Man vs Machine: The New Trend in Streaming Music

StreamingMusicPic1Who’s in charge of what you’re listening to? Unless you’re listening to your own finely crafted mixtape or playlist, someone else is pulling the strings. It used to be the tastemakers: the artists and producers who put together albums, the disk jockeys who played hits on the radio, maybe your connoisseur friend who put together a mixtape. The last few decades have brought us MTV, Pitchfork, iTunes, YouTube, Sirius and Pandora, but instead offering more choices it feels like more noise. So we throw up our hands and just turn something on.

Pandora, the streaming music powerhouse, revolutionized the listening experience with its Music Genome Project. The fancy-sounding system assigns numerical values to different genres and songs, then plugs them into an algorithm. had a slightly more human approach, where its labelling information came from user tags instead of professional musicians, and the application kept extensive tabs on all the music you listened to in order to make better suggestions. Theoretically these complicated schemes mean you type in your favorite artist or song, say Otis Redding, and you get a radio station full of other music you’ll like without any effort except pressing dislike when you don’t like a song. In reality it often means you hear the same ten songs over and over, with an occasional Kanye West song that makes no sense. This is what can happen when you let technology reign.

The alternative? Playlists curated by human beings that you can choose based on mood, activity, era or style. Beats and Songza, two streaming services in the news recently for their buyouts by iTunes and Google Music, respectively, use this model and Spotify unveiled its new shared playlist system (which is a big improvement on their mostly disappointing radio service). Apparently people like choice, but not too much, and when they get told what to do they’d prefer another person do it instead of a formula. As Apple’s Tim Cook points out, their newly acquired streaming service “doesn’t ask people what they want to listen to. It tells them.”

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