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Why algorithmic playlists are bad for our cultural soul

Spotify Playlists Faith Art Sputnik Malte Wingen Society
Spotify Playlists Faith Art Sputnik Malte Wingen Society

I first found it easy to ignore Spotify’s computer-generated playlists. I didn’t want music meted out to me by an algorithm – surely, I thought smugly, I have such interesting and unpredictable taste that the AI will never be able to give me what I want.

But, after a while, I got sucked in; it turned out that the machine wasn’t bad at churning out music I might like. For sure, my initial reluctance still held water – my listening history had been a bit lopsided, so by my own standards, the algorithmic playlists were a bit limited, and I was rarely surprised. Nonetheless, it turned up the odd bit of gold.

I should admit that I can be a bit of a music obsessive. From a young age, I was dazzled by older dudes with prolific record collections; interviews with artists name-checking other artists; the little ‘For Fans Of..’ breadcrumbs that helped me discover bands halfway across the world in the pre-internet age. As much as I genuinely loved music, I was also sucked into the idea of being a music buff. In the teenage hunt for identity, it was a way to distinguish myself – to be that guy, with the definitive record collection. John Cusack in High Fidelity, if you like.

Every mini ‘discovery’ was another notch in the catalogue, to throw out with ‘look at my obscure taste’ nonchalance.

It was partly this dubious motivation that pulled me into Spotify’s orbit for a bit; every mini ‘discovery’ was another notch in the catalogue, another song I could throw out into the ether with a “look at my obscure taste” nonchalance. In reality, one of the many valid criticisms of Spotify’s model is that it tends to churn up already-popular bands rather than delivering properly unknown stuff into your lists. Still, I was hearing stuff that was new to me and, therefore, becoming more and more of that knowledgeable music genius.

I’m being harsh on myself, obviously, but that perspective helped me re-analyse my listening habits. I realised I was improving the breadth of my music knowledge, to a degree, but it was a shallow type of engagement. With algorithmic streaming, to turn a (nonsensical) phrase, you end up not knowing much about a whole lot; you can listen to track after track with no knowledge of the person who made it. You might even be listening to a fake artist commissioned by Spotify to save them royalties, or in a few years’ time, music written by machines.

Cultural Pollution

That’s the aspect of algorithms that has finally left me cold – the anonymity of sheer numbers, and the individualising of the music experience. It’s important to know who you’re listening to – not just in name, but by making the effort to dig into their work, make a connection with them, and with the other people who listen to them. The walk of Christ, as I see it, is always to greater empathy, greater connectedness, greater humanity; treating music more and more like a faceless product seems to me to be running the opposite way.

In the West, our culture is over-commodified, turned into a cheap product to give the consumer ‘the feels’ in exchange for their money; artists face pressure to give in to the bottom line, get to the chorus quicker, and tap that mid-tempo rap-friendly goldmine. In the process, our shared culture becomes polluted water. It fails to be a life-giving place where we can all flourish, and turns into just another place where a massive beer conglomerate is trying to get you drunk.

Sitting at home, or at work, with a playlist running in the background, might seem a long distance away from all that, but Spotify is the music industry kingmaker now. Besides, as Lao Tzu could have said, the Pacific garbage patch of a thousand miles begins with a single milk carton.