Constant Revolutions: The ‘Plasticity’ of Music

The impact of technological changes on how music is created and consumed is a well covered subject.

Music history is full of dramatic changes: electric microphones, stereo LPs, transistor radios, multitrack studios, FM stations, arena-filling sound amplification, the walkman, digital synthesizers, samplers, CDs, MTV, SSL consoles, SoundScan, the iPod, Spotify, bluetooth earphones, voice-activated smart speakers, AirPods etc.

In important ways, they all changed everything: the type and variety of music being made, the type of musician, the age/socioeconomic profile of listeners, the amount and frequency of music consumed, the places where it was consumed. 

One particular detail that greatly amplifies the power of technological changes to alter how music is created and consumed has to with the plasticity of music itself.

‘Plasticity’ is the quality of ‘being easily shaped or molded’ and music listening has lots of it. People enjoy music in many, many different ways: How much they spent listening. How often. In how many different contexts. Alone or communally. The emotional responde to a particular genre can be particularly intense. The memories attached to a particular song can be overwhelming. Opinions about what is good or bad music are incredibly subjective. Opinions about what is good sounding music as well. People have different preferences in even in music volume! And so on. 

That means that music demand has tremendous flexibility. And that’s why technological innovations can have a very disproportionate and unpredictable impact.

In other words, one can almost say that the music landscape has lived in a constant flow of revolutions. Everything is going fine until a new element or gadget comes along and changes the way music is made/marketed/listened. And it is always unexpected. We never knew we needed Walkmans or iPods until we did. And then in hindsight they all look obvious and “inevitable”: of course the miniaturization of electronic components, together with digital compression algorithms and powerful song library management desktop software (offering also a fast and seamless synchronization feature) would naturally result in a stylish rounded metallic device holding a thousands songs that fits in your pocket!

But the obviousness only comes with hindsight. The actual revolutionary innovation had to bring something new. And “new” can take many forms in this music realm. Anything that explores, illuminates, tweaks or solves one or more of variable dimensions of music interaction can be a “killer app”. The new idea can change how often we listen or how long. How portable. How instantaneously. How cheaply. How easy it is to search a song. Or remember it. How easy it makes to hide our taste, or share it. How it increases the range of where to listen or with whom etc. etc.

And there is so much room for surprises because our connection with music is very deep, broad and variable. We have a strong emotional connection with music. In fact, music is more than entertainment, culture, distraction or escapism: it is an input that our minds absorb and use. Music is brain food. The plasticity of music is sourced on the complexity and neuroplasticity of the brain itself.

Like the brain, always rewiring itself as it grows and heals, our relationship with music is always rewiring itself. That’s why changes in technology, hardware, software or interface can have such profound consequences on how we consume music.

I can speculate – what is going to be the next revolution in music: maybe those bone conduction headphones? Or future iterations of those speaker-featuring glasses? 360 audio as Sony dearly hopes? Perhaps AirPods Pro Max Series 5 will work without a watch or phone nearby, and the transparency mode will be so good that you can wear them the whole day? (And Siri evolves in a functional digital companion?) Maybe the audio part will the killer app for AR glasses?

Or going into software, the future of music will be intrinsically linked with TikTok and Metaverses? Will AI evolve so far that it can accurately divine our taste? When you go to a party, will your Spotify account register all the songs that you listened (and take note of which made your heartbeat/blood pressure /etc. go up??) Maybe someday music streaming will be fully integrated with your social graph? (2030’s iTunes Ping will be awesome??)

Another interesting point is the suspicion that we may have crossed an important threshold in this technological evolution of the music-brain interface: music streaming platforms, with full catalogues served to a global audience, may look in the future like a primitive central nervous system, the ancestor of something much more impressive.

Because, unlike other art forms or fields of knowledge, music streaming services are more than databases that index and describe whatever exists in the real world: they are becoming de facto main music layer we interact with. And all future improvements can be built upon this digital base.

Nowadays, it is quite feasible to describe music streaming services as low-margin services with limited differentiation. Spotify still struggles to ensure long-term profitability and most of its competitors are tech giants whose music services represent a small fraction of their total revenues. There are several ongoing discussions about user-centric streams models, and how creators are paid, what role exactly each of several ‘stakeholders’ should have etc.

But that’s fine. The evolution of this early digital musical brain we have now is going to be full of surprises and turns. What is more certain is that technology has always powered music plasticity, and the current state of digitalization might very well be an inflection point from which the pace and range of innovation will be increasingly exciting.

And of course, once those new fantastic developments eventually arrive, we will later look back and think that they were all obvious and inevitable.

April 12 edit: Changed the structure of the first paragraphs for clarity.

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Waiting for HiFi

I have been really enjoying the improvements to user interface/experience of Spotify apps. I am also optimistic about the accelerating pace of improvements:

“The future of Desktop – As mentioned above, this change to the Desktop UI gives us the ability to move faster in bringing you new improvements, features and functionality — so you can expect to see continued improvements to the client in the weeks and months to come.”

The problem is that the sound quality remains underwhelming. Even at the highest resolution (320 Kbs) the sound seems to me markedly inferior to what I get from Apple Music 256 Kbs AAC files. 

Qobuz lossless files sound even better, but the apps are much less practical for daily use and less conductive to discovery. Tidal is fine but sits in a weird spot: sounds maybe a little less great than Qobuz, but the app is less useful than Apple/Spotify. Amazon HD is not available in my country.

So now all I have left to do is wait for Spotify HiFi. The problems are that it is coming only “later this year” (and we are still in April) and in “select markets” (meanwhile Spotify’s recent track-record of expanding new features internationally has been less than stellar).  

They promised that they “will have more details to share soon” but this was 44 days ago! (What they understand by “soon”?)

Finally, we are left to wonder if Spotify lossless implementation will sound great or less-than great, such as Deezer’s

Until Spotify HiFi is actually launched and evaluated we have the right to remain skeptical. Apple Music released a superior sounding product nearly six years ago and during all these period Spotify did little to close the gap. (Actually there was some improvement in loudness levels in 2017, but this was obviously not enough to sound competitive against 256 AAC and lossless FLAC).

(Until a few years ago the highest quality setting at Spotify desktop was called “extreme” instead of “very high” as it is now. That was funny.)

But of course, it would make very little sense to Spotify release a HiFi product and be careless about implementation, even more so since they are focusing on “CD level” quality and wisely not entering the distracting battles of 192-96 kHz/24 bit/MQA/360 features…

There is also the small question of how Apple will respond to this initiative. It has a long tradition of not only supporting lossless and hi-resolution music but also encouraging labels to provide high quality original files (Apple Digital Masters). On the other hand Apple insists that its 256 Kbs AAC files “are virtually indistinguishable from the original 24 bit studio masters”, so the launch of different audio tier would be a drastic change of messaging.

Let’s wait…

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Social, Again

Spotify has been emphasizing social features again, which is a nice improvement from the situation a few years ago when they shut down in-app messaging, for example. The first example of the recent turnaround may have been the beta release of Group Sessions, a particular appealing idea in a suddenly locked-down world. Now in 2021 the emphasis on the social aspect has been growing. First there were the comments in the most recent earning calls (February 9th, 2021)

2) SPOTIFY IS ‘CONDUCTING EXPERIMENTS’ AROUND SOCIAL FEATURES…

Ek was asked when Spotify plans on adding social features to its platform – presumably the ability for fans to comment on tracks, for example – like what Chinese music streaming services such as Tencent Music offer.

Ek explained that Spotify is “very interested in” the idea of adding social features to the service, and that the company “obviously pay[s] close attention to everything that’s happening in markets around the world and new developments in audio”.

Added Ek: “I’ve said this many times before. We’re in the early innings of the innovation of the audio formats and creator-to-fan interactivity is definitely one of those things that we’re paying attention to and looking at.

“We are conducting experiments on it already… I don’t have any sort of specific here to announce, but there are plenty more things to come in the coming months of this year as well when it comes to creator to fan engagements.”

Of course, last week (March 30th, 2021) there was the big news that  Spotify “Acquires Locker Room and Announces Plans for a New Live Audio Experience”

In the coming months, Spotify will evolve and expand Locker Room into an enhanced live audio experience for a wider range of creators and fans. Through this new live experience, Spotify will offer a range of sports, music, and cultural programming, as well as a host of interactive features that enable creators to connect with audiences in real time. We’ll give professional athletes, writers, musicians, songwriters, podcasters, and other global voices opportunities to host real-time discussions, debates, ask me anything (AMA) sessions, and more. 

However, the most intriguing change appeared one week earlier, as TechCrunch reported on the upcoming desktop updates while linking some changes to recent Daniel Ek comments from a Clubhouse event:

[Users] can now write descriptions, upload their own images and drag and drop tracks into existing playlists. They can also use a new embedded search bar located at the top of the “Create Playlist” page to seek out new songs or even podcast episodes to add to the playlist. This could greatly speed up the somewhat tedious process of playlist creation, by reducing the steps it takes between finding a track and getting it into a playlist.

This change in particular speaks to Spotify’s growing interest in catering to curators — something co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek mentioned during his recent appearance on the PressClub show on Clubhouse.

Ek explained that he was “excited about curatorship” because when a service’s content library grows, it needs curators.

“The playlisters are incredible on Spotify, but it seems like there’s limited ability to interact with those playlisters — or for those playlisters to really understand who is listening to them and be able to build that second set of creators [who] are indirectly creating by helping other people find content to experience,” he said.

To address this challenge, Ek said Spotify would try to add more tools to allow users to become better curators, if not on a social basis, at least for themselves.

“The primary focus for us on the roadmap is just enabling you to be a much better curator even for yourself — just by, for instance, suggesting content that’s relevant to the things you’ve already put in the playlist,” he added.

These updated playlist creation tools seem like a natural first step toward Spotify’s larger goals in this area.

Are we finally going to see some functional innovation in the work of (non Chinese) music streaming apps?

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Legacy

This is really funny. As John Gruber says “Music on Mac is just an utter embarrassment for Apple”.

Spotify meanwhile is bringing big changes for its desktop app. But reactions have been decidedly mixed

Part of the issue is that the desktop app is going to be based on the web player codebase, something that will bring many benefits, but for now (and the future?) many existing and beloved features are missing.

The interesting thing here is that Spotify felt it needed to make a statement such as this one:

“We believe in the future of the Desktop platform and want to make sure it can still serve the needs of our users now and into the future.”

Odd to watch desktop apps becoming a legacy distraction for music streaming services…

Update April 4th:

By pure chance, I created a new Spotify account for myself within the family account (my main account has been compromised by the kids playing with Alexa and I wanted to explore a bit the updated iOS app and its fantastic listening history implementation) and to my surprise encountered the desktop app completely updated (while logged in with my original account the app did not presented itself updated – weird.) Now I have played a bit with the updated desktop app I can say it really seems a great step forward, with a much fresher look and feel. Apple again has a lot of catch up to do.

By the way, the Spotify community blog post promised that “for those of you interested in the technical details, a blog post on the engineering blog is coming soon”. This will be interesting.

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International Feels

Federico Viticci: ‘Between this, real-time lyrics, the HiFi tier, and the upcoming integration with Siri in iOS 14.5, it seems like I picked a good time to try Spotify for a year.”

I recently praised Spotify mobile updates such as history and three new categories of Spotify mixes

My only question now is how long is going to take for many of these innovations to reach most countries. 

Library New Genre and Mood filters are a great idea, and have been available since February:

Starting today, Spotify is rolling out a new way for our listeners to easily sort their “Liked Songs” collection for every mood and moment through new Genre and Mood filters. With this new feature, listeners with at least 30 tracks in their collections will be able to filter their favorite songs by up to 15 personalized mood and genre categories. 

But only for English speaking countries:

This feature will be rolling out over the coming weeks to Free and Premium listeners on Android and iOS devices in English-speaking markets including the U.S., Canada, U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

No words about how long Portuguese speakers in Brazil have to wait, which is almost funny: in the video demo of the feature made by Spotify, the second liked song to appear is called “Em algum lugar” by Thifany Kauany. So at least Spotify can already parse the mood and genre songs with Portuguese titles!

More importantly, this is a trend! 

  • Mood filters are available only in English speaking countries
  • Spotify Hifi “will begin rolling out in select markets later this year”
  • Spotify tool for making podcasts, Anchor, has a very nice tool to include songs on episodes, but since its debut in October it has only been available in U.S., Canda, Ireland, U.K., Australia and New Zealand,  almost just like the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.
  • (This has nothing to do with Spotify but Amazon Music HD also has only been available in very few countries since launch)

(To be fair, they have been very busy expanding internationally: in March they added 36 new languages to their mobile app! For a total of 62!  And are expanding to 80+ markets, for a total of 170+.)

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Deep Cuts

I wonder if artists feel appreciated when Apple Music launches a “Deep Cuts” playlist dedicated to them.

Of course the artists might feel honored to have their own “Essentials” list and even more so to earn a “Next Steps” one, but anthology-wise, “Deep Cuts” is the third and final major badge of distinction.

Additionally, there are other dedicated playlists that artists can earn: “Influences”; “Inspired”, “Live”; “Songbook”, “Sampled”; “Remixed”; “Love Songs”; “Video Essentials” etc. but for now I will let them aside because then things get too dispersed. Talking about the Essential/Next/Deep ladder is more straightforward. 

I would love to read something about how Apple decides which artists deserve lists at each level, but I don’t think I ever saw any comment about this process. 

Besides earning three tiers, there is also the question of how many songs are included in each. Most lists have 25 or 15 songs each, but there are exceptions. Last time I checked Bruce Springsteen had 53 essential songs, Dolly Parton had 29 “next step” songs and Bob Dylan had 34 deep cuts. 

Overall, counting the three tiers, I found 110 songs for Bob Dylan, 106 for Bruce and 104 for The Beatles. Meanwhile, Dire Straits, The Police and Supertramp shared the dubious honor of scraping by with 15 songs each in every tier.

Another odd thing is that Apple makes it hard to search for all the lists in each tier. I would love to know how many artists there are in each.

Fortunately, there is one shortcut. There is one iOS music app that shows comprehensive search results for Apple Music. So, searching there for “deep cuts” playlists I can confidently infer that there are 986 results. Some results are genre-based lists (Classic Rock, Rock, Classic Reggae etc) and one or two are generic lists called Deep Cuts. There are also a few results for playlists that are titled “Next Steps”, which are usually old lists that have not been updated in the last couple of years.  

So, overall, there are a bit more than 900 hundred artists that have earned their own “Deep Cuts” playlist by Apple Music. Congratulations to all of them! Maybe you could ask Apple to make your lists easier to find!

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The end of prehistory (Spotify mobile has ‘history’ now)

I just received a fantastic update for Spotify Mobile app in iOS. There are two new features worth of comment and praise: “History” and “Add Songs” at “Liked Songs”.

History in particular is something essential that feels long overdue. Spotify Desktop app have had it for a long time, but in a quite rudimentary way and a hard to find place. Apple Music has a nice history implementation for some time but it only shows the listening history for that particular device.

Spotify Mobile now seems to have done it right: available as an icon in top right corner of the home page (a clock with a an arrow going counter-clockwise), it clearly shows a list of all songs, artists, albums and playlists played day by day for the past three months. As I understand, this is the global listening history of the user, across all devices and Spotify connect, which is a huge plus. I think and hope this will be extremely useful for many people.

“Add Songs” is a great treat for users who like to collect “liked songs” (aka a song library). First there is a neat Search box which makes it much handier and expedite to search Spotify catalog for songs, artists and albums to like/add than before (The main Search tab has been becoming quite a powerful beast, displaying not only artists, albums and songs but also playlists, podcasts & shows, episodes, profiles etc.).

The Second element of Add Songs is a collection of lists of songs that could be added with one click (there is an empty heart icon next to each song). There is a list on the first screen and swiping right I can access another three lists. List 1 is “most played”, List 2 for me was “Dance Rock for you”, “List 3 is Classic Rock for you” and List 4 is “Recently played”.

And the lists are generous: I did a brief counting, and I think that ‘most played’ has over 50 items, maybe a 100.

In my opinion, the song library is an essential element of a music streaming service, and it is nice to see Spotify working on improving it.

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Does pop music still exist? – Dirt

That’s quite a paragraph:

I don’t believe that Bridgers is herself fully representative of the industry’s direction. Pop was already an uncertain, amorphous commodity, and now it’s an anonymous aesthetic. When I think of pop as an aesthetic, my mind returns to the Moby and Lenny Kravitz records of my childhood: genre-fluid, opaquely poetic songs that were licensed for a million commercials. Their music was frictionless enough that everybody liked it, but slippery enough that no one closely identified with it. They sounded algorithmic before algorithms were really a thing, and the fact that they wrote glorified TV jingles mostly barred these artists from serious critical consideration.

Dirt: Does pop music still exist? – Dirt
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Just Mix It

Experimenting for the first time the new ‘Spotify Mixes’. I see three new rows in the desktop app: “Decade Mixes”; “Artist Mixes” and “Genre Mixes”. Each row with 6 mixes. Fortunately, the original Daily Mixes remain available.

So users now have 24 personalized mixes to be frequently updated according to the user listening habits and preferences. Spotify explains how they work:

Each mix is created with you at the core, based on your listening habits and the artists, genres, and decades you listen to most. They’re rooted in familiarity, meaning that you won’t just hear your favorite artists, but your favorite songs from those artists.
Then, we supplement by adding in songs we think you’ll love, meaning they’ll be filled with the music you have on repeat alongside some fresh picks. So whether you want to jam out to a specific artist or hear more music from another decade, there’s a mix just for you.
Finally, each mix updates frequently, so the possibilities are endless and there’s always something new to discover. They’re designed to grow with you over time, so they’ll take your listening into account to help you discover and dive deeper into your new favorite artist, genre, or decade.

I really enjoy that Spotify is emphasizing “mixes” instead of playlists for a change. It is a subtle difference, but a music mix is much more useful for listeners on a daily, recurring basis than a play “list” (particularly in the way those are implemented on Spotify as I wrote about here).

While both lists and mixes offer the same thing – a sequence of songs organized vertically – they have a very distinct nature and feel. A list is finite, static, self-contained. It’s brittle. A mix, on the other hand, can be organic, dynamic; constantly refreshed yet maintaining its identify.

Thinking of music as water (tks Cherie Hu), lists are lakes and mixes are rivers. Both can be great, but only the latter can really flow.

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Opening Links on Apple Music

Opening a link to an Apple Music song on a Mac is always an odd experience:
The click opens a safari tab of Apple Music, loads slowly.
There there is a button “open in the Music app” if you are logged in.
Then you can click on it, and it will open the album/list on Apple Music.
On the left pane, you see you are in the “Browse” section.
What is really odd is that if you browse/search for anything else in Apple Music, it is very hard to return to that album/list.
If there is a song playing from the album, there is “go to song”, but if it is not playing there is no way to go “back” to the album.
Why is browsing so hard on Apple Music?
Why opening a link on Apple Music feels like a chore?

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