Context and community makes music more enjoyable, and it's missing from modern streaming services

Context and community makes music more enjoyable, and it's missing from modern streaming services

Tue Mar 16 2021 tools-for-thought
Music is everywhere. Thanks to portable electronics and streaming services, the average person has likely listened to more music than all their ancestors did, combined. Not only do we listen to more music, we have access to a wider array of it as well - for just ten dollars a month, you can get access to an unfathomably large library of music, containing everything from 17th century baroque clavichord pieces to zoomer hyperpop.

Here's another difference between the way we experience music and the way our ancestors did: it used to be the case that music was almost always a social experience. Before technology, if you wanted to listen to music, someone had to play music. It was a special, ceremonious event. The modern experience of listening to music alone, all the time would have been incomprehensible to our ancestors.

The pandemic has made things even worse. Before the pandemic, music could still be a social experience, in the form of live shows and concerts, but now it has become a completely solo activity. Without live music, most people experience music as the blank grey rows in their Spotify playlists.

Something weird is happening here - we have access to more music and genres than ever before in human history, and yet it feels like something important is missing. Many of the people I talk to listen to music all the time, but I get the sense that it's more to ward off the dreaded experience of silence than it is to actually enjoy music.

Here are a three things that are missing from the modern experience of music.

// Context

Music is about context. A song is never just a song, it contains all the circumstances that it was listened to under - whether you heard it live, the street you were walking down when you heard it, the mood you were in when you heard it, the people it made you think of, etc.

You could easily strip the audio from the video, touch it up a bit, and upload it as Spotify track. However, you'd miss out on so many precious details - how thrilled the old violinist is with the bassist's playing, the chatter from the onlookers praising their playing, the moment the camera pans to show the picturesque Italian street they're playing on, how they stop for a bit and the audience starts clapping prematurely, only to be pleasantly surprised when they start playing again with a faster rhythm.

It's these details that we miss about music. A song should never just be a song, but on a streaming platform, that's all it can really be - just another row in a playlist.

// Community

As mentioned earlier, the modern experience of listening to music alone is completely novel - before technology, listening to music was always a social affair, unless you were playing music for yourself.

// Connections

Whether its noticing that two songs use the same chord progression, stealing a nice lick from your favorite blues guitarist, making a mashup of two of your favorite songs, or translating a song into a different genre, playing music is all about making connections. Unfortunately, the way we listen to music prevents us from doing this.

The main obstacle is the playlist. Playlists trap music and prevent listeners from creating rich connections between their songs - I will elaborate on this point later.

// Youtube vs Spotify

Strangely enough, though Youtube is a general purpose video sharing site and Spotify is a platform dedicated to music, I think Youtube does a better job at capturing the spirit of music.

Consider two things I think to be missing from modern music: context and community. While its nothing compared to live music, I think certain Youtube videos capture these elements in a novel and exciting way.

Take this video for example. It's titled 'this playlist will make you feel like a 19th century villain,' and it's a playlist full of mostly romantic-era orchestral pieces. But here, the music isn't just the music: there is a stylish photo of classical architecture to go with it, Tchaikovsky is introduced as 'Pyotr F*CKING Tchaikovsky,' and the description contains an edgy sounding Oscar Wilde quote to really set the mood. Most importantly, the comments section is full of people playing along with the 19th century villain premise, cracking jokes about how the Youtube algorithm clearly wants them to join the Dark Side. One commenter describes the playlist with this pithy remark: "committing serial homicide at the 1893 world's fair type beat."

Here, there is context (the theming of the video/playlist), and community (the commenters playing along with the theme). Taken together, they create something that can only be described as a vibe. I don't think you could even come close to doing something this cool with a Spotify playlist.