Is there any hope for eclectic listening online?

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The internet, as we all know by now, has made music more widely distributed and available than ever. The listening possibilities brought on by digital technology seem literally limitless, especially now that streaming has taken hold, with the express goal of offering pretty much every piece of recorded music ever at the click of a button. Although we are far short of that reality  as of yet  we are still all but drowning in songs.

It would seem, therefore, that we are if anything over-served by digital music. There is too much of it, pretty much everywhere.

I would argue, however, that we are actually under-served by the internet when it comes to music. Not because we lack options. But because we lack options that relate helpfully to how we actually listen to and enjoy our music.

Because, truth be told, your musical taste is much more interesting and powerful than the internet gives you credit for.

On the internet, voluminous amounts of music are consistently and emphatically sliced into segments defined by genre. This seems logical enough  until you think about your own music collection, whether digital or analogue or some combination of the two. Is all the music in your collection sortable into one genre? Probably not. You probably have many different genres in your collection.

Individual and eclectic music taste

This is especially true because the internet itself seems to have induced the creation of multiple genres and sub-genres over the last 15 years or so. In the old days, I might have been able to divide my music collection into maybe five genres, only two of which were relevant to my rock'n'roll-related listening  namely, rock'n'roll and R&B (the others being jazz, classical, and Broadway).

Now, without even looking, I'm guessing the music in my collection that might be generally filed under "rock'n'roll" is represented by at very least a dozen or more genres, including:

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  • indie rock
  • new wave
  • singer/songwriter
  • Americana
  • classic rock
  • power pop
  • Brit pop
  • punk
  • electronica
  • folk
  • hip hop
  • prog rock
  • Etc.

I want to listen to more than one genre!

Now that there are so many genres, it actually makes less sense than ever to assume that people want only to be listening to one of them at a time.

This is why I feel frustrated when a digital music service tries to "help" me by steering me into one or another genre, since the end result  whether it's a newly created "radio" station or an existing playlis  has little to do with what music sounds like when I'm listening to my own stuff. My music is many genres, combined. And I don't especially want or need to hear each genre cordoned off on its own.

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And yet that is largely what the online streaming services are prepared to do. Despite the wide variety of music that each of them has at its disposal, each enterprise seems largely incapable of and/or uninterested in serving up that music in a variegated manner.

Even Pandora falls down when it comes to real-time variety. Its scientific "genome," which offers recommendations based on minutely examined song characteristics, is designed most of all to deliver songs and musicians that sound like songs and musicians you pre-identify as favourites. Pandora may well lead you across some sub-genres, but the overall sound is designed to be consistent.

Likewise the playlist-based Songza  despite some helpful innovations (such as allowing you to seek playlists based on moods or activities rather than just genre) and a general vibe of being more music-loving than most other  seems largely incapable of addressing this need for practical variety in the moment. Here, their admittedly fun-seeming "mood" or "activity" gateways largely end up pointing you to playlists that are still genre-focused; it's just that these playlists are deemed by Songza editors to align with the given mood or activity you selected. Very few of the playlists themselves are purposefully created for the mood, and even those that might be remain prisoners of their own premise: even when songs are gathered from different genres they are still likely to sound consistently similar, because they are purposefully aiming for one mood.

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The ideal listening experience

To me, an ideal listening experience would be a playlist that can segue thoughtfully from an old Motown ballad into a 21st-century indie rock anthem into a new wave nugget into a contemporary singer/songwriter into some psychedelic sounds from the late '60s, and then some. And while I crave mixes that are purposefully constructed, I'll make do with some bumpy segues too. This is why I so often find merely shuffling songs from my own library to be more engaging listening than a one-genre playlist. Except then, of course, I'm not hearing anything I don't already know, which presents its own limitation.

All of this said, I am not sure that the internet music scene is ready to accommodate our naturally eclectic tastes any time soon. Even if anyone at any of these services recognizes the need (and I am not confident that they do), the obvious problem is that the kind of eclectic listening experience I speak of is not readily deliverable by the kind of automated algorithms these services appear to depend on. Human beings could do it, in theory, but they would have to people who are smart and knowledgeable and sensitive to the idea that mixing songs together is more natural setting for listening to music than the creation of endless, endlessly narrow playlists. Combine this with the fact that such work would be time-consuming, and therefore costly, I am not confident that such people either are or will soon be employed by the existing digital music services.

Can we solve the problem?

Is there anything to be done about this overlooked problem?

I suppose we could start giving feedback to the digital music service of our choice, but I have yet to believe in the responsiveness to feedback of any online enterprise. It always feels like spitting in the wind. Besides which it's pretty clear that if they're not going to hire specialists who can craft eclectic playlists, they are not going to magically be able to appear.

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That said, one potentially fruitful and perhaps not too costly idea would be for streaming services to have a "shuffle" mode of sorts: click a button and you'll get songs delivered randomly. This would create all sorts of potentially odd segues, and would not present us with anything carefully crafted, but at least the music would range far and wide. A step in the right direction.

I should note that a little would go a long way here. We don't need sudden hundreds of eclectic playlists. If one of these services could hire someone to do one a week, how great would that be? Make it a special, intermittent feature. That's kind of the point, anyway.

In the end, if the digital music space continues to underserve us when it comes to our wide-ranging tastes, perhaps we should take this as a healthy reminder that what goes on online is ever always just a part of our lives (arrogant assurances of tech CEOs to the contrary notwithstanding). Utopia visions of being all things of all things to everyone, unrealistic dreams of bringing our entire lives online to be lived in virtual happiness, will be exposed by the long-term passage of time to be quaint and silly. In recognizing that your musical taste is more interesting and powerful than what the internet can offer, we might also (dare we?) identify in this the larger recognition that we, as human beings, are ongoingly more interesting and powerful than the versions of ourselves we play with online.

In a small attempt at remedying the issue, here's my own eclectic playlist. Have a listen.

1 Comment

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I agree wholeheartedly with Jeremy. I've seen the number of albums that I purchase on an annual basis drop over the years. Is this a reflection of growing older and becoming, dare I say it, narrow minded in my world view? No, it's simply that my exposure to new music has diminished and, for the most part, for the reasons stated by Jeremy above.

But all is not lost. In the last three weeks my wish list of albums to buy has grown to the extent that if I were to buy them all now, I'd be bankrupt overnight! And the reason for this sudden upswing in new music I'd like to buy? Well, Linn Records "24bits of Christmas" has certainly helped - Emily Barker is now a firm favorite of mine. But more than that is coming across an internet radio station called Radio Paradise - no commercials, no computer generated playlists, no cheesy DJ, no fixation for a particular genre. It is truly the definition of an eclectic radio station, playing everything throughout the decades, from jazz to rock, classical to world music, jazz and electronica. All thoughtfully woven together into playlists created by humans and supported by its listeners.

I'd recommend you widen your musical horizons by going to http://www.radioparadise.com/

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