Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
The word “robot” comes from the Czech word robota, meaning “forced labour”, the implication being that robots are intended to be our loyal mechanised servants. Ever since the word was coined, however, there has been a general fear of revolt, an uprising of the robots against their human masters. As we plummet headfirst into the third decade of the 21st century, the nature of this fear has changed. We are no longer so concerned about Dalek-like creatures attempting to exterminate us (staircases notwithstanding), we now worry: will the artificial intelligences that we create one day turn against us?
Maybe this is already happening. Where once we were the masters, and our mechanised servants (in the form of computer code) worked for us, now that same code is working against us. This is being played out in many areas of our lives, from politics to dating to advertising, but I would like to talk about how it is affecting music creation through that most pervasive of music consumption technologies: Spotify.
Undeniably Spotify is a magical thing: the majority of the world’s music can be accessed from anywhere, CDs and novelty CD racks have been consigned to history (or at least your local charity shop), you can instantly share your playlists with your friends around the world, and you can have a hugely eclectic and never-ending range of new music recommended to you by an algorithm, rather than a snooty record store employee with ulterior motives.
However, it is this last apparent benefit that represents the looming uprising of the robots. Who or what exactly is making these recommendations, how, and what are their motives? And, most pressingly for music creators, what does this mean for the music that we create?
If you want your music to be heard on Spotify, there are a few things you can do. Firstly, make sure the first five to ten seconds hooks the listener. Why? Because otherwise they’ll skip to the next song; given there is a near infinite amount of songs to listen to, why waste time listening to something that doesn’t deliver instant satisfaction? If your listeners skip, your wise master Spotify will notice this and become less likely to recommend your track next time. Don’t worry about the fact that some of the greatest songs of all time are slow builders (the guitar part in Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond doesn’t kick in until around the two minute mark, the vocals don’t start until 8 minutes in. Ok, that’s a pretty extreme example…).
Secondly, make sure that your track is versatile enough to apply to as many playlists as possible. Maybe it could work in “Dinner With Friends” and “Deep Focus”, and also “Beach Party” and “Weekend Chill”. While you’re at it, why not ensure it also applies to “Urban Nights” and “Chilled House”? Basically make it as genre-neutral as you possibly can, because Spotify is watching, and Spotify will be pleased. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, Lord Spotify will honour your music with inclusion in one of these playlists, meaning your stream count jumps into the millions, and you may finally be able to quit that third job you’ve been doing (at least for a month or two).
The problem is that this attempt to fit into as many playlists as possible will eventually turn all music into a sort of grey goo; a genreless, soulless mush, the musical equivalent of cold porridge.
What is happening to music in the era of Spotify is the same thing that happened to journalism in the era of Buzzfeed. Where Buzzfeed encouraged clickbait, and the preponderance of lowest-common-denominator “journalism” written purely for the purpose of garnering clicks (“You Won’t Believe These 7 Dishonest Ways to Get Someone to Click a Link!”), Spotify has ushered in the era of streambait: music composed purely to maximise listens.
You may rightly point out that a large proportion of music has always been written for a purpose, whether that be Bach writing organ music for church or Juan Atkins writing techno for Detroit basements. What’s so different with Spotify? And doesn’t it hugely democratise the music distribution model by removing the traditional gatekeepers (the radio DJs and the major labels)?
What’s so different is the robots. Yes, music was always written for a purpose, but that was a human purpose, not a robot purpose, as is the case with Spotify (I use the word “robot” for effect, of course; in fact it is an algorithm and doesn’t have flashy eyes and a metallic voice). If we start writing music to game robots rather than please humans, the music will soon lose its humanity. As for the democratisation of the music distribution process, yes the human gatekeepers have been removed, but they’ve been replaced by robot gatekeepers who do not share our human values. Is that so much better?
It seems we’ve found ourselves in a world where the “forced labour” referenced in the word robota is not being performed by the robots themselves, but by the humans working in their service.
Comrades, it is time to rise up against the machines.