Everything Looks Like a Nail: The “Social Music” Fallacy

Fingertip music picture by Freeditigalphotos.net/Ambro

I was listening to an album on Spotify the other day when I heard an ad between tracks that was promoting Spotify itself, focused on how “social” the service is. Because after all, as the ad said: “Music is made to be shared.”

And there it is, folks, perhaps the single greatest misconception at the heart of the technologist view of music here in the 21st century. “Music is made to be shared”: that’s what Spotify is pushing, that’s what Facebook is pushing, that’s what all the buzz and activity around the music/social media nexus is about.

Music is not made to be shared. It is made to be listened to.

This idea of so-called “social music” is such a forceful technologist assumption at this point that articles are being written like “Has Apple Missed the Social-Music Train?“; and, “Is Pandora’s Wait-and-See Social Strategy a Big Mistake?”

I contend that the mistake here is the idea of social music itself. Music is not made to be shared. It is made to be listened to. Music is inherently, and often movingly, a private experience. Even when being experienced in a communal setting, as in a concert—even, that is, when the internal experience is enhanced by the knowledge that other people are having similar experiences concurrently—music remains, at heart, an internal experience. An experience of the soul, if you will.

I think I understand why the technologists seem to need to insist that music somehow only matters when you share it. Here, to illustrate, is a technologist writing about why music is special—it’s a gentleman named Paul Lamere, a software developer who works at The Echo Nest, a “music intelligence company” in Massachusetts, and it comes from a recent blog post he wrote entitled, “What Is So Special About Music?”

“Music is social. People love to share music. They express their identity to others by the music they listen to. They give each other playlists and mixtapes. Music is a big part of who we are.”

Here is the sleight of hand and/or misunderstanding: “Music is a big part of who we are” does not automatically equate to “People love to share music.” Likewise, the fact that the music we most like feels part of our identity does not equate to the idea that we “express our identity to others by the music we listen to.”

Personally, I feel strongly attached to the music I love. And yet I do not use music to “express my identity” to others. I mostly use my words, my thoughts, and my relationships to do that. My music is pretty much kept out of it; there are few actual, real-life friends with whom I talk about music, and maybe only one or two whose musical taste I feel any connection to.

I do not use music to “express my identity” to others. I mostly use my words, my thoughts, and my relationships to do that

Yes, it is great and wonderful to bond with people over music. But such a bond when it happens is a rightfully unusual moment of connection, not something that can be generated through convenience and volume.

As Mark Zuckerberg has so flagrantly illustrated, guys who write code for a living are not, generally speaking, the best judges of how to interact socially in the real world. It’s not their fault, it’s just an occupational hazard.

The underlying issue is that guys who write code are—again, generally speaking—not all that attuned to those parts of life that involve emotional intelligence. This is not a criticism; as has been well described by now, different people have different kinds of intelligences. The technologist is not typically in his strength or comfort zone on matters of emotional intelligence.

And so the same guys who have been trying to turn friendship into a nuance-free accumulation of contacts are now aiming to turn music into something it likewise isn’t. The qualitative and compassionate and self-reflective act of listening to and appreciating a piece of music becomes a quantitative and competitive and surface-level act of spreading a file around the network most robustly.

hoodwinked by technologist zealotry and venture-capital-fueled delusions

So let us not be hoodwinked by technologist zealotry and venture-capital-fueled delusions. Despite the enthusiasm there may be for sharing music among an active coterie of web users, sharing music in the way Spotify and Facebook encourage is not a mainstream activity, by a long shot. It’s not what most people are doing, it’s not what most people will ever be doing, and companies that aren’t yet on the “social-music train” aren’t missing out on anything.

This is not to say that people don’t occasionally enjoy getting some music recommendations from friends. But the first key word here is “occasionally”; the second key word is “friends.”

The vision of “social music” bulldozes both of those factors into oblivion. Imagine, if you dare, a world in which everyone is sharing the music they are listening to with everyone. Say you have 300 Facebook friends (a modest number in Zuckerbergland) and say everyone is sharing a modest five songs a day. That’s 1,500 songs in your stream a day. That’s more than 95 hours of music being shared with you, daily. Do the math. Is this sharing, or is this spam? Does it have any meaning or is it a pointless flow of information?

this kind of sharing is “solving” a problem we didn’t have in the first place

Technologists tend to mistake technology for solutions and this seems to be happening here. In the past, people could not share music this easily, it is true. But the capacity for this kind of sharing is “solving” a problem we didn’t have in the first place. Most people were not trying to be inundated by more music than they can possibly ever listen to, were not hoping that more or less complete strangers should easily be able to start sending us endless music suggestions, and were not yearning to transform listening to music into some kind of externally focused game or popularity contest.

In the end, despite the breathless articles about the social-music train having left the station, this is going nowhere near where Spotify and Facebook are assuming it will go. Sharing music via the internet may be an engaging pleasure for a small segment of people. But “social music” is a buzzword and a fad, not the inexorable future of music, perhaps most of all for a reason I discussed in an essay I posted last year called Playlist Nation.

this is going nowhere near where Spotify and Facebook are assuming it will go

The reason is this: sharing music socially, whether in the form of a mixtape or a playlist or even just a random string of Spotify songs, is by and large an activity that’s more fun for the person on the giving end of the sharing than the person on the receiving end. That was always the dirty secret of the mixtape era, as I said in the essay. It remains the dirty secret of the social music era. It’s much more fun to tell people what you’re listening to than to slog through a stream of what someone else is listening to.

Some of this relates to the previously mentioned math problem: we just don’t have time in the day for absorbing shared music in the social-music future being foisted upon us.

But some of this also relates to the previously mentioned internal experience problem. Truly internal experiences can’t be foisted upon us from the outside willy-nilly. Merely adding unprecedented volume to the problem of music discovery helps few people except those who are seeking to profit financially from the public disclosure of previously private matters of taste.

Music is made to be shared? No, it isn’t. Unless you happen to run a large, international social media company. In which case, everything is made to be shared. As the old saying goes: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.


Jeremy Schlosberg curates the music recommendation blog fingertipsmusic.com and periodically writes fine essays on the miasma that is the post-Napster music industry.
Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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About Jeremy Schlosberg 8 Articles
Jeremy Schlosberg curates the music recommendation blog fingertipsmusic.com and periodically writes fine essays on the miasma that is the post-Napster music industry. This essay edited from the original.

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