make it possible to use the cheapest form of artificial streaming to accumulate fraudulent streams that would share money from the most expensive ones, thus inaugurating a golden age of streaming fraud.  

This is not only a fatal flaw of the bill as written, it's one that reveals that the writers of the bill do not know how the existing royalty methods work, and didn't consult with anybody who does.  

90% to "featured" artists and 10% to "non-featured" artists...  

It's a minor selling point of this bill that it would result in some royalties being paid to "non-featured" artists, like session musicians and backing vocalists, who do not (usually) get royalties at all from the current system. The amount is small, though, and administering it would be a procedural headache. Because those people don't currently get paid royalties, their participation isn't necessarily included in the licensors' metadata. And, conversely, because those people don't get royalties, they're currently mostly paid for their work in old-fashioned wages. Give them a share of the royalties and we might find that that becomes an excuse to pay them less up front, in the same way that tip workers are often given lower base wages.  

The bill does not say how royalties would be split between multiple featured or non-featured artists. I guess it's loosely implied that it would automatically be equal shares to each, since there's no mention of any mechanism to specify otherwise. The bill does specify that "artists" means individual humans, not corporations or generative AIs (!), which seems to mean that bands are not part of this scheme, only each person one at a time.  

And, notably, the bill as written specifically does not include songwriters. This is a little surprising to me, since I think of advocacy for higher royalty rates for songwriters as part of the same family of social-justice causes as higher royalty rates for performers, and songwriters get the smallest share of royalties in the current system. I'm not looking forward to the antagonism between "performers" and "songwriters" that this omission might provoke.  

who sign up with the fund and provide payment information.  

This, too, is both a distinguishing characteristic of this plan and a drawback. The whole point of this fourth royalty scheme is to route it around the first three, although in practice it's mainly the payment of recording royalties to licensors (and thus to labels) that the writers are trying to avoid. Labels, particularly major ones, often write artist contracts in which advances are paid up front, and artists not only get a small percentage of the royalties later, but even that small percentage is accounted for as repaying the advance as a loan. So an artist might, in practice, get no royalties for a while, or ever. (Although, again, they were paid an advance, and if their royalties don't earn back the advance, they don't have to repay it any other way.)  

But, of course, you don't have to sign a label contract in order to release music on streaming services. DIY distributors either charge small flat fees, or take very small shares of your royalties. But labels provide services in addition to taking royalties (and paying advances), and maybe you want those. I suspect that musicians signed to major labels are mostly doing OK, at least temporarily during their maybe-short label tenure. And if they aren't, and their label contracts are why, maybe that's where the laws should be pointed.  

But that means this fund is yet another thing an artist has to sign up for and manage, and which in turn has to manage and verify them. I have not found any good estimates of how many artists currently do not do the work to register their songs to collect performance and mechanical rights, and how often there are contradictions between ownership claims, but I'm sure both are common. There's precedent in performance-rights organizations for international cooperation, but I don't know if any of those operate on this scale, and even if they do, this bill doesn't propose to use them, so this new fund (and its equivalents in other countries, if they exist) would have to reinvent all of that process.  

The stipulation about individuals, not companies, seems obviously like a preemptive attempt to keep labels from registering on their artists' "behalf" and collecting this new windfall too, but I'm not immediately convinced that won't happen somehow anyway. And indeed it might have to for the scheme to accommodate the estates of dead artists, whom I assume it doesn't intend to exclude.  

Even if we imagine that nobody attempts to evade this rule, though, the existence of a fourth royalty that bypasses labels is likely to push labels, and the three major-label companies in particular, to object to this bill too. And were it enacted, I would expect to see labels begin to change the terms of their contracts to reduce or eliminate artist shares of the recording royalties since they're now supposedly getting this new Living Wage paid separately.  

The notable thing this bill does not include is any mechanism or support for this claim that the UMAW, who collaborated on it, continue to make here:
The Living Wage for Musicians Act is built to pay artists a minimum penny per stream, an amount calculated specifically to provide a working class artist a living wage from streaming.
The bill, as written, is very definitely not "built" to pay $.01/stream. UMAW's intro puts the current average stream rate at $0.00173 (including YouTube), and after an hour or so of spreadsheet noodling I could not see any way it would more than double this for the biggest beneficiaries (artists whose tracks all approach 1m streams without going over), even if nothing else in the industry changed in reaction. That would be $0.00346/stream, still a long way from $0.01. It doesn't help my confidence in UMAW's math diligence that their "calculator" to show the effects of this bill not only just multiplies streams by $0.01, but doesn't even bother to apply the 1m-stream cutoff.  

Nor have I seen any explanation of why the suspiciously round penny is coincidentally the magic living-wage level, and I'm willing to bet a large number of pennies that no such explanation exists. There are many very-good bands who do not have 1 million streams total, all time, across all their songs on Spotify. That's not a multi-year living wage for a group of people even at a dime per stream.  

But OK, it's easy to criticize. If I'm in favor of laws, and I share the goal of improving the lives of musicians, what should we do instead?  

When in doubt, try to remove imbalances of power. Reduce complexity, reduce secrecy. Personally, I would start by trying to simplify and improve the existing royalty process, rather than adding another incompletely-thought out layer with uncertain consequences.  

We got a good idea about how to do this, by accident, recently, when Spotify and Deezer and UMG collaborated to change their contractual rules for recording royalties to pay nothing to tracks that don't reach 1,000 streams over the course of the last year. This is a regressive measure I personally despise, but the interesting part is that they actually couldn't pay those songs nothing, because the performance and mechanical rates are set by law (at least in the US). If the recording rates were also set by law, those wouldn't have been subject to secret contract negotiations either. Moving all the rates into law would also allow them to be determined (and debated in public) as a coherent set, which would make a lot more sense. And while we're at it, we could eliminate the spurious performance royalties, reducing the number of royalty components to two, one for the performers and one for the songwriters. And, in fact, if we allowed artists to designate original songs, so that this information was passed on by licensors to streaming services, then both royalties could be paid at once for those tracks, reducing the reporting overhead for artists and services both, and recovering some of the money currently lost on the way to artists who never took the time to sign up for BMI or ASCAP.  

Those simplifications would not, in themselves, provide a predictable living wage for all working musicians, either. But they would make the current streaming model less mysterious, and less beholden to secret agreements between a few giant corporations. Plenty more work would remain to be done. But that work would be easier think about, and easier to do. And less likely to produce earnest laws that probably have no chance of living up to their authors' hopes for them, or ours.
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.  

I starting making one music-list a year some time in the 80s, before I really knew enough for there to be any sense to this activity. For a while in the 90s and 00s I got more serious about it, and statistically way better-informed, but there's actually no amount of informedness that transforms a single person's opinions about music into anything that inherently matters to anybody other than people (if any) who happen to share their specific tastes, or extraordinarily patient and maybe slightly creepy friends.  

Collect people together, though, and the patterns of their love are sometimes very interesting. For several years I presided computationally over an assembly of nominal expertise, trying to find ways to turn hundreds of opinions into at least plural insights. Hundreds of people is not a lot, though, and asking people to pretend their opinions matter is a dubious way to find out what they really love. I'm not really sad we stopped doing that.  

Hundreds of millions of people isn't that much, yet, but it's getting there, and asking people to spend their lives loving all the innumerable things they love is a more realistic proposition than getting them to make short numbered lists on annual deadlines. Finding an individual person who shares your exact taste, in the real world, is not only laborious to the point of preventative difficulty, but maybe not even reliably possible in theory. Finding groups of people in the virtual world who collectively approximate aspects of your taste is, due to the primitive current state of data-transparency, no easier for you.  

But it has been my job, for the last few years, to try to figure out algorithmic ways to turn collective love and listening patterns into music insights and experiences. I work at Spotify, so I have extremely good information about what people like in Sweden and Norway, fairly decent information about most of the rest of Europe, the Americas and parts of Asia, and at least glimmers of insight about literally almost everywhere else on Earth. I don't know that much about you, but I know a little bit about a lot of people.  

So now I make a lot of lists. Here, in fact, are algorithmically-generated playlists of the songs that defined, united and distinguished the fans and love and new music in 2000+ genres and countries around the world in 2019:  

2019 Around the World

You probably don't share my tastes, and this is a pretty weak unifying force for everybody who isn't me, but there are so many stronger ones. Maybe some of the ones that pull on you are represented here. Maybe some of the communities implied and channeled here have been unknowingly incomplete without you. Maybe you have not yet discovered half of the things you will eventually adore. Maybe this is how you find them.  

I found a lot of things this year, myself, some of them in this process of trying to find music for other people, and some of them just by listening. You needn't care about what I like. And if for some reason you do, you can already find out what it is in unmanageable weekly detail. But I like to look back at my own years. Spotify's official forms of nostalgia so far define years purely by listening dates, but as a music geek of a particular sort, what I mean by a year is music that was both made and heard then. New music.  

I no longer want to make this list by applying manual reductive retroactive impressions to what I remember of the year, but I also don't have to. Adapting my collective engines to the individual, then, here is the purely data-generated playlist of the new music to which I demonstrated the most actual listening attachment in 2019:  

2019 Greatest Hits (for glenn mcdonald)  

And for segmented nostalgia, because that's what kind of nostalgist I am, I also used genre metadata and a very small amount of manual tweaking to almost automatically produce three more specialized lists:  

Bright Swords in the Void (Metal and metal-adjacent noises, from the floridly melodic to the stochastically apocalyptic.)
Gradient Dissent (Ambient, noise, epicore and other abstract geometries.)
Dancing With Tears (Pop, rock, hip hop and other sentimental forms.)  

And finally, although surely this, if anything, will be of interest to absolutely nobody but me, I also used a combination of my own listening, broken down by genre, and the global 2019 genre lists, to produce a list of the songs I missed or intentionally avoided despite their being popular with the fans of my favorite genres.  

2019 Greatest Misses (for glenn mcdonald)  

I made versions of this Misses list in November and December, to see what I was in danger of missing before the year actually ended, so these songs are the reverse-evolutionary survivors of two generations of augmented remedial listening. But I played it again just now, and it still sounds basically great to me. I'm pretty sure I could spend the next year listening to nothing but songs I missed in 2019 despite trying to hear them all, and it would be just as great in sonic terms. There's something hypothetically comforting in that, at least until I starting trying to figure out what kind of global catastrophe I'm effectively imagining here. I'm alive, but all the musicians in the world are dead? Or there's no surviving technology for recording music, but somehow Spotify servers and the worldwide cell and wifi networks still work?  

Easier to live. I now declare 2019 complete and archived. Onwards.
[Adapted from a talk I gave at the MoPop Conference 2017 in Seattle today.]  

"Speaks Truth to Power Metal
Conceptual Fantasy, Cryptic Nihilism and the Abstruse Political Neutrality of Progressive Rock and Metal
November 7, 2016"  


I am kind of anti-political by nature, and I had reluctantly gotten involved in politics a little bit over the course of last year, and on November 7 I was looking desperately forward to finally beginning another long period of mostly ignoring dull but semi-functional government.  

The songs that were most distinctively popular on Spotify in the US on November 7, 2016, versus the next day, were things like this:  

"Intro From the President"
Diplo ft. Nicky Da B "Express Yourself"
Michael Jackson "We Are Here to Change the World"
USA for Africa "We Are the World"
Ricky Reed "Express Yourself"
Manic Street Preachers "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next"
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young "Ohio"  

It was a tense, but mostly optimistic day in music. Personally, I spent most of the day listening to gothic symphonic metal, because that's what I like to do when the internet is working:  

Nightwish "Wish I Had an Angel"  

The next day was a little different. The songs that were most distinctively popular on Spotify in the US on November 8, 2016, were things like this:  

YG "FDT - Pt. 2"
Mac Miller "Donald Trump"
REM "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"
The Rolling Stones "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
Rae Sremmurd "Up Like Trump"
Eminem "White America"  

and way down here at #61 or something we finally get a little of this:  

Toby Keith "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue"  

I grew up in Texas, where we had school prayer in my public school and music tended to sound like this:  

Amy Grant "I Have Decided"
ZZ Top "Sharp Dressed Man"
Lynyrd Skynyrd "Sweet Home Alabama"  

But my parents met folksinging in the 60s in New Haven, so inside my house it was more like this:  

Peter, Paul and Mary "Puff, the Magic Dragon"
Pete Seeger "If I Had a Hammer"
Joan Baez "Pack Up Your Sorrows"  

In order to rebel against both of these impulses simultaneously, I hit upon this:  

Nightwish "Wish I Had an Angel"  

Except that didn't exist yet, so instead it was actually more like this:  

Rush "Trees"  

Music and fantasy and Pokemon or whatever can function as methods of escape, but "escape" is sometimes an impatient way of dismissing a slower or less direct metanarrative of attempted understanding. "The trouble with the maples, and they're quite convinced they're right...". Rush was not avoiding issues, they were attempting to rise above them. This is definitively pretentious, but it's a form of pretension I instinctively respond to: not advocacy, but analysis. What is the nature of the problem? How do different people's contexts and preconceptions lead them to different conclusions given the same facts?  

Gloryhammer "Unicorn Invasion of Dundee"  

Gloryhammer are not ignoring the social conflicts and issues of Brexit-era northern Scotland, they are trying to illuminate them by putting them into an expanded context: namely: what if, in addition to the cultural invasions of globalism and technological change, there was also an actual physical invasion of the coastal town of Dundee by zombie unicorns?  

You might contend that this is technically more apolitical than metapolitical. I might find this troublesome to contradict, given how much time I spend listening to cryptic metal in languages I don't even speak, or that nobody can understand by listening to them.  

Deathspell Omega "Wings of Predation"  

A few years ago, Brian Whitman, a music scientist who was the co-founder of the startup where I was working, did a statistical study of the political tendencies of music fans by artist. Many of his discoveries were reassuringly predictable: the artists most disproportionately liked by Democratically-inclined listeners tended to be hip hop or R&B or pop stars.  

Nicki Minaj / Rihanna "Fly"
Beyoncé "Run the World (Girls)"
Katy Perry "Wide Awake"  

Most of the artists most disproportionately liked by Republicans were more like this:  

Kenny Chesney "Drink It Up"
Jason Aldean "My Kinda Party"  

Except actual political stances by musicians clearly do register, because this pop skewed Republican:  

Kelly Clarkson "I Do Not Hook Up"  

and this country skewed Democrat:  

Dixie Chicks "Lubbock or Leave It"  

The detail that excited me, though, was that at the end of the study, almost as a footnote, Brian looked at which artists were the least predictive of their fans' political affiliations, and several of the top ones were metal bands.  

Paradise Lost "Theories From Another World"
Moonspell "Alpha Noir"  

To me as a metal fan, this naturally felt like it was probably mathematical proof of the moral and intellectual superiority of metal.  

Later our startup got acquired by Spotify, and now I have even more data, so I decided to do this study again, abstracting up from the level of individual artists to the cultural level of genres.  

Replicating statistical experiments in social science is often a thankless pit of despair and frustration, and you usually end up proving not only that the first study was wrong, but that all your data is terminally flawed to begin with, and the universe is rapidly collapsing towards the point where the only music left is either Drake, or Major Lazer remixing Drake, or algorithms generating endless choruses of excruciatingly cheerful faux-reggae by virtualized white people.  

But whatever. I have the daily listening behavior of over 100 million people, and somebody quietly slipped me the US political affiliations (or not) of about 7 million of them, and I have a map of about 1500 music genres, and apparently I have an infinite supply of computers, because when I requisition more of them nobody ever says no.  

So here are the top 24 metagenres in the US, ordered by their tendency towards political neutrality. Metal is...not quite first. But if we drill down to the top 150 or so microgenres, metal is...still not first. But if we go all the way down to the 1094 genres for which we have at least 100 fans with supposedly-known political affiliations, then there, finally, #1 is in fact melodic power metal.  

Gloryhammer "Unicorn Invasion of Dundee"  

104 fans in my sample, of whom 27 are Democrats, 26 are Republicans, and 51 are unaffiliated.  

Having successfully proven my point, I began poking around in the rest of the data. And I made it into a web application, so you can poke around in it yourself.  

The most left-leaning metagenres do seem to have a certain consistency to them: funk, soul, r&b. The most right-leaning ones: christian and modern country and classic country. At the microgenre level, the patterns are even more striking. The Democratic end has new jack swing, quiet storm, pop r&b, neo soul, latin pop.The Republican end has worship music, contemporary christian music, christian rock, christian alternative rock, redneck, modern country rock, texas country.  

And at the hyper-microgenre level, it gets kind of ridiculous. Several of the leftmost genres are not just African-American forms, but actually African: kizomba, azonto, makossa, mbalax. After that there's a parade of Afro-Caribbean and Latin forms like kompa, zouk, cumbia, merengue, boogaloo, salsa, norteno, ranchera. Pretty much any kind of American hip hop you can think of leans Democratic, as do almost all indietronic or hipster anythings. If you're conservative and you want pop music, how about some a cappella covers?  

BYU Vocal Point "Happy"  

Or performances from TV talent shows?  

Jeffery Austin "Dancing on My Own"  

So basically, with nothing but listening data, I have replicated the same insight that more or less every other statistical examination of American politics has come to, which is that we are a nation of urban liberals who are exposed to diversity in their daily lives, and rural conservatives who are exposed to church and television.  

Collectively. But it's not entirely that simple. Thank Satan. If we sort by neutrality, which I defined as a combination of tendencies both towards fans' political non-affiliation and towards balance between Democratic and Republican fans, the patterns aren't as depressingly obvious.  

The two most neutral genres with at least 100k fans in my sample are pixie and screamo. For those of you who are older than 25, pixie is basically cheerful pop punk:  

With Confidence "Voldemort"  

and screamo is basically angry pop punk:  

Blood Youth "Buying Time"  

And then there are some other kinds of pop punk and metalcore and emo, but also teen pop and viral pop. And a little farther down we start seeing electro house and EDM. The kids are not as polarized as the grown-ups. Not yet.  

And in fact, almost anywhere you look closely, you find a range. In hip-hop, hardcore and latin and east coast and west coast hip hop all lean left, but there's also Christian hip hop way on the other end, and nerdcore and horrorcore and most forms of hip hop from other non-Latin countries are much closer to neutral in their American fans' politics.  

In country, we find that the bro-ier the country form, the more Republican it leans, but alt-country leans Democrat, and alternative Americana leans way Democrat.  

And so, for me, basically, this is how I reconcile keeping my day job working on music recommendations, instead of quitting and becoming a full-time climate or diversity activist. I observe that making enemies and then trying to convert them doesn't seem to be working super well, but exposing people to difference and diversity tends to result in them becoming less intolerant and isolationist on their own, and music is one of our most powerful vectors for exposing people to bits of different cultures. Music and food. Maybe food is even better, but the towns with no Lebanese people probably don't have a lot of Lebanese restaurants, either. But if you have the internet, you can now have all the music in the world. You are not stuck in your small town. You are not stuck in your multi-cultural megacity. Having empathy for the people you think are your enemies is never trivial, but no matter how insane they seem, they always turn out to also have awesome music.  

Passion "Remember"  

Turns out, I like Christian progressive rock.  

Levante "Le mie mille me"  

I like Mexican indie pop.  

Joker ft. Ayben "Microphone Show"  

I like Turkish hip hop.  

And yeah, sometimes I still feel kind of self-conscious when it seems like a lot of people are doing this:  

Body Count "Black Hoodie"  

and I'm still playing this:  

Nightwish "Wish I Had an Angel"  

RuPaul is doing this:  

RuPaul "American"  

And I'm listening to concept albums about the Platonic solids, or the internal bureacracies of Atlantis.  

But I've come to understand, or maybe resolve, that my own goal is not to magically turn activists into analysts, or isolationists into explorers, but just to seed and cultivate and encourage and reward curiosity. "Acceptance" and "Tolerance" are kernels of empathy, but they are also still assertions of authority and privilege. Curiosity is different. Curiosity goes beyond "I tolerate you" towards realizing that other humans are not subject to your tolerance or not. The questions about Them are questions for them to answer, not you. Music can help people understand a little better how their place in the world is just another place. How their awesome musics are just a few of the many awesome musics. How the act of singing is essentially human, and how singing allows the act of listening to be inherently life-affirming, and that maybe, therefore, music is part of how we undo political division, and thus part of how humanity survives.  

Maybe power metal has actual power.  

Ayreon "Everybody Dies"  


This thing is online at everynoise.com/genrepolitics. See if it helps you.
[This is the script from a talk I delivered at the EMP Pop Conference today. It was written to be read aloud at an intentionally headlong pace, with somewhat-carefully timed blasts of interstitial music. I've included playable clip-links for the songs here, but the clips are usually from the middles of the songs, and I was playing the beginnings of them in the talk, so it's different. The whole playlist is here, although playing it as a standalone thing would make no sense at all.]  


I used to take software jobs to be able to buy records, but buying records is now a way to hear all the world's music like collecting cars is a way to see more of the solar system.  

So now I work at Spotify as a zookeeper for playlist-making robots. Recommendation robots have existed for a while now, but people have mostly used them for shopping. Go find me things I might want to buy. "You bought a snorkel, maybe you'd like to buy these other snorkels?"  

But what streaming music makes possible, which online music stores did not, is actual programmed music experiences. Instead of trying to sell you more snorkels, these robots can take you out to swim around with the funny-looking fish.  

And as robots begin to craft your actual listening experience, it is reasonable, and maybe even morally imperative, to ask if a playlist robot can have an authorial voice, and, if so, what it is?  

The answer is: No. Robots have no taste, no agenda, no soul, no self. Moreover, there is no robot. I talk about robots because it's funny and gives you something you can picture, but that's not how anything really happens.  

How everything really happens is this: people listen to songs. Different people listen to different songs, and we count which ones, and then try to use computers to do math to find patterns in these numbers. That's what my job actually involves. I go to work, I sit down at my desk (except I actually stand at my fancy Spotify standing desk, because I heard that sitting will kill you and if you die you miss a lot of new releases), and I type computer programs that count the actions of human listeners and do math and produce lists of songs.  

So when anybody talks about a fight between machines and humans in music recommendation, you should know that those people do not know what the fuck they are talking about. Music recommendations are machines "versus" humans in the same way that omelets are spatulas "versus" eggs.  

So the good news is that you can stop worrying that robots are trying to poison your listening. But the bad news is that you can start worrying about food safety and whether the people operating your spatulas have the faintest idea what food is supposed to taste like.  

Because data makes some amazing things possible, but it also makes terrible, incoherent, counter-productive things possible. And I'm going to tell you about some of them.  

Counting is the most basic kind of math, and yet even just counting things usefully, in music streaming, is harder than you probably think. For example, this is the most streamed track by the most streamed artist on Spotify:  

Various Artists "Kelly Clarkson on Annie Lennox"  

Do you recognize the band? They are called "Various Artists", and that is their song "Kelly Clarkson on Annie Lennox", from their album Women in Music - 2015 Stories.  

But OK, that's obviously not what we meant. We just need to exclude short commentary tracks, and then this is the most streamed music track by the most streamed artist on Spotify:  

Various Artists "El Preso"  

Except that's "Various Artists" again. The most streamed music track by an actual artist on Spotify is:  

Rihanna "Work"  

OK, so that's starting to make some sense. Pretty much all exercises in programmatic music discovery begin with this: can you "discover" Rihanna?  

Spotify just launched in Indonesia, and I happen to know that Indonesian music is awesome, because there are people there and they make music, so let's find out what the most popular Indonesian song is.  

Justin Bieber "Love Yourself"  

I kind of wanted to know what the most popular Indonesian song is, not just the song that is most popular in Indonesia. But if I restrict my query to artists whose country of origin is Indonesia, I get this:  

Isyana Sarasvati "Kau Adalah"  

Which seems like it might be the Indonesian Lisa Loeb. It's by Isyana Sarasvati, and I looked her up, and she is Indonesian! She's 23, and her Wikipedia page discusses the scholarship she got from the government of Singapore to study music at an academy there, and lists her solo recitals.  

It turns out that our data about where artists are from is decent where we have it, but a lot of times we just don't. 34 of the top 100 songs in Indonesia are by artists for whom we don't have locations.  

But remember math? Math is cool. In addition to counting listeners in Indonesia, we can compare the listening in Indonesia to the listening in the rest of the world, and find the songs are that most distinctively popular in Indonesia. That gets us to this:  

TheOvertunes "Cinta Adalah"  

That is The Overtunes, who turn out to be a band of three Indonesian brothers who became famous when one of them won X Factor Indonesia in 2013.  

But that's still not really what I wanted. It's like being curious about Indonesian food and buying a bag of Indonesian supermarket-brand potato chips.  

I kind of wanted to hear some, I dunno, Indonesian Indie music. I assume they have some, because they have people, and they have X Factor, and that's bound piss some people off enough to start their own bands.  

So if we switch from just counting to doing a bit more data analysis -- actually, quite a lot of data analysis -- we can discover that yes, there is an indie scene in Indonesia, and we can computationally model which bands are more or less a part of it, and without ever stepping foot in Indonesia, we can produce an algorithmic introduction to The Sound of Indonesian Indie, and it begins with this:  

Sheila on 7 "Dan..."  

That is Shelia on 7 doing "Dan...", and I looked them up, too. Rolling Stone Indonesia said that their debut album was one of the 150 Greatest Indonesian Albums of All Time, and they are the first band to sell more than 1m copies of each of their first 3 albums in Indonesia alone.  

Of course, they're also on Sony Music Indonesia, and I assume that at least some of those millions of people who bought their first 3 albums, before Spotify launched in Indonesia and destroyed the album-sales market, are still alive and still remember them. One of the hard parts about running a global music service from your headquarters in Stockholm and your music-intelligence outpost in Boston, is that you need to be able to find Indonesian music that people who already know about Indonesian music don't already know about.  

But once you've modeled the locally-unsurprising canonical core of Indonesian Indie music, you can use that to find people who spend unusually large blocks of their listening time listening to canonical Indonesian Indie music (most of whom are in Indonesia, but they don't have to be; some of them might be off at a music academy in Singapore, where Spotify has been available since 2013), and then you can calculate what music is most distinctively popular among serious Indonesian Indie fans, even if you have no data to tell you where it comes from. And that gets us things like this:  

Sisitipsi "Alkohol"  

That is "Alkohol" by Sistipsi. A Google search for that song finds only 8400 results, which appear to all be in Indonesian. Their band home page is a wordpress.com site, and they had 263 global Spotify listeners last month.  

PILOTZ "Memang Aku"  

PILOTZ, with a Z. Also from Indonesia! 117 listeners.  

Hellcrust "Janji Api"  

Hellcrust. 44 listeners last month. I looked them up, and yes, they're from Jakarta.  

199x "Goodest Riddance"  

199x. 14 monthly listeners! Also, maybe actually from Malaysia, not Indonesia, but in music recommending it's almost as impressive if you can be a little bit wrong as it is if you can be right, because usually when you're wrong you'll get Polish folk-techno or metalcore with Harry Potter fanfic lyrics.  

So that's what a lot of my days are like. Pose a question, write some code, find some songs, and then try to figure out whether those songs are even vaguely answering the question or not.  

And if the question is about Indonesia, that method kind of works.  

But we also have 100 million listeners on Spotify, and we would like to be able to produce personalized listening experiences for each of them. Actually, we'd like to be able to produce multiple listening experiences for each of them. And we can't hire all of our listeners to work for us full-time curating their own individual personal music experiences, because apparently the business model doesn't work? So it's computers or nothing.  

People, it turns out, are somewhat harder than countries.  

For starters, here is the track I have played the most on Spotify:  

Jewel "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"  

As humans, we might guess that it is not quite accurate to say that that is my favorite song, and we might have a very specific theory about why that is. As humans, we might guess that the number of times I have played the song after that has a different meaning:  

CHVRCHES "Leave a Trace"  

In the latter case, I love CHVRCHES so much. But in the former case, I love my daughter even more than I love CHVRCHES, and some nights she really needs to hear Jewel sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" at bedtime.  

And if we are still in the early days of algorithmically programmed listening experiences, at all, then we're in what I hope we will look back on as the early- to mid- prehistory of algorithmic personalized listening experiences. I can't tell you exactly how they work, because we're still trying to make them work. But I can tell you 7 things I've learned that I think are principles to guide us towards a future in which dumbfoundingly amazing music you could never find on your own just flows out of the invisible sea of information directly into your ears. When you want it to, I don't mean you can't shut it off.  

1. No music listener is ever only one thing.  

I mean, you can't assume they are. I have a coworker named Matt who basically only listens to skate-punk music, ever, and we test all personalization things on him first, because you can tell immediately if it's wrong. Right: Warzone "Rebels Til We Die". Wrong: The Damned "Wounded Wolf - Original Mix". But other than him, almost everybody turns out to have some non-obvious combination of tastes. I listen to beepy electronica (Red Cell "Vial of Dreams") and gentle soothing Dark Funeral "Where Shadows Forever Reign" and Kangding Ray "Ardent", and sentimental Southern European arena pop (Gianluca Corrao "Amanti d'estate"), and if you just average that all together it turns out you mostly end up with mopey indie music that I don't like at all: Wyvern Lingo "Beast at the Door"  

2. All information is partial.  

We know what you play on Spotify, but we don't know what you listen to on the radio in the car, or what your spouse plays in your house while you're making dinner, or what you loved as a kid or even what you played incessantly on Rdio before it went bankrupt. For example, this is one of my favorite new albums this year: Magnum "Sacred Blood 'Divine' Lies". I adore Magnum, but I hadn't played them on Spotify at all. But my robot knew they were similar to other things it knew I liked. Sometimes music "discovery" is not about discovering things that you don't know, it's about the computer inferring aspects of your taste that you had previously hidden from it.  

3. Variety is good.  

It is in the interest of listeners and Spotify and music makers if people listen to more and more varied music. If all anybody wanted to hear was this once a day -- Adele "Hello" -- there would be no music business and no streaming and no joy or sunlight. Part of my job is to crack open the shell of the sky. Terabrite "Hello". If you are excited to hear what happens next, you will be more likely to pay us $10, and we will pay the artists more for the music you play, and they will make more of it instead of getting terrible day-jobs working for inbound marketing companies, and the world will be a better place.  

4. People like discovering new music.  

They may hate the song you want them to love. They may have a limited tolerance for doing work to discover music, or for trial-and-erroring through lots of music they don't like in order to find it, but neither of those things mean that they wouldn't be thrilled by the right new song if somebody could find it for them. One of you will come up after this to ask me what this song is: Sweden "Stocholm". One of you, probably a different person, will wonder about this: Draper/Prides "Break Over You". I have like a million of those. I mean actually like an actual million of those.  

5. Bernie Sanders is right.  

It is in the interest of the world of music creators if the streaming music business exerts a bit of democratic-socialist pressure against income inequality. The incremental human value of another person listening to "Shake It Off" again is arguably positive, but it's probably also considerably smaller than the value of that person listening to a new song by a new songwriter who doesn't already have enough money to live out the rest of their life inside a Manhattan loft whose walls are covered with thumbdrives full of bitcoins and #1-fan selfies. Anthem Lights "Shake It Off". Taylor, if you're listening, I'm going to keep playing shitty covers of your songs until you put the real ones back on Spotify. That's how it works.  

6. If you're going to try to play people what they actually like, you have to be prepared for whatever that is.  

DJ Loppetiss "Janteloven 2016"  

That's "Russelåter", which is a crazy Norwegian thing where high school kids finish their exams way before the end of the senior year, so in the spring they get together in little gangs, give themselves goofy gang names, purchase actual tour buses from the previous year's gangs, have them repainted with their gang logo, commission terrible crap-EDM gang theme songs from Norwegian producers for whom this is the most profitable local music market, and then spend weeks driving around the suburbs of Oslo in these buses, drinking and never changing their clothes and blasting their appalling theme songs. I did not make this up.  

7. Recommendation incurs responsibility.  

If people are going to give up minutes of their finite lives to listen to something they would otherwise never have been burdened with, it better have the potential, however vague or elusive, to change their life. You can't, however tantalizing the prospect might seem, just play something because you want to. (Aedliga "Futility Has Its Limits") Like I said, you definitely can't do that. If you do that, the robots win.  

Thank you.
Through a roundabout series of connections, I got invited to be part of a roundtable panel at EMP Pop 2015, which ended up (in keeping with this year's themes of Music, Weirdness and Transgression) being a group deliberation on the subject of The Worst Song in the World.  

And since I was going to be there, and conference rules allowed for solo proposals in addition to the group thing, I figured I might as well also try something fun and weird and outside of my usual current data-alchemical domain.  

In the end the thing ended up being not quite free of data-alchemy in the same way that my songs without drums always somehow develop drum tracks. But it's not about data alchemy. At least mostly not.  

All the talks are supposed to eventually be available in audio form, but in the meantime, here is the script I was more or less working from. To reproduce the auditorium experience you should blast at least the first 20 seconds or so of each song as you encounter it in the text, and imagine me intoning the names of the songs in monster-truck-rally announcer-voice, and then saying everything else really fast and excitedly because a) you only get 20 minutes, and b) it was 9:20am on the Sunday morning after the Saturday night conference party and some people might need a little help relocating their attentiveness.  

(Also, be forewarned that neither the talk nor the music discussed is intended for underage audiences or people who are insecure about religion or genuinely frightened by grown men growling like monsters.)  

The Satan:Noise Ratio
Triangulations of the Abyss  

I grew up in what I wouldn't call a religious community, exactly, but certainly one that was dominated by the assumption of Christianity. My social status was kind of established when I told two members of the football team that the universe was formed out of dust, not Godliness, and it really didn't make any difference whether you liked that idea or not. This was second grade. We had a football team in second grade.  

By the time I discovered heavy metal, I was pretty ready for some kind of comprehensive alternative. Science fiction, existentialism, atheism, algebra, Black Sabbath. These all seemed to frighten people, which suggested they were good and powerful ingredients. But if you're going to fight against football in Texas, you have to have your shit organized. You need a program.  

Obviously as an atheist I wasn't going to believe in Satan any more than I was going to believe in elves, but the idea of Satanism seemed potentially compelling anyway. Like Scientology, but with roots, and better iconography, and fewer videotapes to buy. And I had learned a lot from reading the liner notes to Rush albums, so I dug into Black Sabbath albums with the same enthusiasm.  

Black Sabbath "After Forever"  

[You have to remember that at the time, that was really heavy. But the words go like this:]  

I think it was true it was people like you that crucified Christ
I think it is sad the opinion you had was the only one voiced
Will you be so sure when your day is near, say you don't believe?
You had the chance but you turned it down, now you can't retrieve  

Puzzling. But then, as if realizing they were missing something, they got a new singer whose name was Dio, and made an album called Heaven & Hell.  

Black Sabbath "Heaven & Hell"  

Sing me a song, you're a singer
Do me a wrong, you're a bringer of evil
The Devil is never a maker
The less that you give, you're a taker
So it's on and on and on, it's Heaven and Hell, oh well

Fool, fool! You've got to bleed for the dancer!  

The music: solid. The lyrics? Not exactly "Red Barchetta".  

But OK, what about Judas Priest. Didn't two guys kill themselves after listening to Judas Priest? Now we're getting serious.  

Judas Priest "Saints in Hell"  

Cover your fists
Razor your spears
It's been our possession
For 8,000 years
Fetch the scream eagles
Unleash the wild cats
Set loose the king cobras
And blood sucking bats  

OK, if I wanted a fucking rhyming "evil" version of Noah's Ark...  

But whatever. Before I found the Satanism I was looking for, New Wave happened, and it turned out that androgyny and drum machines scared the football boys way more than Satan.  

And then I left Texas and went to Harvard and took on a very different set of social challenges. So the next time I cycled back into metal, as I always do no matter how many other things I'm into, I wasn't looking for more elaborate pentagrams to shock football boys, I was looking for more hermeneutic nuances to situate and contextualize metal for comparative-lit majors who listened to the Minutemen and the Talking Heads.  

Slayer. The Antichrist. Fucking yes. Slayer makes Sabbath with Ozzy sound like Wings, and Sabbath with Dio sound like Van Halen with Sammy Hagar.  

Slayer "The Antichrist"  

I am the Antichrist
All love is lost
Insanity is what I am
Eternally my soul will rot (rot... rot)  

So, that's not Satanic, that's Christian. I mean, it's sort of ironic, Slayer of course were the original modern hipsters.  

But what about Bathory? In Nomine Satanas. Fucking Latin! Or something...  

Bathory "In Nomine Satanas"  

Ink the pen with blood
Now sign your destiny to me  

Jesus fucking christ: more fealty.  

Emperor. These are Norwegian actual church-burning dudes. Although, it's Scandinavia, so the church-burning was actually part of a progressive urban planning scheme with multi-use pentagrams in pleasant, radiant-heated public spaces.  

Emperor "Inno a Satana"  

O' mighty Lord of the Night. Master of beasts. Bringer of awe and derision.
Thou whose spirit lieth upon every act of oppression, hatred and strife.
Thou whose presence dwelleth in every shadow.
Thou who strengthen the power of every quietus.
Thou who sway every plague and storm.

Satan's uvula! "Harkee"?  

Gorgoroth "Possessed by Satan"  

worldwide revolution has occurred
holy war, execution of sodomy
We are possessed by the moon
We are possessed by evil
We are possessed by Satan
possessed by satan
and then we rape the nuns with desire  

We rape the nuns with desire? This is a program of sorts, I guess. But not one that offered solutions to any problems I actually had. But after a while, I kind of stopped asking music to solve any problems in my life that weren't about music. As an adult, the main thing I asked from my Satanic Norwegian metal was leads for where I could find more of it. The most constant internal theme in my life has been the desperate gnawing suspicion that all the music I know is only the tiniest sliver of what actually exists.  

And maybe what we fear guides our evasions so inexorably that we always end up confirming our suspicions by our nature, but my love of metal motivated and informed my work designing data-analysis software as much as it haunted my attempts to understand emotional resonance, and gradually over the years my writing about music for people bled into writing about music for computers, and that's how I eventually ended up at Spotify, where we have a lot of computers and the largest mass of data about music that humanity has ever collected. And this makes it possible to find out about a lot of metal that you might not otherwise know about. A lot. And a lot of everything else. So I ended up making this genre map, to try to make some sense of it all.  


And having organized the world into 1375 genres (which is approximately 666 times 2), I can now answer some other questions about them. Just a few days ago, in fact, purely coincidentally and in no way because I was writing this talk at the last minute without a really clear idea where I was going with it, I decided to reverse-index all the words in the titles of all the songs in the world, and then, using BLACK MATH, find and rank the words that appear most disproportionately in each genre.  

It wasn't totally obvious whether this would produce a magic quantification of scattered souls, or a polite visit from some Mumford-and-Sons fans in the IT department, but here are some examples of what it produced in a few genres you might know:  

a cappella: medley love somebody your girl home time over will with when need around life what tonight song that don't just  

acoustic blues: blues woman boogie baby mama moan down mississippi gonna ain't going worried chicago shake long don't rider jail poor woogie  

modern country rock: country beer that's that whiskey love good like cowboy truck don't she's carolina back ain't just wanna this with dirt  

east coast hip hop: featuring edited kool explicit rhyme triple hood shit album game check ghetto what streets money flow version that style  

west coast rap: gangsta dogg featuring niggaz nate snoop hood ghetto playa money pimp thang shit smoke game bitch life funk ain't west  

I'd say that shit is doing something. [The whole thing is here.]  

Using this, I can finally figure out the most Satanic of all metal subgenres. It is Black Thrash, whose top words go like this:  

satanic blasphemy unholy death infernal antichrist satan hell blood holocaust evil metal nuclear doom vengeance black flames darkness funeral iron  

If Satanism is fucking anywhere, it is here.  

Nifelheim "Envoy of Lucifer"  

OK, no idea what they're saying there.  

Destroyer 666 "Satanic Speed Metal"  


Warhammer "The Claw of Religion"  

Since the beginning of time
A weapon was built and protected
To keep the balance in line
To guard the "forces of the light"
Do you hear the cries of all the ones that fell?  

Isn't that actually the narration from the beginning of The Fifth Element?  

Sathanas "Reign of the Antichrist"  

From the fall of grace-I shall rise again
Avenging chosen one-Known as Satan’s son  

Well, it's certainly Satanic. But it's Satanism as mirror-image Christianity. Like, imagine if Jackson Pollock's avant-garde transgression was taking Vermeer paintings and repainting them with left and right reversed!!!! To be fair, that's the usual way in which revolutions collapse into politics, hating the status quo's conclusions but being unable to escape its assumptions.  

However, I have a lot of other metal subgenres to work with, and I can actually reorganize the world as if Black Thrash were its point of origin, and then as we move slowly away from that point, genre by genre, we can start to see the patterns change.  

"Satan" begins to disappear.  


"Christ" goes away.  


"Damnation" no longer so much of a concern.  


"Chaos" starts to appear.  


"Darkness" is everywhere.  


"Eternal" fascinates us.  


As does "Beyond".  


"Death", always death.  


And over and over, at the top of almost every list that doesn't start with "Death": "Flesh".  


Except groove metal, where the number 1 term is "Reissue".  

So my mistake, maybe, was in assuming I was looking for a philosophy that called itself Satanic. Give up that constraint, and ideas start to coalesce after all.  

Entombed "Left Hand Path"  

No one will take my soul away
I carry my own will and make my day  

Enslaved "Ethica Odini"  

You have the key to mystery
Pick up the runes; unveil and see  

Dantalion "Onward to Darkness"  

Existence is your own adversary,
a path full of pain and madness.  

Mitochondrion "Eternal Contempt of Man"  

Now the earth, sea, and sky all have torn
Now a gate from the void hath been born
Both the watchers and the unholy do agree
Eradicate that vermin filth humanity  

Dodecahedron "I, Chronocrator"  

Reigning formulas undone
Oaths sworn into silence
Our world will be without form
Our earth will be void  

We are approaching a version of Nihilism that is not an absence, but an embrace of nothingness, an embrace of the finite, of finity.  

Celtic Frost "Os Abysmi Vel Daath"  

Where I am there is no thing.
No God, no me, no inbetween.  

Totalselfhatred "Enlightenment"  

OK, first of all, the band is called Totalselfhatred, and they sound like this. Dreamy.  

I cannot change your destiny, can only help you think
As far as my horizons lead - your thoughts will be more deep
Hope inside is torturing me - keeps painfully alive
A light inside, a knowledge deep, that shines so bright!  

And then, maybe, the grand masters of this, Deathspell Omega.  

Deathspell Omega "Chaining the Katechon"  

That's a 22-minute song, and it does not fade in.  

The task to be achieved, human vocation
Is to become intensely mortal
Not to shrink back
Before the voices
coming from the gallows tree
A work making increasing sense
By its lack of sense
In the history of times there is
But the truth of bones and dust.  

Here, then, are some potential tenets of a chaotic black metal philosophical program:  

1. Babel. Acceptance of chaos, instead of a futile struggle for order or serenity
2. The Codex. To exist in chaos is to seek complexity over simplicity
3. The Void. There is beauty in darkness
4. The Scythe. There are either no illusions, or all illusions, but either way, only death is real  

Which all adds up, I think, to something that I basically understood in second grade, after all: grimly acknowledged free will. That is the philosophical core of metal, as an art form. That is the exact rebellion I was seeking. To choose Satan, and particularly to choose Satan without giving him any positive qualities, is to assert that the act of choosing is more important than the actual choice. To choose death is to assert that choosing is more important than living. To choose death symbolically is somewhat more powerful than choosing it literally, because you can choose it symbolically more than once, while gives you a chance to refine your symbolism.  

Blut Aus Nord "The Choir of the Dead"  

That is Blut Aus Nord's "The Choir of the Dead", from an album actually called The Work Which Transforms God. What does it say? I dunno. But what does it mean? "Hail Satan" is "Think for yourself" plus noise.  

Thank you, and see you in Hell.  

[The whole playlist that I was playing from is on Spotify here: Triangulations of the Abyss.]  

Thanks to the Program Committee and the audience for indulging this whim, and particularly to Eric Weisbard for backing up his early-morning scheduling of this racket by showing up to moderate the session himself.
As part of a conference on Music and Genre at McGill University in Montreal, over this past weekend, I served as the non-academic curiosity at the center of a round-table discussion about the nature of musical genres, and of the natures of efforts to understand genres, and of the natures of efforts to understand the efforts to understand genres. Plus or minus one or two levels of abstraction, I forget exactly.  

My "talk" to open this conversation was not strictly scripted to begin with, and I ended up rewriting my oblique speaking notes more or less over from scratch as the day was going on, anyway. One section, which I added as I listened to other people talk about the kinds of distinctions that "genres" represent, attempted to list some of the kinds of genres I have in my deliberately multi-definitional genre map. There ended up being so many of these that I mentioned only a selection of them during the talk. So here, for extended (potential) amusement, is the whole list I had on my screen:  

Kinds of Genres
(And note that this isn't even one kind of kind of genre...)  

- conventional genre (jazz, reggae)
- subgenre (calypso, sega, samba, barbershop)
- region (malaysian pop, lithumania)
- language (rock en espanol, hip hop tuga, telugu, malayalam)
- historical distance (vintage swing, traditional country)
- scene (slc indie, canterbury scene, juggalo, usbm)
- faction (east coast hip hop, west coast rap)
- aesthetic (ninja, complextro, funeral doom)
- politics (riot grrrl, vegan straight edge, unblack metal)
- aspirational identity (viking metal, gangster rap, skinhead oi, twee pop)
- retrospective clarity (protopunk, classic peruvian pop, emo punk)
- jokes that stuck (crack rock steady, chamber pop, fourth world)
- influence (britpop, italo disco, japanoise)
- micro-feud (dubstep, brostep, filthstep, trapstep)
- technology (c64, harp)
- totem (digeridu, new tribe, throat singing, metal guitar)
- isolationism (faeroese pop, lds, wrock)
- editorial precedent (c86, zolo, illbient)
- utility (meditation, chill-out, workout, belly dance)
- cultural (christmas, children's music, judaica)
- occasional (discofox, qawaali, disco polo)
- implicit politics (chalga, nsbm, dangdut)
- commerce (coverchill, guidance)
- assumed listening perspective (beatdown, worship, comic)
- private community (orgcore, ectofolk)
- dominant features (hip hop, metal, reggaeton)
- period (early music, ska revival)
- perspective of provenance (classical (composers), orchestral (performers))
- emergent self-identity (skweee, progressive rock)
- external label (moombahton, laboratorio, fallen angel)
- gender (boy band, girl group)
- distribution (viral pop, idol, commons, anime score, show tunes)
- cultural institution (tin pan alley, brill building pop, nashville sound)
- mechanism (mashup, hauntology, vaporwave)
- radio format (album rock, quiet storm, hurban)
- multiple dimensions (german ccm, hindustani classical)
- marketing (world music, lounge, modern classical, new age)
- performer demographics (military band, british brass band)
- arrangement (jazz trio, jug band, wind ensemble)
- competing terminology (hip hop, rap; mpb, brazilian pop music)
- intentions (tribute, fake)
- introspective fractality (riddim, deep house, chaotic black metal)
- opposition (alternative rock, r-neg-b, progressive bluegrass)
- otherness (noise, oratory, lowercase, abstract, outsider)
- parallel terminology (gothic symphonic metal, gothic americana, gothic post-punk; garage rock, uk garage)
- non-self-explanatory (fingerstyle, footwork, futurepop, jungle)
- invented distinctions (shimmer pop, shiver pop; soul flow, flick hop)
- nostalgia (new wave, no wave, new jack swing, avant-garde, adult standards)
- defense (relaxative, neo mellow)  

That was at the beginning of the talk. At the end I had a different attempt at an amusement prepared, which was a short outline of my mental draft of the paper I would write about genre evolution, if I wrote papers. In a way this is also a way of listing kinds of kinds of things:  

The Every-Noise-at-Once Unified Theory of Musical Genre Evolution
  1. There is a status quo;
  2. Somebody becomes dissatisfied with it;
  3. Several somebodies find common ground in their various dissatisfactions;
  4. Somebody gives this common ground a name, and now we have Thing;
  5. The people who made thing before it was called Thing are now joined by people who know Thing as it is named, and have thus set out to make Thing deliberately, and now we have Thing and Modern Thing, or else Classic Thing and Thing, depending on whether it happened before or after we graduated from college;
  6. Eventually there's enough gravity around Thing for people to start trying to make Thing that doesn't get sucked into the rest of Thing, and thus we get Alternative Thing, which is the non-Thing thing that some people know about, and Deep Thing, which is the non-Thing thing that only the people who make Deep Thing know;
  7. By now we can retroactively identify Proto-Thing, which is the stuff before Thing that sounds kind of thingy to us now that we know Thing;
  8. Thing eventually gets reintegrated into the mainstream, and we get Pop Thing;
  9. Pop Thing tarnishes the whole affair for some people, who head off grumpily into Post Thing;
  10. But Post Thing is kind of dreary, and some people set out to restore the original sense of whatever it was, and we get Neo-Thing;
  11. Except Neo-Thing isn't quite the same as the original Thing, so we get Neo-Traditional Thing, for people who wish none of this ever happened except the original Thing;
  12. But Neo-Thing and Neo-Traditional Thing are both kind of precious, and some people who like Thing still also want to be rock stars, and so we get Nu Thing;
  13. And this is all kind of fractal, so you could search-and-replace Thing with Post Thing or Pop Thing or whatever, and after a couple iterations you can quickly end up with Post-Neo-Traditional Pop Post-Thing.

And it would be awesome.  

[Also, although I was the one glaringly anomalous non-academic at this academic conference, let posterity record the cover of the conference program.]  

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