Columnist Mark Beaumont feels as though technology is driving music lovers backward
I first lost faith in technology when U2’s ‘Songs Of Innocence’ appeared on my phone. It’s still there, and yes, I know there’s a way of removing it, but I can’t figure out how. As I’m constantly beating my desperate need for music consumption against my iPhone’s pitiful storage capacity, forced to erase albums I actually want to listen to to make space for updates that make no difference, wall-measuring apps I’ll never use and videos of my one-year-old that people have long since stopped asking to look at, it sits there like Putin, immovable and unlovable, daring me to dismantle the entire system to get it out.
I suspect it’s growing. I’m sure there were fewer songs on it when it arrived. I imagine it’s working away in the night, sucking tunes from the albums around it and corroding memory like the musical cancer it is, until my entire storage bar is full to the brim with ‘U2’. At which point it’ll start a Whatsapp group with the toaster, en route to what it’s always, secretly, been looking for – the card details that my laptop has so helpfully saved on the Pizza Hut website. Once they control the finances of the entire globe’s population, all they’d then need is a co-ordinated hyperlink to U2’s online store and it’ll be Zoopocalypse. All product, culture and thought will become U2, culminating in Bono rising up as the first human uploaded as a self-congratulating AI, fathoming previously unknowable methods of avoiding tax.
So yes, I agree with Julian Casablancas – technology is becoming a retrogressive force. Julian was arguing this week about its pernicious influence on music – streaming services, he said, are “the new gatekeepers…ripping everyone off” and sending music “backwards”. “Everyone I know who’s listening to Spotify or Apple Music doesn’t discover anything interesting,” he told Billboard. “When I ask them to pull up a cool song, they don’t even have one.”
Regular readers will be aware of my stance on The Algorithm. I see it as a computerised Tony Blackburn, gently nudging listeners towards more of the stuff they like just to keep them vaguely engaged, never risking scaring them away with the jolt of anything new or radical. Breakthrough acts like Idles or Fontaines D.C. are the result of actual human DJs, writers and tastemakers coming to a rare consensus around a particular band, but their impact is limited now, their chances of cracking the increasingly irrelevant singles chart virtually nil. All thanks to The Algorithm relentlessly ushering billions of casual ‘background’ listeners towards chart-eligible George Ezra streams, based on the very computer-like logic that it’s popular, therefore everyone must want to listen to it. The TV equivalent would be every iPlayer show automatically linking on to Mrs Brown’s Boys, causing the BBC to declare Mrs Brown’s Boys as clearly the best show in history and buying up a couple of decades’ more Mrs Brown’s Boys until you’re having to actively seek out a counter-Brown’s Boys culture by hunting down under-the-radar live performances of Fleabag.
“I see the streaming algorithm as a computerised Tony Blackburn, gently nudging listeners towards more of the stuff they like just to keep them vaguely engaged”
The result is a musical culture practically bereft of sudden shifts, scenes or movements, but evolving imperceptibly, over an indefinable mush of years, towards the beige middle-ground. Just look at how critically revered pop music is now, like Robyn is the new Patti Smith and The 1975 are this generation’s Radiohead. Music is becoming just another commodity: you don’t own or belong to it, it doesn’t define or direct you, you just passively ‘engage’ with it for as long as it suit you, between your daily dose of blue pill and bowls of Soylent Green.
But in pointing out that streaming services are “ripping everybody off”, Casablancas touched on my biggest fear of technological advancement. There was a time when it felt like the 21st Century was working for me. Mobile phones, email, social media – everything seemed geared towards the internet age making my life easier, giving me more valuable dogging time. I could find out exactly when my bus was arriving, what time the gig was starting and which of my friends were secretly Nazis. If I wanted to stalk a Kardashian, it was the easiest thing in the world.
And most brilliantly, Apple produced this thing they called an iPod. You might’ve seen one in the V&A – a kind of space-age Nintendo 3DS that didn’t force you to accept cookies or phone calls, track your movements, thoughts and tendencies and expect you to opt out of anything to avoid having your inside leg measurement sold to accident insurance scamsters. It didn’t ask anything of you, it just dutifully held all of your music – all of it – in a pocket-sized box that, if you showed to the right person, was love at first shuffle. The peak of technology, for me, was around 2014, when Apple cancelled the iPod claiming it could no longer get the parts for a machine it made all the parts for. Since then I’m no longer catered to by technology. I’m being monetised by it.
iPhones get prohibitively expensive and limited in capacity, insisting that the ‘future’ involved me putting all of my ‘content’ on the Cloud, where Apple can cheerfully introduce and increase their storage charges at a whim, essentially renting me back my own music like a mafia-owned monopoly of SafeStores. Spotify, too, are demanding £10 per month for easy, ad-free access to all the music I’ve already got, and that’s at a knock-down, rope-em-in offer whereby the artists themselves are expected to be able to survive by eating popularity. Headphone jacks disappear, meaning I can’t use my noise cancelling swank-cans on the tube anymore and have to use the iPhone’s glorified chunks of plasticine, making every album sound like the new one by Low. Unless, of course, I fork out for an expensive dongle ergonomically designed to slide down the back of a train seat and fire out anchor clamps.
Music technology and services, in short, have become so irritating, expensive and inconvenient it’s actively turning me off music. I’d rather spend most night tube journeys licking the dampest seats in the carriage than trying to work out if I’m listening to Foals or Fleetwood Mac. And as for social media, what used to be a wild bacchanal of civilised debate, whirlwind romances and month-long drunk Scrabble has become a bitter diatribe of bad politics, bot retweets and self-harm footage, interrupted by the inane babblings of ‘influencers’ desperate to keep their follower counts above 15k with 200 Tweets a day about nothing. And now my feeds are nothing but Nazis, because I ‘engage’ with Nazis. Nazis and Alan Sugar.
Everywhere I turn I’m being sold or sold short, advertised at or exploited, conned or constrained by technology. I still have my last-gen iPod, and when it finally whirrs its dying gasp, I’ll give it a viking’s send-off aboard a flaming boat cast out into the ocean, where U2 shall never taint it, a relic of the pre-Bononian age. Oh to be back when The Future seemed bright.