Is This Thing On? Musical landscape in motion

Wake up people — the way we listen to music is changing in front of our eyes. From how we listen, to how we share, to even what music we are exposed to, it’s no secret that behind the scenes of this industry lie shifting money and politics. My question is, what are we going to do about it?

First, let’s think about how we listen. I always cringe when I see a family in their car, with a backseat full of kids, headphones in, not talking to anyone else. Yet it’s no worse than when I listen to music on my five-minute walk across campus. If you walk onto any MBTA car today, you’ll see rows of heads bent over tiny screens. Recently, I had a conversation with Tufts Professor of Psychology Ani Patel, and we remarked on how music has traditionally played a large role in cultural and social situations. It brings people together and allows them to share common experiences — a common enjoyment. Research has proven that music, like other auditory sensations, provokes real emotions which foster a sense of community. Yet somewhere along the line, after the invention of portable music players (no, not John Cusack holding a 20-pound radio over his head), we decided that music was going to become a private experience. 

Consider the stigma around using public ‘sessions’ on Spotify — some are not comfortable with their friends seeing what they listen to, while others (myself included) shamelessly publish all of it. Just as I don’t always wear makeup or presentable outfits, I don’t always listen to ‘cool’ music. And I’m okay with people knowing that. In fact, the social aspect is my favorite part of Spotify; seeing which musical odds and ends are in my friends’ playlists makes me feel like I know them a little better, as cliché as that might sound. For a generation which so overtly shares its life in photos, blogging and networking profiles, why don’t we have a better method of sharing our music taste?

The music industry has become somewhat of an oligopoly. We have our multi-millionaires who have extreme influencing power over the platforms leveraging the license of their work. Need an example? Taylor Swift’s refusal to stream her albums “1989” (2014) and now “Reputation” (2017), forcing listeners to purchase ownership of the tracks. Jay-Z decided to exclusively release “4:44” (2017) first on his platform TIDAL, and later to more services, yet excluding Spotify. One group decided to abuse Spotify’s pay-per-stream model by releasing an album of silence. In 2014, Vulfpeck created a 10-track ‘album’ titled “Sleepify” (2015) and instructed fans to play it on repeat while they slept. In the short span of seven weeks, Vulpeck garnered almost $20,000 in royalties, after which they treated fans to a free tour. Once Spotify caught on, it yanked the album from the platform calling it a “stunt.” What’s my point of all this? Well, where does this leave us as listeners? Are we mere pawns, or do we actually have the most power in this game?