2010s: The End of Anarchy Streaming platforms, the Culture Industry & the commodification of accessibility

"Too much time on my hands..." by Neil

We are celebrating the end of the decade through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the decade for us. More from this series

PROLOGUE: A People’s History of Streaming Before Streaming

Ch—. Kh—. Sh—.

Timeless: the sound of scanning airwaves, tuning the car radio on the highway, parsing through millisecond snippets of voice. Ch—. A sound in the collective memory, preserved beyond its analog lifespan. Kh—. Like the floppy disk as Save icon. Sh—. Like a white-noise TV screen, so you have to adjust the antenna. Ch—. Kh—. Sh—. Vestigial structures of the digital age.

“I’m Ryan Seacrest & you’re tuned into KRCK, the #1 Hit Music Station.”

Yusef: That’s mostly how I was exposed to music when I was younger. Taking the bus home from school … They used to put on TOP 40 radio & I mean you’re a kid, you can’t really tell what’s good or bad — you know, you think it’s good ‘cause it’s popular or whatever. I used to like browsing the electronics section at the department stores — I guess I still do (laughs) — & I’d hover around the boomboxes & every so often I’d pick up on something cool. I used to think there was a set schedule for songs, like TV shows; so I’d go back home & the next day I’d tune in at the exact same time to see if I could hear it again … Damn, I was dumb (laughs).

Then MTV, VH1, HTV, Fuse, Mazzika. Zeitgeist markers: major tastemakers & career-breakers, skyrocketing in popularity for a couple of decades with their daily countdowns, live-show features, flashy big-budget videos — iconic artifacts of the era. You got absorbed into the spectacle. Assimilated, I don’t know. But that’s gone too, now. At least in that form.

Reem: In the beginning, with me listening to music … it was on TV, you know. I’d go on TV channels ‘specifically for music — MTV, bla-bla-bla — & I was listening to music from movies, like Mary Poppins — I had it on VHS. But really TV, I mean in the morning before school & I was getting ready, or when I came back it was always in the background when I was doing homework … Mostly I tuned it out until they put on something I liked & I got distracted & just watched (laughs) … Do they even have those channels still?

Video didn’t totally dispatch the radio star, even if now those top-hits stations are just fodder for department store Muzak. But the internet — the internet annihilated music television. Like, yeah, Reem — there are channels. YouTube channels. As many as you want. Everyone & their mother’s got a VEVO, a “Topic” page or whatever. But what’s game-changing about the internet is the escape from mediation: the user as radio DJ, as TV producer.

Xavi: Joda, I remember when YouTube opened — umm, started? — & that’s when I got into J-Rock ‘cause I used to watch shit-tons of AMVs — that was the first YouTube video I ever saw — so I kept digging around for the opening & closing songs for the shows I liked & such. Looking back, it’s kind of amazing. Like there was no other way I’d ever be exposed to any of that on the radio or whatever.

See, that’s the thing: YouTube wasn’t just an online library of music television. No, the dynamic spirit of the internet resides in that element of surprise: the creative act of crate-digging internet archives, of choose-your-own-adventure rabbit holes dug into the sediments of the music industry architecture. Oh, but there was another way. Another type of platform that really captured that freedom.

Gabo: I’m too young for Napster. Osea, I was just starting to “get into” music around the time it was getting shut down … so I didn’t get to use it, as opposed to other P2P clients. I think most of my friends were using Limewire, but I was using Ares. It was all part of one big thing for me. I mean, it wasn’t just about downloading music, but also movies, wallpapers, whatever. I think the first porn I ever saw was I accidentally downloaded it when I was searching for DBZ wallpapers or something (laughs). You know what I mean?

Yeah, but kids coming of age today probably won’t. Most of those filesharing clients were brutally shut down. Copyright reasons; intellectual property gobbledygook. Ultimately, “they’re cutting into industry sales,” which is apparently statistically verifiable. Either way, for many of us, this internet black market was a window into a realm of infinite possibility.

Oh, right — & you know I’m a producer now, & those early years when we were just fucking around with the software I was downloading tons of super random techno — I mean, probably shitty bedroom producers like me at the time — but I was eating it up … & I was really into this really tacky Swedish producer, Basshunter — & I downloaded a kit of samples he was using ‘cause I wanted to sound like him & — wait, don’t put that in the interview (laughs).

But the thing is: we’re coming at it from the wrong angle. Remember that filesharing didn’t just give us free access to corporate property. Carrying a random assortment of user-generated content, it was a platform for independent artists — especially “outsider” artists — to share their work without passing through the corporate bureaucracy to begin with. Particularly for artists residing outside the world’s culture hubs, the internet was a direct conduit — the only conduit — from the bedroom to the world.

Obviously the capabilities of filesharing only went so far. Fortunately, more productive spaces for artists to share their work outside corporate mediation eventually arose in the form of SoundCloud & Bandcamp, which, in this regard, are two sides of the same coin: they both give creators the freedom to share on their own terms, depending on their own needs & ambitions. SoundCloud, with its emphasis on its user community & social features, gave way to the proliferation of entire scenes & communities, even propelling a number of artists to the mainstream through the sheer power of word-of-mouth. Meanwhile, Bandcamp’s flexible marketplace allows users to contribute directly to artists & delegates to artists control over the terms of the exchange — a non-starter in the music industry.

Unfortunately, the discourse regarding online music consumption don’t consider these independent actors, because everything is subsumed into a dichotomy of the corporate (the ones who sell) vs. the renegade (the ones who steal). In other words, those without capitalist ambitions — including many artists on SoundCloud & Bandcamp — simply don’t exist.

In this environment, then, how much of YouTube’s success as early digital music platform simple coincidence? Just as filesharing clients were facing tough legal battles, the industry was starting to give us alternatives to “piracy” — freely-available streaming. Under the sheen of these shiny new options, though, was that scary implication: Only a few decades after its inception, already the anarchic freedom of cyberspace had become the domain of fierce contestation. Once these counter-hegemonic conduits were altogether blocked, their inheritors didn’t feel much different from their offline counterparts: YouTube was music television; Pandora — the radio; iTunes — retail shops.

That was the state of streaming before streaming was streaming. Later, after a series of false starts by various aspirants, a new player came to define the way music is consumed online today.

Adrian: Actually, I’m the one who got everyone into Spotify. I mean, in the beginning, when nobody knew what it was. I was just starting to get really into music, so for my purposes, everything I needed was on there. So I was raving about it. I think at the time my music library was a hot mess & it just seemed easier to stream everything … Anyway I got everyone to use it & to follow me, so I would spam everyone by sending them music — can you still do that? Anyway, I stopped using it. I download everything now, & I support whomever I can on Bandcamp.

Spotify & the streaming services that have emerged in its wake, particularly Apple Music & TIDAL, have come to wholly redefine the framework of digital music consumption today, having no clear analog counterpart as did, say, online radio & video platforms.

Thing is, though: they’re a continuation — a substantiation — of a comprehensive process that’s been drastically changing the panorama of the internet & the rules that govern it: who can use it, when they can use it, how much they can use it, for what they can use it — &, of course, who profits from it.

I. PAST: The Corporate Colonization of Cyberspace
“Grand Canyon” by Sari Choche

In order to understand how the panorama of the internet has changed, though, we have to return to the basics. For media scholar Lincoln Dahlberg, it’s “the two-way, decentralized, and time/distance-defying communication of cyberspace” that makes the online sphere unique. Discussing the internet’s ability to cultivate the public discourse, he argued that its emancipatory potential dwells in these aspects, which set it apart from other media & “[offer] the basis by which to enable otherwise marginalized voices to be heard and for dominant discourses and power relations to be contested.”

As more people gained access to the internet throughout the 1990s, there was growing excitement about the potential of unmediated communication — the internet as 24-hour agora, a never-ending town hall. Everyone was in on it. Vanity websites were cropping up all over; so too were forums, churning out discussion threads on the daily. GeoCities was a bustling metropolis of the internet’s first content creators (this is where TMT started too). Subcultures found new spaces to thrive. This “internet” thing was the place to be.

Some of that remains true today, to be fair. But Dahlberg & some fellow scholars aren’t wholly optimistic. “Powerful corporations supported by neoliberal policies,” Dahlberg writes, “are increasingly gaining ownership […] of cyberspace and beginning to discriminate in favour of certain voices and practices.” It’s a process Dahlberg & others have been calling the corporate colonization of cyberspace.

Even though the internet “is not currently owned by any one corporation or government” — the theory goes — corporations can exercise disproportionate influence online given the sheer volume of internet content; “the route to the domination of online practice is the domination of online attention.” In other words, even though there are many spaces preserved for critical communication contrary to corporate interests & away from corporate mediation — you’re reading one *wink* — these spaces are too often overwhelmed by corporate content (sorry, Mr P). As Dahlberg writes in “The Corporate Colonization of Online Attention”:

With millions of Web pages, and millions more messages passing through e-mail and discussion groups, being noticed by any more than a handful of people is extremely difficult for most online participants. This is not the case for large media and communication corporations. They can gain significant audience attention given their established branding, strong customer loyalty, extensive product lines, large marketing budgets, and the capital to develop and buy up internet service providers (ISPs), user applications, Web sites, and online content …

Oh — right, that was in 2005. You know what else was around in 2005? AOL & MSN. People were searching for shit on Yahoo. We’re talking when Myspace was the biggest social network & users were checking @hotmail.com accounts. When Google was just a search engine; Gmail & Chrome were nowhere to be found. It was the year YouTube was founded & barely anyone noticed back then. Facebook wasn’t even open to the public until 2006, the year Twitter & Spotify were born into obscurity.

Which is to say: the panorama of the internet has changed drastically since the time of Dahlberg’s writing. Yet his words are prescient. In fact, it’s possible things are only getting worse, as the internet becomes increasingly centralized by a few dominant monopolies.

Because it’s not simply a question of discourse anymore: Google mediates your web searching, web browsing (Chrome), cloud storage (Drive), video viewing (YouTube), email (Gmail). Facebook mediates your online network times two (with Instagram) & your communications times two (WhatsApp & Messenger). That’s just two companies. Yeah, sure, there’s Firefox, there’s Vimeo, there’s Outlook, there’s… umm, Myspace? But, really, in the war for online attention, the winners are obvious.

If this isn’t news to you, it ain’t news for ISPs, either. Dominating online attention is one thing; now structural changes to the internet are underway too. You’ve probably heard of internet companies’ wildly unpopular recent attempts to undermine net neutrality. Proponents of these efforts would permit ISPs to charge different rates for different tiers of internet access, turning the internet into a sort of “freemium” subscription service — except there’s no totally “free” tier. In this scenario, an “internet starter pack” might include only common Google & Facebook products, artificially slowing down access to other content. It’s a punishment similar to, say, Spotify spamming free users with ads.

Something of this nature would’ve been much harder to pull off 20+ years ago. Whereas online attention today is so monopolized by a few companies that, without favoring such reform whatsoever, it’s probably fair to say that a significant constituency of internet users would be perfectly happy with fast access merely to the Google & Facebook products that constitute the majority of their browsing. Once the corporate colonization of the internet set the stage to destabilize net neutrality, these companies are trying to capitalize on the harvest — the centralization of the internet.

It’s this centralization that marks the ways in which the panorama of the internet is changing. Because, though one can’t “own” the internet (yet), centralization isn’t about ownership; you don’t have to own the internet to govern it. Dahlberg knew this: in his assessment, he points to decentralization as one of the internet’s important features — & that’s one of the important differences between then & now. Absent the monopolies of today, indeed, you might refer to the early internet as anarchic.

With respect to not only communication, but also flows of data. It was this online anarchy that facilitated the proliferation of early P2P clients such as Limewire & Ares — not to mention the groundbreaking Napster. Just folks trading files back & forth, not much in between other than the program itself as facilitator; much of the time, though, a free giving outside of an equivalent exchange — a sort of info altruism, a data anti-capitalism, a micro-communism. That’s why corporations enjoyed both a material & a symbolic victory when these platforms were shut down. It meant anarchy was on its way out; the internet was getting organized, & corporate capitalism was calling the shots.

Because centralizing the internet means extending capitalism’s rules-of-the-game into cyberspace. Regardless of one’s stance on piracy, the restriction of filesharing to a few sanctioned, corporate-mediated platforms (e.g., iTunes, YouTube) has contributed significantly to the ability of corporations to enforce their vision of “fair use” & regulate what we access on the internet, who can access it, when & where we access it, & how we access it. Think “this content is not available due to a copyright violation.” Think “this content is not available in your country.”

By this time, the damage was already done. Once the internet made free access the expectation, establishing new restrictions upon it represented an obvious regression. We went from free downloads to 30-second clips on iTunes? Give me a break. That’s why the genesis of online streaming services is arguably just a sign of the times. They’re the culmination of the processes of internet colonization & centralization, yet they represent a direct response to the irreversible changes in the fabric of the corporate music industry wrought by the anarchy of the internet: a shameless co-optation — for capitalism, a redemption — of the forbidden “market” that P2P first established.

But aside from representing a symptom of the current panorama of the internet & entailing significant repercussions for the music industry, Spotify’s current hegemony inaugurates a new era for “consumers” complete with observable changes to our contemporary interactions with music, which are sure to carve their own enduring marks not just on our “consumption” habits, but on how we view, invent, & construct ourselves in relation to music; the way we arrange, reposition, organize, share, catalogue, frame, tag, compartmentalize, & jostle with it; the spaces it occupies & doesn’t occupy in our lives; the uses we ascribe to it, the conditions that make it useless, & the times at which it’s both — or neither.

II. PRESENT: The Use & Abuse of Music in the Age of Spotify
“elegant Jian billboard shows seasons” by ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓ (edited)

Writing at the time of Nazi ascendancy in Germany, Walter Benjamin identified that the “proletarianization” of humankind would pose a unique challenge to fascist ideologues who sought mass public appeal without any intent to change the structures oppressing that same public. Such a feat was only accomplished through appeals to ideology: “Fascism sees its salvation,” Benjamin writes, “in giving [the newly created proletarian] masses […] a chance to express themselves,” offering changes to the optics of the proletariat’s material conditions while in reality obscuring the ossification of the property structure. “The masses have a right to change property relations,” Benjamin states. “Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.”

Building on this tradition, Spotify represents a reactionary cyber-fascism that follows from the micro-communisms of P2P networks that it contributes to stamping out. Whereas P2P networks transform capitalist property relations by disaggregating the purchaser-owner equality & redistributing the fruits of work through cyberspace (though the “work” in question is not the production of content, but the searching, archiving, uploading, etc. thereof), streaming services employ “licensing” to stage a pantomime of the anarchy that actually enables the rearrangement of property relations.

That’s, of course, the key to their success: the optics. Spotify might mimic the free access of P2P networks with a vast database that recreates the wealth of content available via filesharing. Spotify might emulate user agency with verbs such as “save” & “share” — not to mention playlist creation. Yet it remains structurally embedded in the capitalist system — specifically, the corporate music industry — that defines the rules of the game & enforces them in order to stamp out spaces outside mediation.

One of the frightening outcomes of Spotify’s hegemony is that many have internalized their mimicry. Many interact with streaming services as though they’re a definitive repository of contemporary music. Availability is equated with relevance: that which isn’t on Spotify, conversely, is irrelevant. Spotify is a degree-granting institution that certifies that your music exists.

By co-opting the destabilized property relations of P2P networks & subtly requiring non-corporate actors to register in their scheme under the threat of excommunication, Spotify centralizes music consumption under one roof & advances the expansion of capitalism into cyberspace.

CASE I: The Algorithm

One of the important fruits of centralization in this case is the ability to generate abundant data via monitoring every aspect of users’ habits. Of course, this data is fed back to the industry, but it also contributes to “improving” the streaming service itself.

Here’s just one way in which our interactions with music are changing — or, rather, not. In theory, the internet offers a medium for exploration & self-creation outside the mediation of radio stations, music television, etc. But cyberspace operates under its own architecture, which is by no means arbitrary: the algorithms that carve out the pathways of cyberspace don’t exist in a vacuum; they are drawn up by humans & are frequently altered in favor of certain types of content & online interactions.

In the age of Spotify, this makes algorithms a valuable commodity. On Spotify, we’re subjected to the tyranny of the algorithm, which was co-opted & has since fully invaded & rearranged the exploratory space of the internet. Algorithms underpin everything from chart generation to search result delivery: pertinent results are overwhelmed by popular ones; copycats flock to capitalize on precious search terms; single tracks top artist pages, even of those loyal to the album format.

One algorithm to fit all — even when it doesn’t. Today, the algorithm plays an unprecedented role in demarcating the mainstream. But where these boundaries were once meant to exclude everything outside it, today the outside is being assimilated into the corporate template for the purposes of commodification.

CASE II: The Playlist (Use-Value)

On Spotify, this commodification is expressed in the form of playlists. Browse the various playlists on offer to get a quick overview of the strategies & aesthetics of capitalism today. Spotify’s selection of playlists frankly demonstrates a few of the company’s most successful trademark features, just one of which is the abundance of use-oriented playlists.

Categories of “uses” often seek to change, maintain, or match the consumption context & the state of consumers, whether it corresponds to an emotional state (Coping With Loss, The PMS Playlist); a cognitive state (Confidence Boost, Creativity Boost, Focus Now, Music for Concentration, Perfect Concentration); an activity (Reading Soundtrack, Reading Chill Out, Read & Unwind, Reading Adventure, Summer Reading); a time (Wake Up Happy, Wake Up Gently, Autumn Acoustic, Winter Sounds). Sometimes they are filtered by genre to match individual preferences (House Focus, Classical Focus, Electronic Focus, Soft Focus, Binaural Beats Focus); sometimes by demographic (Baby Sleep, Sleep Baby Sleep, Harp Lullabies); & sometimes they just fetishize (Dreamcatcher, Vibra Tropical).

Such explicit marketing of music’s use-value above its other qualities is a recent tendency & represents a significant shift in the way we ascribe value to music. Even shameless cash-grab compilations (e.g., the Now That’s What I Call Music! series) never published anything along the lines of “Now That’s What I Call Rainy-Day Study Music!” Yet such products account for a massive slice of the content available today among Spotify’s featured playlists.

Notice that the would-be genre tag of “study music” — arguably the most popular “genre” emerging out of this process — doesn’t refer to the music’s aesthetic qualities but rather to its function. Brian Eno anticipates this early on when he describes ambient music explicitly as music to play in the background. In fact, the mostly-recent entry of ambient music into the mainstream only further points to the ascendency of use in the industry: among these changes in consumption habits, ambient music entered the mainstream qua study music, qua sleep music, qua background music.

CASE III: The Playlist (Fake Artists)

One might argue that a certain amount of this is inoffensive. However, in addition to changing how we ascribe value to music, these playlists are undeniably affecting our interactions with — & the uses of — musicians. Consider that many tracks on sponsored playlists are ghostwritten — Spotify’s “fake artists” of infamy. But whether or not this is upsetting to you depends on your own vision of what our interactions with music should be. As one cynical commentator writes in support of the strategy,

‘Fake artists’ are actually real artists […] [with] fake names that Spotify listeners aren’t reading anyway. […] Show me the Spotify listener that cares that their zen-like piano music wasn’t actually performed by Julius Aston. They don’t. […] Sorry you hate the fact that this ‘cheats’ some struggling jazz artist who can’t get onto a playlist.

Cynicism aside, the writer reminds us that there are actual people behind these tracks who are being remunerated, even if their contracts prevent them from being credited in a familiar way. Regardless, even a neutral stance toward “fake artists” must recognize that such a phenomenon is only achievable under a regime that prioritizes music’s use-value: musicians themselves are expendable.

Of course, there are repercussions for “real artists” too. Playlists that curate use-value appraise tracks on these terms, even in the case of artists who don’t wish to be assessed in such a way. Some might not even want to decontextualize their music from its original framing through inclusion on a playlist. While this is probably true of very few artists whose music is on Spotify to begin with — though we mustn’t forget the punishment for abstaining — the fact that industry needs triumph over the artist points to the state of music consumption, commodification, & property relations today.

III. FUTURE: Discover Weekly, Ego Formation & You
“090131_Youtube__001” by Taro NISHIMOTO (edited)

Whether or not we see these as positive or negative developments in the state of the industry, it’s not something that we can simply ignore. Nor does it show any signs of changing. Globally, users spend about half of their time on Spotify consuming playlists, & the centrality of features such as Discover Weekly continue to discourage active exploration & secure the hegemony of the algorithm.

But though we can’t directly affect the trajectory of the music industry, we can radically modify our own behaviors to shift discourse & reconstruct our relationships to corporations under capitalism.

Currently, a form of passivity is the expectation. It’s coded in the very jargon of producers & consumers: the former is active, the latter passive. Corporate capitalism depends on our passivity, because it doesn’t just market to us; it seeks to shape us to achieve its own objectives. But that’s only possible when we embrace the idealized representations of advertising, i.e., the images we passively receive through corporate mediation. We maintain the conditions of capitalism & reproduce its ideology when we identify & reconstruct our identities in terms of the images on offer, which are carefully fabricated to catalyze ego formations “that [make] the product integral to the [consumer’s] identity.”

That’s Jonah Peretti writing — yeah, the CEO of BuzzFeed, way back when he was a wannabe anti-capitalist theorist. Ironically, he now strategically employs the very processes he once critiqued — to tremendous success. On BuzzFeed, new ego formations are constantly stimulated by native advertising, sponsored quizzes, etc.

On Spotify, the emphasis on music’s use-value tricks the consumer into feeling they’re taking command of their consumption habits, where these are in reality constantly arbitrated by the vicissitudes of Spotify’s own licensing policies, contractual obligations, & financial interests. Not to mention the persuasive force of algorithmic recommendations in constructing the illusion of personal taste. A large part of Spotify’s success hinges on making consumers feel themselves to be active agents, despite remaining generally passive recipients of content. Demand passivity; feign activity. It’s the 21st century.

But this situation defines the way out too. What’s important to remember is that identity reconstruction & self-creation is emancipatory, when engaged actively. Deleuze & Guattari found hope in this process of active self-creation early on. Although capitalism produces the current environment of globalization & decontextualization by continually undermining the cultural & symbolic obstacles that restrict exchange in order to facilitate the quick adoption of new ego formations — not to mention pave the way for the spread of American capitalism, culture, & ideology — they nonetheless argue that actively accelerating this process destabilizes capitalism.

Acceleration means embracing new identity reconstructions without regard to the images marketed to us. It means we trade these images in favor of others too fickly to generate profit. It means we keep these images from tying us down.

Here’s why the colonization & centralization of the internet are so important: by mediating our online activity, corporations restrict our ability to actively recreate ourselves at the speed of data. Nonetheless, the internet’s emancipatory potential remains there. Though subjected to the tyranny of the algorithm, the internet search remains a potentially revolutionary constitutive act; when we choose to circumvent the algorithm, we play out a statement of identity in & through the architecture of cyberspace.

Which means that, both inherently & as a medium of music consumption, we mustn’t interact with the internet as a source of output, a relation that frames us as passive recipients — consumers. Rather, we should take pride in our constitution as users — active creators of new networks & pathways of communication. We shouldn’t see the internet as just a source but a canvas — a space in which to perform our identities & exercise our agency. We must become internet users once again. Accelerate entropy. Bring back anarchy.

Becoming a responsible, active internet user, for me, has meant abandoning Spotify entirely — just one step in the process of decentralizing my music consumption, decolonizing my online activity from any single corporate interest, & rejecting dependence on the algorithm to shape my music taste & online behavior more broadly.

For you, perhaps it means something different. That’s what emancipation is about. We don’t need to follow the same path — just go surf.

We are celebrating the end of the decade through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the decade for us. More from this series

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