In the decades before the Internet, we trusted the radio, the guy behind the counter at the record store, the video channel and our favourite music magazines to tell us what music was important. We didn’t call that “curation” back then, but that’s exactly what was happening: we trusted real, live people to provide the soundtrack to our lives. But when Napster came along, everyone gorged on a self-serve, all-you-can-eat buffet and we went insane grabbing more music than we could ever hope to afford. A frenzy of playlist-making followed.
But now we’re kinda over that. With so much music out there–and far more good music than we’d ever be able to discover on our own–the trend is moving back towards having someone else create our playlists. I mean, who has the time to search through millions of songs in hopes of finding something we really like? And what, exactly, should we be listening for?
The Atlantic takes a look at the lost art of actually listening to music.
Last June, the record mogul Jimmy Iovine, legendary for helping launch the careers of artists ranging from Tom Petty to Eminem, appeared on a San Francisco stage to announce that his latest employer, Apple, had a bold new product that would change the future of music. He called that product an “ecosystem.” Drake, then the biggest rapper on the planet, was on hand to testify about Apple’s foresight. The industry press mostly yawned. Beneath the hype was one basic proposition—hear almost anything, anytime, anywhere!—that the likes of Spotify already offered to millions of users. Around the turn of the millennium, people referred to the still-theoretical notion of on-demand digital listening with the appropriately awestruck coinage the celestial jukebox. A decade and a half later, it has simply, drably become streaming, the heir to MP3s, CDs, and records.
But one part of Iovine’s presentation did feel new. Apple was poised to launch an online radio station meant to embody the ideals of an era when $9.99 a month buys you unlimited access to a huge amount of history’s recorded music. The DJs for the station, called Beats 1, would play music “not based on [market] research, not based on genre, not based on drumbeats,” Iovine said. They would play “only music that is great.”
After Beats 1 had been under way for a month, Nikhil Sonnad at Quartz analyzed the station’s song data to find out what Iovine meant by great. “Just edgy enough to not be called mainstream” is how he summed up the sensibility of the enterprise. He also took note of repetition on Beats 1. The top 18 songs broadcast had each been played more than 50 times. Some listeners had started to complain about the frequency with which they were subjected to a mediocre song Pharrell had given exclusively to Apple. Often when I tuned in, I would hear DJs shouting out Wikipedia-style facts about the artists they were about to play, the same artists I’d heard the last time I tuned in.
Keep reading. And then consider reading Every Song Ever by Ben Ratliff. It may change the way you listen to all music.