More Music is Better Music

I am currently writing an article – long overdue – with the working title, “More Music is Better Music”. It will hopefully appear in a collection next year edited by Patrik Wikström and Robert DeFillippi. The article departs from the fact that the core motives underlying the disruption process within the music industry during the last decade, has been the establishment of vast online music archives. Streaming services (like Spotify) wouldn’t have been able to gain global and rapid popularity if it hadn’t been for the swelling back catalogues of music providers. The number of tracks available at popular music streaming sites have, as a consequence, during the last years been constantly promoted as a market advantage: Xbox Music claims 30 million songs, Grooveshark 15, Deezer and Rdio 20, Soundcloud 16, 12 (at least according to the latest figures). Spotify has some twenty million songs on the service, with twenty thousand new ones added every day. Getting users hooked on the service and continue to listen to more music (than they need) is, hence, perceived as key to (potential) success – even if most services are still far from making a profit.

Anyway, the introduction to the article – which is now at last and finally taking shape – runs as follows:

In March 2014 the funk band Vulfpeck released the conceptual album, ”Sleepify”, containg five minutes and 16 seconds of pure silence. The purpose was to crowdfund an upcoming world tour, and songs were specifically prompted to be available on the Swedish music streaming service Spotify—hence the title of the album. In a video posted at the same time on YouTube, band leader Jack Stratton stated that, when he had sat down with his band to talk about potentially touring during the fall of 2014, ”they said that they would do it under one condition: that all the shows would be free.” Jokingly, he replied: ”That’s not a problem—Yeah!”

In the video Stratton continued by explaining ”how it works”: Vulfpeck releases ”Sleepify” on Spotify, an album that ”is different from our previous albums. This album is much quieter. In fact, we believed it is the most silent album ever recorded.” Essentially, what Stratton was asking fans to do was to play and stream the silent album put on repeat while sleeping—”make your sleep productive”—all in order to exponentially multiply royalties from Spotify. Since the latter are only disbursed once a song is registered as a play, which happens after 30 seconds, all songs on “Sleepify”—ingeniously entitled ”Z” to “Zzzzzzzzzz”—were 31 or 32 seconds long. According to Stratton, 800 streams would roughly generate four dollars in royalties to the band. ”If you stream ’Sleepify’ on repeat while you sleep every night, we will be able to tour without charging admission”, he concluded, all the while vividly exclaiming that if someone was unaware of what Spotify is—it’s a service that’s ”gonna through in the entire history of recorded music” (Sleepify 2014).

Vulfpeck’s recent prank is illustrative of the fundamental changes the recording industry has gone through during the last 15 years. When music is treated as data and handled in binary form, it literally looses its meaning (at least from a computational perspective). Noice reduction and signal processing (or the lack of it)—that is, silence—instead becomes distinctive features. In fact, at the very origin of communication theory (or high modernism for that matter) lies a mute meaninglessness. After all, all semantic aspects of communication were once deemed ”irrelevant to the engineering problem” by Shannon in 1948—only four years prior to the well know ”four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence”. Hence, Spotify’s spokesman Graham James seem spot on when commenting on ”Sleepify”: ”This is a clever stunt, but we prefer Vulpeck’s earlier albums. Sleepify’ seems derivative of John Cage’s work.” (Shannon 1948; Ramirez 2014).

Then again, when music is treated as data, visions of completness also occurs, and it becomes possible to claim (or at least envision) that one is going to ”through in” the whole history of recorded music, as Jack Stratton admiringly put it. The notion of ’the celestial jukebox’ has, no doubt, been the most prevalent one within this archival discourse. It was the first dominant vision of a networked database of consumable on-demand music proposed already two decades ago (Goldstein 1994). Digital purchase of individual songs then became a widely promoted solution, spearheaded by the iPod, iTunes and Apple’s palette of gorgeous mobile devices (Snickars & Vonderau, 2012). Today, ’disruptions’ have occured again, with the game changer towards cloud-based streaming services of which Spotify is perhaps the most salient one—or as the New Yorker recently stated: ”Spotify is a force for good in the world of music, is almost Swedenborgian: salvation in the form of a fully licensed streaming-music service where you can find every record ever made” (Seabrook, 2014).

Since the establishment of YouTube in 2005 streaming media has been a general phenomena (Snickars & Vonderau, 2010). Still, novel forms of access to streaming music also needs to be understood and treated in media specific ways. In fact, as a media form suited and unusually fit for the digital transition, popular music has in more than one way been situated at the vanguard of media industry developments during the last two decades—from the ’devastating’ file sharing á la Napster to the promoted ’solutionism’ brought forward by Spotify and similar services (with the irony being that both rely on the same communication protocols).

In this article, I will make a claim that throughout these digital shifts and changes within the music industry, more music has been a recurring lead metaphor, as well as marketing gimmick for digital music consumption—even if the promoted uniqueness has rapidly become totally habitual. The underlying idea of the article is quite simple, albeit important I will argue. On the one hand, digital production and distribution of music has during the last decade led to a situation where particular songs are also (and always) part of the ’whole history’ of recorded music. The lure of streaming services are, after all, that they offer (almost) everything recorded. But on the other hand this sort of archival mode of online media—all in the form of a giant and (more or less) inflated database—also runs the risk, or (depending on perspective) has a technological and inherent ability to go berserk, and potentially burst—and thus, completely undermining classical notions of archives and/or collections as trusted and secured repositories of material and/or cultural content. Spam or automated content generation are obvious examples, as well as the bot culture currently in vogue online. The latter, I will argue, is not only underestimated and poorly understood, it is also way more ubiquous than regularly and publicly apprehended. Estimation vary, but it is often said that around a third of all web traffic is nowadays non-human. More specifically, some 20 million ’users’ on Twitter are bots, more than a quarter of all changes on Wikipedia (the world’s fifth most popular site) are done by machines etcetera. Hence, machines pose a big threat; on, for example, for a dollar each scripts or bots will ”get you plays & listeners on Spotify”. Then again, humans can also subvert music catalogues as ’the artist’ Matt Farley, who apparently has earned more than $20 000 from his music since he has released over 14 000 songs. There are, as a consequence, different ways where aggregating musical content bot wise or à la web 2.0 runs the risk of technological back-fire, damaging the very notion of what a musical archive is, should or could be. More music does not necessarily mean better music.