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Are Algorithms Ruining How We Discover Music?

“Music is mysterious. And I don’t want robots completely in control of my sense of discovery.”


Here’s how some people used to find out about new music: an older sibling was into a particular band; someone slipped you an album at summer camp; you’re Zach Braff and Natalie Portman put headphones on you and forced you to listen to an entire Shins song. But not anymore. Now, in many ways, algorithms have started to take over the act of music discovery. Between Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, and whatever cool streaming service that only kids under 14 know about, it’s possible to not only find virtually any song, but be fed the “perfect” song for your tastes and mood.

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, New York Times jazz and pop critic Ben Ratliff discusses his new book “Every Song Ever” and how the everything-at-our-fingertips era is changing the way we listen to music.

Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

Spotify, the perfect playlist, and the changing nature of discovery

Jody Avirgan: This comes up on the show all the time — that your past activity determines your future activity.

Ben Ratliff: Spotify’s Discover Weekly really fascinates me. I am amazed by it and I admire it, and I loathe it passionately.

Avirgan: You mean as a concept or as something you actually play —

Ratliff: — yeah, as a real thing. I’m sure I look at it once a week. And every once in a while they will hit me with something that is almost embarrassingly right. Like, “Wow, they got me. Damn.” It’ll be a little obscure, too.

But at the same time, because the machine knows that I sometimes I look up obscure things, they’ve tagged me as a cool cat. So sometimes the recommendations they give me are indie garbage I don’t care about. I’m not sure how this happens, but they understand what “coolness” is in a very slick way.

I do feel pessimistic about the whole project. I do feel that if the great push of the smartest minds in this business is moving towards efficiency in curating for you, in delivering you what it knows you will like from the great abundance, well, something’s being lost, isn’t it? Isn’t the thing that’s being lost you and your efforts to figure out what you like and you respond to?

Listening to music as a creative act

Avirgan: You write about the match between the listener’s experience, and mood, and what an artist brings to the table, and the alchemy that happens when those two meet.

Ratliff: There’s emotional programming: music for sad moods, or happy moods.

Avirgan: There is a mood tab on Spotify.

Ratliff: Yeah. But in reality emotions are paradoxical. For instance, you can feel a kind of defeated joy. That’s actually how emotions work. But the streaming services are not going to be able to sell that to you because that’s too complicated and emotion.

Avirgan: You know what? I bet defeated joy will be a tag on Spotify within the next five years.

Ratliff: Maybe! I think the big idea underneath my book is that listening to music is a really creative act. It’s not just passive. Listening to music is one of the things that helps you discover your humanity. Through listening to music you learn how to walk and talk and move and have relationships and speak different languages. You pick up things from music that really increase your humanity. Music is mysterious. And I don’t want robots completely in control of my sense of discovery.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.