When “Vacuum Cleaner for Babies” Beat Taylor Swift: Fixing the Music Streaming Problem


On a panel at SXSW recently, John Dworkin, a VP at Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company, told the story of how at one point last summer, a Taylor Swift song placed at No. 7 on the Billboard charts. At No. 6 was “Vacuum Cleaner for Babies,” the sound of a vacuum cleaner that parents can play on a loop to soothe babies and help them sleep. He used the example to illustrate how just measuring raw consumption is a flawed way to determine popularity, let alone music.

So what? Popularity was never a particularly good way of sorting out quality. But at least in the old days, buying things — records, books, tickets — when it cost real money to make a choice, demonstrated consumer investment directly to an artist or creator. In the streaming era — movies, music, social media — “content” is bundled together to deliver access to everything (or at least a representation of everything), meaning you don’t have to “choose” artists to support, or for that matter make practically any effort to be entertained by any particular artist or genre; it’s all part of the stream, disposable and endless.

This collective consumption model has weakened attachments between artists and their fans and arguably dampened interest in music generally. But where it really sucks is that compensation in the streaming era is tied to this consumption paradigm. When you get paid by how many times your work is played and the marketplace is flooded with fake, synthetic or utilitarian vacuum tracks algorithmically optimized to gain plays, your ability to be found and heard – and thereby paid — is diminished.

Deezer, the French music streaming company, has an idea to increase payouts to musicians on its service. Recognizing that not all listens are equal, Deezer will now pay a higher per-stream rate for tracks that listeners choose themselves, with a lower rate for music played as part of an algorithmic stream. Additionally, artists won’t earn royalties until their music has generated more than 1000 plays.  That cuts out miniscule payments of a few cents or a few dollars to hundreds of thousands of creators that can be redistributed to artists who have cleared a minimally viable threshold. While this doesn’t necessarily address the vacuum track issue, it’s the latest attempt to break the notion that all consumption is equal.

That idea has been the internet’s default value proposition, in which anything being created or shared is generically “content,” devoid of value until someone pays attention to it. “Content” is a Silicon Valley weasel word that suggests that nothing has any intrinsic worth or quality — every digital byte is equal and interchangeable — until it draws attention as measured and defined by popularity algorithms. Those algorithms are based on attention scores which don’t measure the quality or impact of engagement, but merely the volume of responses.

Deezer says its new system is “artist-centric,” rewarding artists that are building relationships with their fans, as opposed to the old system which is “user-centric” and simply measuring consumption and the ability to be found.

That old admonition “you are what you measure” doesn’t just apply to budgets and school testing but also to social media posts, news consumption and anything where attracting attention is the goal instead of the byproduct of some intrinsic quality. Deezer’s shift is an attempt at redefining value, pushing back against traditional popularity metrics conflating consumption with appreciation. If consumption were just one choice over another on a level playing field, the model would still be problematic. But in the age of algorithmic curation, attention metrics increasingly promote and reward the wrong value.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top