Music Needs Tribal Streaming

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Music streaming platforms offer a trove of songs and artists for you plow through at random. Most also offer you some sorting, suggestions of other artists, or songs ordered according to your history of selections.

Even Pandora's ( P) Music Genome Project, brilliant as it is, is simply a more rigorous application of this same principle: looking into our past to predict our future and profit from the choices we are about to make.

While it yields some satisfaction, there are distinct downsides, beginning with the fact that it is a self-centered, isolating experience for the listener. Imagine yourself trying to fall in love by looking in the mirror. Everything you'll see will be something you've already seen.

The practice is also weirdly invasive. Spotify, Rdio, Pandora ( P) -- these services are watching you, recording your data and using that data to predict things you might enjoy and the ads you might want to see.

That much is just creepy. A different creepy from George Orwell's 1984, where the government spies on each citizen's every move. More insidious, like the movie Soylent Green, where euthanized people are made into food: Our own data is being ground up and fed back to us as a new thing, for our enjoyment.

On the other hand, if the food is good, why complain?

As if to put a sauce on that unsavory entree, some are pointing out that the practice is taking money out of musicians' pockets and wrecking the chances for new talent.

Writer, engineer and tech observer Jaron Lanier, in a recent book and an op-ed in the New York Times, blames this type of data collection for a collapse of industries and the middle class those industries supported. The providers of big server farms profit without any dependence on the future of the industries they serve, he says. Workers in music -- or journalism or any other information-based field -- meanwhile find that only the very lucky are able to make a living. Those at the peak of their profession may not even qualify as wealthy. The majority make very little, or nothing at all.

Rocco Pendola, approaching the topic from another perspective in an article published Friday morning, reiterates this point. Noting a dysfunctional lack of cooperation among tech companies in Internet radio, Pendola says, "Practically every aspect of the systems that pay the people involved in the creation, production and performance of music is broken."

Jason Notte, in another article today, notes the plethora of reunion tours and the growing fan base that supports them. That movement is fed, in part, from the current economic conditions in which musicians must try to make a living.

But, it must be added, part of the attraction is due to the suggestions of streaming music services. As Notte points out, they put these older bands in front of new listeners.

Notte sees this as a positive side of the data mining, the machine mirroring of our tastes back to us; a new generation of fans gets to discover the music by older, known acts.

"It's a desire to be part of what you weren't around to experience the first time," Notte writes. "It's about acknowledging the greatness of the past while crushing generational tyranny in the present."

But even here, I see a downside: these second-time-around acts have an established reputation, reviews widely available, hit records that already tracked on Billboard, access to major venues, cover stories in magazines. For new acts, the process of getting noticed on these services is much, much harder.

Music requires an enormous extension of personal trust. Establishing that trust requires social settings, shared listening experiences. Small social groups, families, circles of friends, reinforce each other's musical loves. In order to gain our trust, to really be loved, music has to be placed directly into the intimate context of our social lives. In order to surprise us, new music has to appear in that comfortable, shared environment.

Facebook ( FB) offers some promise in this regard, as its interest is based almost entirely on friend-to-friend interactions. Songs and artists are shared, often through YouTube, and those recommendations definitely carry more weight. But because it is Facebook and because it is YouTube, that experience isn't monetized -- not for the artists anyway. In pursuing a natural course of shared musical experience, we're just digging the hole for musical culture a little deeper.

The big missing piece here, for all streaming music platforms and all of the music industry, is the cultivation and promotion for smaller acts, a job that used to be done by record labels and DJs. It was once possible to put out a single, put it on radio on a dozen stations across the country and let entire circles of friends hear it at the same time. They would all be listening to one radio, sharing the listening experience the same way they would if they were in a club with a live band.

Even listening to the record was typically a shared experience, a few friends hearing it together on someone's home stereo or on the local diner jukebox.

Without that power, that authority, that reach directly into the intimate social context, the creation of a new music scene is infinitely harder. It seems to me that the reestablishment of that type of channel also goes a long way toward rebuilding the music economy, connecting bands with much-needed revenue streams and music providers with incentive to help them.

Data mining isn't going to go away, as much as I may not like it. But it remains for someone to humanize it, to make it serve the needs of musical experience, rather than the needs of data miners.

Pandora at least appears on track to do this. Using its more rigorous data collection -- based on its Music Genome Project which, by design, requires direct human involvement in the categorization of each song -- the service has the potential to promote small bands and help them reach their potential audiences.

But the door remains wide open for promoters -- talent managers like the old record label model, people with a vested interest in smoothing the road for new talent -- to take advantage of those online tools and to use them to build personal relationships between listeners and artists. The door remains wide open for the cultivation of new avenues for shared listening experiences, online and elsewhere.

We are ready to fall in love and these streaming services are putting the music out there to fall in love with. All it would take is a little push.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park.

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