Some may say that global media consumption is catered towards a Western-centric approach, perhaps a misnomer. Prior to streaming, the public were privy to only a section of popular music, let alone specific genres. As a result, the evolution of taste was stuttered. Tired bands playing cock-rock well into the new millennium was but a symptom of listening habits, habits that were built on supply rather than demand. Cut to 5 years into the age of streaming, and a local act can have a fanbase in Scandinavia and still be unheard of two streets away. Independent releases do have some weight behind them now, with labels and media houses willing to offer up more than chump change to record an album or film a video. The money is there. Art is truly global at this point, where there is no longer a need to shoehorn a Carnatic violin into a rock song to pass it off as World Music. It’s still a blight that exists, unfortunately, but a rather small and easily tamable one. Streaming had truly blown the doors open, warts and all.
Both the public and artists have been sold a future: for consumers, there now exists unlimited choice at their fingertips, a screen away. Discovery of unknown pleasures is a very real possibility. And Spotify absolutely nails its USP: the algorithm. A refined beast, it suggests other artists and songs that are in line with a listener’s current tastes, ever expanding to fit more and more so that we keep listening even if we don’t mean to. Over time, the playlists have gotten that much more specific, catering to moods, tasks, scenarios, time of day, you name it. I no longer need to think of a playlist to soundtrack my half-baked cooking endeavours if there’s an editorial playlist that happens to call itself “Cooking”.
For the artist, fame and notoriety were no longer the only way to get a foot in the door and keep it there. Anyone with half a song could put it up on a streaming platform and then, who knows? Record labels and bigger players wasted zero time in cornering this market, touting on one hand the advantage of streaming while paying peanuts per stream. A slow process at first, the ingenuity of the algorithm was the major selling point. Only artists with insanely large fanbases and resources stood a chance to make any real money. Or exhibit an ounce of power. Drake’s album release is enough for every editorial playlist on Spotify to carry his image, while Adele twisted the app’s arm enough to get them to remove the shuffle function on her latest release, encouraging audiences to listen to the entire album. But that’s Adele, that’s Drake.
For India however, this reliance on the algorithm has resulted in homogenous singer-songwriter acts that offer little else but simpering epithets and acoustic guitar. Seriously, have a look at any of Spotify India’s editorial playlists and be greeted with a cavalcade of mid-tempo campfire songs. Make the algorithm do the work, and pretty soon the music caters to the algorithm rather than people. Similarly, gleaning what I could from my extensive research confined to a Vox video, this sort of reverse engineering isn’t restricted to just Spotify. Tik-Tok rules the roost in the West – anything viral on that can snowball into a huge spike in followers. An artist can manufacture a hit by obfuscating it behind a funny or clever short video. The audio is reused enough times to grant virality which ever so often spills over onto streaming platforms, occasionally yielding record deals. Closer to home and Instagram Reels, we have Badshah using and remixing viral audio of a child singing into a hit (and hopefully some compensation for the kid), Yashraj Mukhate auto-tuning iconic moments from Indian television into viral content and ultimately a pretty successful arc as a content creator. Look through Reels and it’s an assembly line of videos with music deployed merely to serve as an editing prompt.
Is all music content now, and are all musicians content creators? As a kid in the ‘90s you’d scrimp and save, sometimes shoplift to get your hands on music you wanted. Cut to the ‘00s, with p2p filesharing doing the rounds, one downloading an album track by track on Limewire, prepared to absolutely decimate their systems in the process. P2P gave way to torrents, individuals building collections to be traded through hard drives. The common strain is a sense of barter, be it money or ingenuity to get what you were looking for. On World Music Day, it’s worth querying: As a responsible consumer in the age of sustainable everything, what is our responsibility as a listener? While it costs us next to nothing to listen to a seemingly unlimited supply of music, something we hold sacred, the cost of creation is forever climbing. Vinyl is an interesting outlier, surviving as its successors have fallen off, direct opposition to the apathetic listener and an effective physical exhibit of the artist’s work. The medium serves an array of purposes, from authentic audio to artistic expanse in design, built on the idea of involvement. There is comfort in seeing its tribe increase. We have never been closer to the artists we love, a list that is potentially endless. Post your most heartfelt connection about them, buy their merch, support their Patreon, share their music, just talk about them more. Barter with your understanding of the music that you love. Barter with your time.
Words by: Abhinav Krishnaswamy