“These services treat you like a criminal,” Steve Jobs said of streaming-music companies, in an Apple keynote address in 2003. “And they are subscription-based, and we think subscriptions are the wrong path. One of the reasons we think this is because people bought their music for as long as we can remember. . . . When you own your music, it never goes away.” Jobs was introducing the iTunes Store, which updated the old model of the recorded-music library. Purchasing a digital track or album, Jobs said, was now “the hottest way to acquire music.” For some years, it was. Then streaming services began to claim an ever greater share of the market, even as they struggled to turn a profit. Last week, surrendering to the apparently inevitable, Apple introduced Apple Music, its own subscription music bundle. For $9.99 a month, you win unlimited access to a library of more than thirty million tracks, from Michel van der Aa to ZZ Top.
I have doubts about the aesthetics and ethics of streaming, as I wrote in a column last summer. But as a longtime Apple user—almost everything I have written since 1987 has been composed on a Mac—I had little choice but to give Apple Music a spin. And the verbal fanfare on Apple’s Web site makes enticing promises: “We are profoundly passionate about music. It’s a force that’s driven and inspired us from day one. So we’ve set out to make it better.” How can one resist? The world’s wealthiest, coolest corporation is not only bringing you music but making it better. Music, it seems, is a trusty app that has some usability issues, and is due for an upgrade.
Although the huge storehouse of tracks forms the core of Apple Music, the service also offers features designed to widen your musical horizons, to adapt your musical taste to daily needs, and to connect you with artists and other fans. There’s a page called “New” that is dominated by the big stars of today and yesterday: Pharrell Williams, Eminem, the Rolling Stones, and Taylor Swift. (After challenging Apple’s stance on royalties, Swift allowed the company to stream her album “1989.”) There’s an array of Internet radio stations. A page called “For You” supplies playlists tailored to your preferences, which can be calibrated by expanding or contracting genre balloons. I double-clicked “Classical” and “Experimental,” and was served a fair amount of obvious fare, along with a few pleasingly offbeat choices (James Tenney, Merzbow). And there’s a social-media page called “Connect.” For me, it proposed Gustavo Dudamel.
Classical music has long been a kind of black hole in the streaming universe. Spotify, Pandora, and the others organize their libraries around artists, albums, and tracks; the existence of beings called Composers, who write music but may not be involved in its performance, confuses matters. Last summer, I described a few of the struggles of listening to classical music on Spotify: sorting through randomized movements of symphonies; scrutinizing tiny reproductions of an album cover for clues about who is playing; searching elsewhere on the Internet for information. Anastasia Tsioulcas, in an article for NPR Music, reports much more extensively on the headaches of classical streaming, not least the effects of poor sound quality.
When the iTunes store first arose, it did well by classical music and other genres outside the pop hegemony. Classical releases sometimes appeared on the main page, and a “Composer” field made it easy to navigate multi-composer albums. The new Apple cares less: composers have dropped from sight. In one listing, the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth is identified as a “Song by Daniel Barenboim.” Apple Music improves on Spotify in terms of legibility: you can easily see who’s singing on opera recordings, and because the reproductions of album covers are bigger you can often suss out composers’ names, even if they’re not listed in the app. But in the case of an absorbing new DG album titled “Time Present and Time Past,” with the harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani and the Concerto Köln, an arty covergives no clue as to who wrote what, and you have to go elsewhere to pin down all the composers (J. S. and C. P. E. Bach, Geminiani, Górecki, Reich, Alessandro Scarlatti). The irony is that the hidden metadata knows the score, even though it’s not telling: “Time Present and Time Past” shows up in searches for each composer.
No heads will roll in Cupertino on account of these grumblings. The majority of the population that ignores classical music will shrug and go back to the new Jamie xx record. (I’m enjoying his track “The Rest Is Noise.”) Yet Apple’s unwillingness to accommodate—in this first iteration, at least—defining features of a thousand-year tradition is symptomatic of general trends in the streaming business. You sense declining interest in the particulars of genres, in the personalities of artists, in political messages, in cultural contexts. Differences are flattened out: music really does stream, in an evenly regulated flow. One zone of Apple Music offers playlists tailored to various activities and moods: “Waking Up,” “Working,” “Chilling Out,” “Cooking,” “Getting It On,” and “Breaking Up.” All that’s needed is one for “Dying.” As the Times critic Ben Ratliff recently said, on the subject of streaming playlists, “I always feel as if I’m shopping somewhere, and the music reflects What Our Customers Like to Listen To. The experience can feel benignly inhuman.”
You can easily tune out the bespoke Muzak and exploit the library for your own eccentric ends. Still, the pressure from the margin to the center is strong. Despite “Think Different” maxims redolent of the old Steve Jobs script—“It’s your music. Do what you like with it.”—you’re encouraged to gravitate toward the music that everyone else is listening to. This is what happens all across the corporatized Internet: to quote the old adage of Adorno and Horkheimer, you have the “freedom to choose what is always the same.” The musician, writer, and publisher Damon Krukowski, a longtime critic of the streaming business, calls it the return of the monoculture. “What Apple is doing to music retail,” Krukowski said on Twitter, “is exactly what I saw chains do to books in the nineties: kill indie competition, then eliminate the product.”
As for the economic question, performing artists and composers are unlikely to receive more compensation from Apple Music than they do from Spotify, Pandora, and other extant streaming services, whose practices have been widely criticized. Krukowski observes that forty-three per cent of his digital income—from recordings by Galaxie 500 and by Damon and Naomi—comes from iTunes. As Apple sidelines downloads, that revenue will fall sharply. Although Congress has made noises about strengthening creative rights, a phalanx of lobbyists is likely to defang any new legislation. To be sure, there is money to be made from streaming: major labels with large back catalogues reap a considerable profit, and superstars like Swift see sizable checks when tracks receive many millions of plays. It’s the all too familiar winner-takes-all economy in action.
So, contrary to plan, Apple has not necessarily succeeded in making music better. Then again, it might not be doing long-term damage; indeed, it might not be having much effect at all. The musicologist Deirdre Loughridge recently published a blog post about the history of music-subscription services, which date back to sheet-music lending libraries in the eighteenth century. By the eighteen-thirties, pundits were fretting that such libraries were undercutting the economics of the music business and altering the nature of listening. “One enjoys superficially, one always wants something new,” a critic groused in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. A few decades later, a piano teacher wrote, “Music lending libraries could very well be called ‘music snacking libraries.’” Almost identical complaints are being levelled at Spotify, YouTube, and the rest. These anxieties are now forgotten because, as Loughridge notes, the very existence of music-lending libraries has been forgotten. If they hurt music sales, the damage was soon repaired. Loughridge suggests that this obscure history should promote a “healthier skepticism toward claims that any model represents ‘the’ answer for the music industry.”
We never cease to be mesmerized by the vessel in which music is contained, whether it’s the piano, the phonograph, the MP3, or the Cloud. We think that machines are saving music or destroying it. Their impact is undoubtedly profound, but we seldom see the complexity of the transformation amid the hysteria of surface change. At the same time, the anxiety around music and technology is deep-seated, however excessive it may seem a century or two down the road. It is rooted in the elemental fear of life slipping away in half-experienced moments. For that mortal feeling, music itself, in its sensually clobbering immediacy, provides a cure. We become dependent on technology simply because we don’t want our transient ecstasies to stop.
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