Music has long had a symbiotic relationship with the mode in which is it distributed. This can be traced to classical compositions for royal performances, the brevity of 7-inch records, the time constraints of the LP and CD formats, and radio’s needs to keep listeners from turning that dial. Musical trends aren’t always the creative whims that it’s easy to pretend they are, or some masterstroke of unknowable genius that regular folks will never fully understand. From track lengths to chord progressions to song structures, the amount of math involved in what sounds good to the ears is the least sexy aspect of music, right up there with the language of recording contracts and the cleanliness of tour buses. But it wasn’t until the rise of services like Spotify and Apple Music that the mathematics of music felt so dangerous. Namely, the math involved in streaming.
It’s been music critics who have been beating the drum about the dangers of streaming algorithms lately. There’s been a wealth of insightful and illuminating reporting on the subject, including the work of Liz Pelly (who recently wrote about Spotify as a genre and has focused much of her writing over the past couple years on the systematic injustices deeply embedded in the music industry) and Marc Hogan (whose article about streaming’s effect on pop music is essential, shining a light on just how the songwriting world is adjusting to increased importance of the metrics of these services), but most of the time the criticism is less about well-researched investigations and more about gut feeling call outs, directed at music that is often simultaneously commercially successful and critically derided. Over the course of the last year, you’d be hardpressed to find a negative album review that didn’t at some point evoke the idea of The Algorithm being to blame for the music’s perceived lack of quality — it has become this specter hovering above popular music, ready to sink its talons into anything that finds commercial success.
It pops up in the second line of Pitchfork’s famed Greta Van Fleet takedown, where the band is called “more of an algorithmic fever dream than an actual rock band,” and later accused of existing “to be swallowed into the algorithm’s churn and rack up plays, of which they already have hundreds of millions.” It popped up early in their latest Muse review, where “Muse’s most approachable and most ruthlessly broad record yet, it is an attempt to replicate Scorpion’s Spotify omnipresence, so on the nose the first track is called “Algorithm.” ” And all within the same month, the site’s Imagine Dragons review, yet another band that the site would never heap praise on, regardless of Spotify, offered up this bit of insight: “The music is categorically soaring and sometimes pleasant, because sometimes the algorithm finds you where you want to be found.”