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.”
It’s not just a Pitchfork thing, either. The New Yorker wrote about Views, calling out Drake not for his streaming-friendly album lengths, but for the actual content of his songwriting (which feel like the same topics that hosts of other artists sing about without earning the same criticism): “He is like an algorithm cycling through a set of durable themes: Nobody believed in me; always be loyal; my enemies are out to get me; we should be together; I’ve tried to be faithful, but I just can’t. And, above all: Nobody’s perfect.” In Rolling Stone‘s examination of Gorillaz’ The Now Now, the piece reflects on the animated band’s previous offering of Humanz and noted “it felt more like a streaming algorithm than a coherent album,” even though the band has recorded guest-heavy, smorgasbord records for decades. And in NME‘s take on the latest from Twenty One Pilots, individual songs are given a hearty stream-shaming: “The likes of “Chlorine” (with its soaring Bastille-esque chorus of, ‘I’m running from my li-fe’), and the Brandon Flowers-like “The Hype,” are strong enough to exist outside of any story; the songs comes on like a Spotify algorithm’s wet dream.’
These are only a spattering of examples for a music review concept that has become the new “sun-dappled” or “elegiac” or “angular guitars” — a rote concept repeated to such effect that it loses all meaning. Not all the uses are equal: Sometimes the music is criticized for trying to game the system, while in other cases, the concept of “the algorithm” is simply raised as a buzzy phrase meant to connotate phoniness and a lack of soul. But really, when an album or a song is criticized for its streaming ambitions, two things are happening. One, the artist is being criticized for chasing monetary success over artistic integrity, a “sell out” claim without quite the same vitriol. This is the kind of music criticism that has existed for decades, though it has traditionally been brandished on Top 40 pop artists and now has been flipped on its head to focus frequently on rock artists, presumably under the long-debunked suspicion that rock holds some sort of higher standard of integrity. The shorthand here is that this music sounds like other things that have been successful, somewhat ignoring the fact that many of these artists (Greta Van Fleet aside) are, in fact, the ones setting the populist agenda, rather than pursuing it. What seems like chasing trends to some could just be seen as being influenced by their peers to others. It all depends on where you are standing.
But the other thing that’s happening concerns the motivations of music critics. These snipes can often feel like an industry trying to hold onto its relevance in the wake of waning influence. Critics are nearly obsolete in the world of streaming, where the human recommendations of popular media outlets hold less value when faced with a computer that can just play you the songs it thinks you will like. The ostensible knock is that the computers might be dumb enough to be fooled by the “algorithm” overtures that some bands heedlessly employ strictly to get into your headphones, but that the real human beings of the music writing world are too smart for that. It’s easy to understand, in this light, how threatened critics could be, not wanting to be the waitress teaching you how to use the iPad that will eventually take their job, an analogy Pelly used in her piece to describe the conundrum facing so many industries.
But what these criticisms of streaming at large discount are the real people who are fans of these artists, who are, in turn, also real people. None of these artists are Spotify creations whose popularity has been built on their ability not to get skipped on a playlist; they attract fans by the thousands and headline music festivals, they achieve success on streaming platforms not because of tricks, but because they’re literally what the mass population wants to listen to. These aren’t artists that only get heard in the background, desperately trying not to get skipped, the new Muzak as Pelly calls it. People pay money to enjoy them. There’s an idea that the algorithm is teaching people what they like, but it’s also a symbiotic process; the algorithm is responding to what people actually enjoy. In the criticism world, though, the fans of Imagine Dragons or Greta Van Fleet or Twenty One Pilots aren’t part of the peer-based echo chamber, so it’s easy for their agency to be discounted. There’s a level of disdain there, too, where what these fans possibly represent — be it geography or education level or income class — feeds into why their taste level isn’t given the same weight as the unimpeachable fandom of Mitski. It’s bad enough that even drawing a direct line to the presidency of Donald Trump isn’t that far-fetched.