Art: The Factory, Camille Pissaro, 1873
A few months ago, I finally signed up for a paid Spotify subscription. I’d been quarantined with the kids for about three weeks at that point, and the activities were running out. So I put on a Summer Oldies playlist, blew up the inflatable pool, and pretended that we were at a glamorous beach party that was anywhere except our back year. (By the way, did you know that inflatable kiddie pools became a status symbol this summer in the US?)
Spotify is a really slick user experience, and soon afterwards, the app became the soundtrack of our COVID existence. Sure, we had the Summer Oldies playlist, which quickly transitioned to Frozen 2 upon my daughter’s request, which quickly transitioned to me listening to “Super Good,” from one of my favorite groups of all time, Russian ska-pop-rock band Leningrad. It’s about how terrible everything is and how it doesn’t matter where you live because we’re all going to die anyway, and it has a lot of curse words. It was very therapeutic.
Spot the Beat
When I got tired of all of that, I started venturing into recommended tracks, related playlists, and radio stations generated from the song. Astute Normcore readers may remember that I’m generally wary of recommendation engines, but Spotify’s has consistently been one of the ones that’s proven to be good (and Normcore readers agree). It has to be: their business model depends on it.
And so, I started looking for music that was similar to what I liked, but different enough that it was novel. What I found was a super interesting phenomenon: All the music, regardless of which country it was from, started sounding the same. If I picked EDM, I couldn’t tell if it was from Japan, Sweden, or Russia. It had all the same pulsating beats, the same tropical house vibes inspired by Kygo. All the pop songs also sounded similar. There was an entire genre of cute lyrics backed by ukuleles. (If you only listen to one song in the entire world, make it Kygo’s cover of Higher Love)
What was the point of looking for new music if it was all the same? I started thinking about why all the music I was listening to might be similar, and came to several conclusions.
A big part of this has been to the technological evolution of the music industry. In a fantastic examination, the Pudding concluded,
From 2010-2014, the top ten producers (by number of hits) wrote about 40% of songs that achieved #1 - #5 ranking on the Billboard Hot 100. In the late-80s, the top ten producers were credited with half as many hits, about 19%.
And from the tech side,
The dystopian perspective: music streaming allows us to listen to any unsigned artist, yet a few record labels still control 80% of the market (and growing). Hip hop is now the dominant genre, a track-and-hook archetype. Beats are programmed, copy and pasted or downloaded to mimic top producers. Recreating whatever’s fashionable has never been easier.
And then, there was Spotify itself. Recommender engines, like Spotify, will recommend music that’s similar to your tastes. They can’t, by their very nature, can’t recommend things that are surprising or different. As I’ve written,
Recommender systems will feed you similar content. In the case of business books, it’s (mostly) fine, unless you care about variety. If you like business books, their best bet to reduce errors is to give you more of that same type of books. But what if you don’t want to continue to read business books? What if you want to read fantasy? Unless you clicked on a fantasy title, the recommender system has no way to know that you like it.
This means that if you’re listening to EDM, Spotify will recommend you...more EDM. And EDM sounds like EDM sounds like EDM, which begets more EDM.
This is amplified by the fact that musicians are now tailoring their music to “work well” on streaming platforms. What does that mean?
“In sessions, people have genuinely been saying, ‘Oh, we need to make something that sounds like Spotify,’” says Emily Warren, a singer-songwriter behind hits including Charli XCX’s “Boys” and the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down.” According to the artists, songwriters, producers, and executives interviewed for this piece, no aspect of a song, from production to vocal performance, is unaffected by the regime change.
And now, streaming’s promise for listeners is also a gauntlet thrown down for creators. With tens of millions of songs just a few taps away, artists must compete or be skipped. The unprecedented wealth of data that streaming services use to curate their increasingly influential playlists gives the industry real-time feedback on what’s working, but this instant data-fication in turn risks feeding back on itself. While streaming has undoubtedly coincided with a shift in the pop charts away from the caffeinated bravado of several years ago, streaming-era hits appear to be as rigidly defined and formulaic as ever—if not more so.
In order for a stream to count toward chart tallies and, reportedly, for royalty payouts, a given song must be played for at least 30 seconds. That’s why, while how a song starts has always been important in pop, with streaming it’s more crucial than ever. Catchy bits come early and at a quick clip. There’s often an enormous introduction followed by a suspense-ratcheting succession of repeated hooks. Some songs, like the original “Despacito,” trust that a listener’s anticipation will escalate toward what follows; others, like the “Despacito” remix with Bieber, which slips its guest star in almost immediately, go for broke right away.
All this aside, Spotify still does a pretty good job of curating playlists and offering mood music.
But it made me think about the other platforms in my life that are regressing to the mean in terms of the content they encourage.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how Google was forcing all online searchable content into clickbaity ad farms.
Whereas before we could search Google and get direct access to information, now every single thing that we Google for produces not blogs or homemade sites, actual news, but manufactured, packaged search results with predetermined and prefiltered results that lead us to click through to sites that are so packed full of SEO, spam, ads, and cruft, that it’s impossible to squeeze the last bit of content from the vast internet.
It turns out that Google is not the only culprit here. Any platform that is big enough to have an outsize influence on the way we think and perceive things will have this effect. I also wrote about this effect on people’s personalities on Twitter. When you have too many followers, you become very boring because you’re worried about offending someone.
Because of the sum of all these phenomena, I find myself self-censoring and not tweeting about the things I really want to talk about, which, as a writer, is pure torture.
All of these are things I’m weighing in my head every time my finger hovers above the tweet button, and I think what sometimes comes out is that my latest tweets are devoid of my actual personality, and have assumed some parameters in the space where it’s “safe” to play.
What’s different about Spotify is that it’s not only affecting written content: it affects the way we understand and synthesize music. In other words, The Nothing is spreading to real-world situations.
Aside from Spotify, there is also Airbnb. When their platform just started, people posted their own spaces, as they were. It was a very chic-Couchsurfing vibe.Then, when it became apparent that people preferred highly-decorated spaces, Airbnb hosts started decorating them with sleek designer touches: string lights in the backyard, designer soaps, chic block furniture, the works.
What started happening was that, no matter where you were, whether it was Madrid or Istanbul or Tokyo, you got the same types of aesthetic experiences - in a way, you didn’t even have to leave your comfort zone.
But over the past few years, something strange has happened. "Every coffee place looks the same," Schwarzmann says. The new cafe resembles all the other coffee shops Foursquare suggests, whether in Odessa, Beijing, Los Angeles, or Seoul: the same raw wood tables, exposed brick, and hanging Edison bulbs.
It’s not that these generic cafes are part of global chains like Starbucks or Costa Coffee, with designs that spring from the same corporate cookie cutter. Rather, they have all independently decided to adopt the same faux-artisanal aesthetic. Digital platforms like Foursquare are producing "a harmonization of tastes" across the world, Schwarzmann says. "It creates you going to the same place all over again."
We could call this strange geography created by technology "AirSpace." It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.
It’s possible to travel all around the world and never leave AirSpace, and some people don’t.
Airspace has now taken over all of our platforms, because all of our platforms were built by people who live and work in San Francisco, surrounded by other people who live and work in San Francisco, and are circuitously inspired by the design trends coming out of the middle and upper middle class movements there. And this is now what’s monetizable, both online, and in real life.
So What, So Flat
What other 3D platforms belong in Airspace? How about Pinterest, which creates aspirational home decor and design pattern templates for people to follow? How about Facebook, which has, for better or worse (worse) shaped us into two very polarized, but extremely homogeneous, political groups (aka our “filter bubbles.”) Any one of the millions of athleisure startups, booming because of Instagram aesthetics. Ahem, Away.
Often, in data, there is a saying that “what gets measured gets managed”, and the left out part is always, for better or worse. So what gets measured and managed are aesthetics and tastes that are easy to monetize and bring out into the real world, and the results are what we see around us: the standardization of culture to what’s interesting and hip to a small select population on the West Coast.
It’s true that big platforms and the media have always shaped and driven popular culture. But we are at a scale of mass influence that was previously unimaginable. What’s interesting is how uniform it’s become.
There is, of course, a bright side to mass influence. Things that were never popular before, become so. Just today, for example, I was reading about bardcore, which is, much like it sounds, taking modern songs and transforming them into medieval music. I spent a good 30 minutes listening to Hildergard Von Blingin.
There is no way someone would get exposed to this level of arcane, nerdy coolness before the rise of YouTube. But, contrarily, there is no way this can ever become mainstream popular. It’s just too quirky and weird. It needs to have its edges smoothed somehow in order to be monetized well.
Some 30 years ago, Thomas Friedman, now a columnist for the New York Times who is often wrong about a lot of stuff, wrote an interesting book called “The World is Flat,” about how we all better get used to globalization. He posited that the technological and political changes that have enabled us to communicate more are also a competitive disadvantage for the United States due to things like outsourcing and global supply chains, but that it generally results in an uplift for the world as a whole.
We’ve seen the sad impacts of a global supply chain on the United States this COVID spring, but what’s interesting to note is that, due to the internet and big platforms, the world has, indeed, flattened. However, what this means is that everyone is now subjected to pretending they live in the average opinion of, at best, 10K people who live in San Francisco.
It will be interesting to see if remote work ends up changing this, and what our new, future global aesthetic will be like. (Really hoping for a LOT more bardcore.)
What I’m reading lately
Data scientists should be end to end (it’s like music to my ears)
Currently reading: The Making of Prince of Persia
The two colors of America are really green and gray
Look at all this cool data stuff everyone’s doing! Should I do it more often?
This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out once or twice a week. If you like it, forward it to friends and tell them to subscribe!