How playlists are changing the nature of musical works

Common copyright wisdom holds that technological developments primarily change the way that contents are reproduced and distributed. The obvious “then” and “now” are the printing press and the internet. “Then”, the ability to make multiple copies of contents created the conditions for the rise of the publishing industry; “now”, the rise of the internet compresses the time line, where reproduction and distribution of digital contents occur simultaneously.

Less appreciated is how developments in reproduction and distribution affect the very contents being created. Consider the impact of the playlist, as described in an article that appeared in the April 24th issue of The Economist (“And the winner is… who cares?”), here. The challenge for a producer of music is to reach a potential consumer; that of the consumer is to discover new music. With fragmentation in how music is distributed, enter the playlist.

Relying on algorithms, digital streaming sources, such as Spotify and Apple Music, have honed the “personalized recommendation”, turning it into one of the primary (“the primary”?) means by which consumers are able to discover music to one’s musical liking. For both producer and consumer, the name of the game becomes how to get onto personalized playlists. The answer is, in part, to create musical contents that comport with the distinctive features of the playlist platform. The article describes this process as follows:
The diminishing role of industry tastemakers is reflected in the sort of art now being produced. To make it onto computer-generated playlists, songs must avoid getting skipped, so tracks increasingly open with a catchy “pre-chorus”. New releases may have up to a dozen writers making sure that every section sparkles—a “genetically modified hit”, quips Mr Mulligan, who doubts that “awkward listens” like Radiohead would do as well today. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which takes more than a minute to get going, would not be released, he suspects. Songs have become shorter, since artists are paid per stream. Labels are even making sure that the titles are Alexa-friendly.
There are a variety of observations packed into this passage, but what undergirds all of them is that the music being created is fashioned to meet the characteristics of the computer-generated playlist. Thus, the track is likely to begin with a “pre-chorus” interlude, which would not have likely been adopted in the pre-playlist world. As well, the song will likely be shorter, in order to increase in the aggregate the number of streams for which the artist is entitled to payment.

And then there is the claim that playlists have spawned “genetically modified contents”, due to the potential multiplicity of writers contributing to a playlist-destined song. The copyright lawyer in me either salivates, or panics (or both), at the prospect of sorting ownership and rights in such a situation, not to speak of the challenge of fashioning suitable compensation arrangements.

But there is an underlying question: why will a multiplicity of writers ensure a more “sparkling” musical end product? This seems counterintuitive to the way that music is created (“the task for the three of you is to help Wolfgang sort out the second movement of his Piano Concerto no. 21”, here).

The observation regarding Radiohead is, for this Kat, somewhat opaque. Radiohead has always been a controversial group among music listeners (“I love them--their music is so… challenging”; “Quite right, that is why I despise them”). If I know that the piece is by Radiohead (or any other 2021 equivalent), and I know how I generally relate to their music, why will the presentation of such a piece via a playlist make it more likely that it will be skipped? Is it a matter of the absence of name disclosure, strongly felt negative feelings by some, or is it something else inherent in the playlist?

A bit different is the suggestion regarding “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Here, the issue is attention span, its length and what it takes to grab the listener. But, of course, attenuated attention span is not limited to music listening; it is also present in the challenge to engage visually in a digital setting. Reading long form contents on a computer screen is simply less (un?) pleasant. Offer the same text in print form, and this Kat’s hunch is that the reader will show a greater attention span. Perhaps these tendencies regarding shortened attention span are only exacerbated in a playlist world.

Further, like Radiohead, reputation should also play a role with respect to a work such as “Bohemian Rhapsody”. If I identify the group responsible for creating the work, should that not play a role in my decision not to skip it, even if the first part of the piece is more sedate than I would prefer?

Of course, this is not the first time that changes in distribution have helped fashion the contents being distributed. Charles Dickens ushered in the age of the serialization of literary contents in the 1830’s, publishing all his novels via that distribution format.

How serialization impacted on the nature of Dickens’ works is still a topic of scholarly attention. Who knows: if he had stuck to publication and distribution of his novels only when fully formed, maybe Oliver Twist would never have asked, "Please, sir, may I have some more please?"

By Neil Wilkof

Picture on the right is of a painting by Louis Gallait and is in the public domain.

Picture on the left is by Luca Sartoni and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
How playlists are changing the nature of musical works How playlists are changing the nature of musical works Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, May 21, 2021 Rating: 5

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