2017: Stack Music Streaming platforms and creative labor in the gig economy

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

Fakeness is everywhere. Earlier this year, Vulture’s Adam Raymond reported on a number of stunts designed to game the Spotify system for a decent payout. Amid full-length silent albums and something he’s calling the “Happy Birthday” gimmick, Raymond discovered that the streaming giant was actively giving some of its most highly-coveted spots on playlists to allegedly “fake” artists. “The first song on Sleep, a playlist of calming, instrumental tracks with 1.5 million followers, is by Enno Aare, a band with three songs on Spotify and no footprint outside of the streaming service,” he writes. “The band Evolution of the Stars has only two songs on Spotify, but both are on the Deep Focus playlist and they have a combined 15 million streams.”

This absence of any footprint beyond its strategic existence in the Spotify ecosystem has led many to take a closer look at the politics of the platform. At Watt, Liz Pelly traced companies like Filtr (owned by Sony), Digster (owned by Warner), and Topsify (owned by Universal) to their source as firms funnelling resources normally gambled on branding and publicity into a network of playlists promising similar successes in the music industry. In the same way that major labels have spent decades developing a direct pipeline to the public via commercial radio, the barrier for entry into the streaming economy, to the surprise of very few, increasingly reflects the monied interest of the industry.

Beyond Spotify, streaming platforms like YouTube, SoundCloud, and Apple Music have each monetized their respective media through a series of gestures that prioritize their platform’s continued relevance in the pop cultural conversation, often at the direct expense of counterculture. From genres like SoundCloud rap and lo-fi house — which each largely owe their recognition as isolated genres to trends within networks — to the outgrowth of platform-based styles like “type-beat” rap productions and Billboard-charting YouTubers, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a strange upheaval, if not in the way that music is made, at least in the conversations we’re having about its structural continuity.

In a time when American partisan politics means a decision between unchecked monopoly and outright fascism, consumers might feel like the only option is to align themselves with a vision of tech progress largely bent on the consolidation of corporate wealth. And with the FCC again calling net neutrality into question, it seems like the right to an open internet is one of few remaining links between far left and far right ideologies. But could it be that the platforms that make up most internet use today are already a lot less neutral than users seem to realize — already subjected to more invasive surveillance and data management practices than most users can even comprehend? Is the concept of “net neutrality” as it stood even 10 years ago enough to account for all the ways in which these platforms have completely changed even the most basic media and communications access across the globe? What sort of transparency do we really expect on the web in 2017, and what, if anything, has really been lost in the shift from simple sites and MP3 blogs to something overwhelmingly dominated by platforms?

The stack, the most outward unit of planetary-scale computation, becomes a useful metaphor when talking about the streaming economy. As John Herrman pointed out earlier this year in The New York Times Magazine, “For many companies, the organizing logic of the software stack becomes inseparable from the logic of the business itself. […] A healthy stack, or a clever one, is tantamount (the thinking goes) to a well-structured company.” In a clear nod to Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, Herrman notes the ways in which stacks flatten the functional logic of business into the smallest unit of digital transaction in the direct service of capital. The platform, itself a matrix of intersecting stacks, operates in accordance with this logic. Elsewhere for the magazine, Herrman continues:

Platforms are, in a sense, capitalism distilled to its essence. They are proudly experimental and maximally consequential, prone to creating externalities and especially disinclined to address or even acknowledge what happens beyond their rising walls. […] Platforms provide the substructure for the “gig economy” and the “sharing economy”; they’re the economic engine of social media; they’re the architecture of the “attention economy” and the inspiration for claims about the “end of ownership.” […] Platforms seek total control even as they abdicate responsibility. In other words, they’re perfect.

As music discovery is increasingly mediated by the logic of the stack (and later platform) economy, independent musicians become precarious platform laborers, digital service employees given fractional cents per stream in a system designed for their own exploitation. Like the contract workers of Uber, Amazon, and TaskRabbit, cognitive creative labor is now mined for utility, scrubbed to its essence as data in service of the platform, only to be presented back to the public through for-profit means. As longtime Wired contributor Bruce Sterling put it in his SXSW closing lecture, “People like to say that musicians reacted badly to the digital revolution. They put a foot wrong. What really happened is that the digital revolution reduces everybody to the state of musicians. Everybody — not just us bohemian creatives, but the military, political parties, the anchor stores in retail malls, academics subjected to massive open online courses… whatever happens to musicians happens to everybody. Including you.”

But a growing class of musicians recognize this precarity. From Konrad Springer’s aptly-titled Stack Music — which, as TMT writer Nick James Scavo points out, is itself a reference to Bratton — to the unboxing videos of Amnesia Scanner, the make-up tutorials of yaeji, and the eerie ASMR of Holly Herndon, more and more artists are drawing connections between their own crafts and the creative labor of a burgeoning class of precarious workers online. The ambient call center “muzak” of Sam Kidel, the polite chivvy of Pinkcourtesyphone’s Taking Into Account Only a Portion of Your Emotions, the soundtracks to fictional unions from David Kanaga and a very real call for musician’s unions across the globe — each represents the ways in which digital labor, again and again, seems to manifest itself as precarity amid a digital future that once promised so much.

More of a state of mind than any actual stylistic genre, Stack Music embodies the contradictions of the current moment in capitalism, where working harder doesn’t mean breaking even, even as Silicon Valley continues to profit like never before.

Of course, digital labor is really nothing new. In an industry in which advances in recording and distribution tools have routinely signaled new possibilities for progressive creative models, innovations from Napster to LimeWire to The Pirate Bay and beyond have left many struggling to determine the value of their labor in the creative workforce. Where physical media came with clearer (if, at times, certainly exploitative) lines between artist and industry, cognitive digital labor is endlessly reproducible in one-to-one copies and impossible to monetize directly. As French economist Yann Moulier-Boutang writes in his book Cognitive Capitalism, “We are leaving an old world where the production of material goods took up the bulk of investment (a lot of capital for machinery, and a lot of low-skilled labour) and was the basis for the accumulation of profit. And we have very much entered a world in which the reproduction of complex goods (biosphere, noosphere or cultural diversity, the economy of the mind) and the production of new knowledge and innovations […] require a shift of investment towards intellectual capital (education, training) and a large quantity of skilled labour, set to work collectively, through the new information and telecommunications technologies.”

As previous barriers to entry have given way to new production and distribution models, more and more amateur musicians have entered this creative workforce, continuing to oversaturate (and perhaps deflate) the artificial valuation present in past models. With no limit to how little they expect in return, independent musicians now have more in common with the cognitive workforce behind Amazon’s Mechanical Turks than most indie artistry of the past, now as precarious wage laborers — cognitariats, to borrow Moulier-Boutang’s word. Thanks to advances in algorithmic listening patterns and natural language processing, music is treated as a neutral commodity to be mined as data, which platforms use to ascribe utility to the products within their system. In the same way that YouTube videos (of course also a space for music) are scoured for details about content and category to generate thumbnails and subtitles, data mining prioritizes the utility of this content at the smallest level of the bit to generate useful observations about its potential value. As Kaitlyn Tiffany recently wrote of Spotify’s “more adventurous” Fresh Finds playlist for The Verge:

Fresh Finds is one of Spotify’s prized products, a weekly playlist crafted from a combination of two different data inputs: it identifies new, possibly interesting music with natural language processing algorithms that crawl hundreds of music blogs, then puts those songs up against the listening patterns of users their data designates “trendsetters.”

As more and more content is uploaded every second, the biggest challenge facing platforms in 2017 is how best to reduce each piece of content to the level of the “thinkable” to help listeners draw connections between related artists. Where once blogs and zines helped contextualize scenes and communities through interviews, reviews, and other cultural criticism, the move to algorithmic processing and NLP sentiment analysis allows data to be monitored on a scale much larger than even the biggest team of writers can account for. Scenes and communities already look very different through a macro computational lens; though, beneath the surface, there’s also undoubtedly some degree of human agency involved throughout this whole process.

As the emergence of these “fake” artists clearly distinguishes, platforms aren’t treating all music as neutral; the existence of sponsored playlists and “fake” artists affirms the ways in which a carefully-constructed hierarchy has already emerged in the shadowy relationships between platform and music industry. And with new advances in artificial intelligence increasingly seeping into music production, it isn’t hard to imagine a future with these “fake” artists replaced by new bots and algorithms, where platforms wouldn’t have to pay out to anyone.

As much as the industry changes, there will hopefully always be an interest in fringe music, and for a new subset of artists, this future has become a source of fascination, not fear. This year, Konrad Springer turned Euclidean algorithms into kaleidoscopic loops of computer-controlled electronics. David Kanaga built an entire world around the “cognitariats” of video game design. And an increasing number of musicians found new worlds in the emergent aesthetics of YouTube.

While digital labor in one way or another surely went into everything covered on this site and others, the politics of the internet — especially the exchange between the open net and something mediated by the monied interest of platforms — became a bigger issue than ever before for independent artistry. Despite the Invisible Hand of the Algorithm at play beneath the surface, lo-fi house proved that there are still heaps of incredible dance music just waiting to be uncovered, as YouTube channels like Slav and Hurfyd are still excited to prove near daily. SoundCloud may have laid off 40% of its staff as it approached bankruptcy and changed CEOs, but it still found a way to help a new generation of rappers like Lil Pump and XXXTentacion find audiences arguably bigger than ever before, even if perhaps less conducive to celebrity.

With platforms now mediating nearly every aspect of modern life, it’s hard to think that the culture industry would be immune. Yet even in the face of uncertainty, no monopoly in history has ever been as big as that of social media. Beneath its glossy interfaces, platforms are the scaffolding of all of this, the structure by which the “gig economy,” “sharing economy,” and “attention economy” each take shape, but it’s also the underlying architecture for so much human interaction that it’s hard to imagine living without anymore.

Yet even as sites reach unparallelled levels of convenience and full-catalogue access, it’s important to recognize the politics at play beneath the surface. With immaterial labor, creative or otherwise, becoming an even larger driving force behind cognitive capitalism, digital files certainly become more accessible, yet adequate compensation and ownership rights still most often favor corporate consolidation. If anything, digital platforms so far have only seemed to intensify and accelerate preexisting strains on the workforce, trading whatever achievements were made in productivity gains and remote labor possibilities for a visibly declining quality of life. Although precarity has always been the case for struggling musicians in some form or another, its noticeable rise across an entire class of cognitive laborers and beyond signals profound changes for the future of work.

Platforms are changing everything. If whatever happens to musicians really does happen to everybody, then the workforce has no choice but to resist.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

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