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30 June 2024 to 12 March 2024
You Have Not Yet Heard Your Favourite Song began in a Google doc I had provisionally titled Every Noise at Once: New Fears and New Joys From the Streaming Liberation of All the World's Music. The first chapter-list I made there was mostly just a chronological free-association of stories I tell. That structure was useful in suggesting that there was probably a book's quantity of words involved, but when we started sending this outline and a few sample chapters to publishers, the fairly unanimous response was that I was not famous enough for strangers to want to read about my adventures in music just because I had them.  

I couldn't really argue with that, nor did I actually want to write a memoir. I wanted to try to formulate an argument. Not an entirely straightforward or linear argument, exactly, but still, something more like an essay than a memoir: not every noise, and not at once, but particular noises, in an order with progressions and resolutions.  

Restructuring the list of stories into the outline of an essay was easy and encouraging, and a couple of the chapters I had written already nearly fit the new structure, but the first version's first chapter was quite clearly the first chapter of a memoir, and I just deleted it and started over.  

And by "deleted", I mean that I copied it into a different doc in case I thought of some other use for it later. I just came across that doc again, and blogs solve the not-famous-enough problem by not asking anybody but you to care whether you care. So here, for no other reason than that I wrote it once, is that original first chapter of the memoir I didn't write:  

Chapter 1: Precious Jukeboxes  

Without music, I would not even exist.  

This is probably true in some existential or logistic way for a lot of people, but music is literally how my parents met. They were folk-singing in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1963. My mother had a duo with a friend. My father was in a Peter, Paul & Mary-esque trio. My father was my mother's guitar-teacher before either of them realized they were my parents.  

After they got married they moved to Texas, where my father came from, and there I grew up, with their records and their acoustic guitars. We begin with our parents' music. In my case this was a stereo in a cabinet in our living room and a small collection of LPs, mostly folk standards like The Weavers and The Kingston Trio, and some of their 70s successors from the gentle margins of pop, like Joan Baez and Judy Collins and John Denver. My mother had some Ray Charles and Dave Brubeck records from when she wrote jazz reviews for her school paper, and Eddie Fisher records from her days in his Fan Club. They did buy new records, occasionally, but rarely by new artists. They loved and valued music, but without any sense of frantic urgency or gnawing incompleteness. And thus, if you'd tried to categorize recorded music as an economic activity based on their music spending, you would probably have put it in the same tier with handmade ceramics or gardening trowels.  

For popular music, or really anything except my parents' records, there was the car radio. My parents were exactly the right demographic for NPR, but mercifully the wrong personality types for talk-radio, so from the back seat I got to hear Casey Kasem or whatever shuffled loop of the top 40 was playing during the week in between canonical countdowns.  

Looking over the charts from my childhood years, I find that by the 1976 chart I recognize almost everything. That was the year I was given my first record-player of my own, and the store where my father bought it foisted two 7" singles on him as part of the deal, which he dutifully passed along to me, probably without having listened to them first: the Starland Vocal Band's frankly inappropriate "Afternoon Delight" and Walter Murphy's ridiculously discofied "A Fifth of Beethoven". I would happily listen to either of these songs again if for some reason I was once again imprisoned in a musical void where no other songs existed.  

But my emergent taste wasn't much more adventurous than those. The first record I bought with my own money, which of course is a milestone that dates me by the fact that it's a milestone, was the Eagles' Hotel California. My record-budget was such that even a single LP was a serious investment subject to a ruthless risk-assessment that realistically required me to already have heard and loved at least four of its songs, and the only place I would have heard them was on the car radio. The viable size of the music industry, at least judged by its access to the record budget of an average American 10-year-old, was probably measured in dozens of artists.  

One day, on that radio, I heard "Hold the Line", by Toto. Heard with any kind of perspective, Toto is the softest of soft-rock bands, and the maudlin, patronizing "Africa" has more fittingly become their limp sigil. But about 10 seconds into "Hold the Line" there's a power chord. It is not the first mainstream pop hit with a power chord, but somehow it was the first one I heard. It sounded like a difference engine, to me, or a dragon made out of moonlight, or some kind of god tearing the universe open along a revealed seam. The album cover has a sword. That sword sliced through my world.  

I am fully aware that writing an origin-myth for a life-long obsession with heavy metal that begins with "Hold the Line" is like saying your love of Thai food began with a wide noodle dipped in Pop Rocks. But that's how it began, for me, and in my world in 1978, that's kind of the only way anything ever began. One sound can change your life. Toto led me towards Foreigner and Bad Company and Boston. Not via fast clicks, because there was no Fans Also Like to navigate through, but over the excruciating course of radio months and tentative spending. In 1979 I got my first radio, a flip-number clock radio with a single tiny speaker and no headphone jack, so I would turn the volume knob all the way down and then press my ear to it in order to listen to The Great American Radio Show after my supposed bedtime. I found the two Album Rock stations my parents never played in the car. Toto led me to Boston, which got me to Kansas and Supertramp, and then to Rush. Give 12-year-olds a radio of their own, and maybe you can have hundreds of artists instead of dozens.  

Meanwhile, reading Michael Moorcock books got me to his lyric-writing for Hawkwind, and then Blue Öyster Cult, who were the first band I ever saw in concert. The Moorcock-co-written Blue Öyster Cult song "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" also appeared on the soundtrack for the 1981 movie Heavy Metal, and that soundtrack also had "The Mob Rules", by Black Sabbath.  

I definitely hadn't heard that on the radio. "The Mob Rules" starts with that guitar noise from the very first moment, churning, relentless. Ronnie James Dio howls demonically, not like a halloween-costume devil but like an exiled lord of a forsaken realm. Cymbals start crashing like the night sky is the sun coming apart into shards. If pop was about melody, disco was about movement and rock was about energy, then metal was about power. Not about the ends of power or its victims, but about the visceral feeling of wielding it, of how it runs through you, of how it makes you want more.  

Thus began my record-collecting life, in earnest, as a quest to find out what else the radio wasn't telling me about, and how else it could make me feel. But it was so hard to begin, when every step required all of your budget, and knowledge you mostly didn't have. Jukeboxes say 25¢ on them, which sounds cheap, but knowing what songs to play cost more than coins, and knowing what songs weren't in them didn't even have a coin slot. Music discovery, thus, was still barely a thing. Or it was, but as if Ferdinand Magellan had travelled from Portugal to Spain to receive a royal commission to go back and discover Portugal again.  

And even if I had somehow discovered the shores of a new world, what would I have done? I'd heard "Dancing Queen", I knew ABBA were from Sweden, I knew roughly where that was. I didn't know it would later become a specifically important part of my life, but I'm sure I would have assumed there were more people making music there than just ABBA, if it had occurred to me to entertain the question.  

But so what? There were no other Swedish pop songs on the radio. There were no other Swedish records in the record stores. There were no magazines about Swedish music at the drugstore, or books about it in the library. None of my friends knew anything else about Swedish music than ABBA, either. To learn about Gräs och Stenar, or Nationalteatern, or Gyllene Tider, all I would have been able to do was wait, patiently, to become old enough to get a job to save up for a plane ticket to Stockholm, where I would have had to find a telephone directory and figure out how to look up where the record stores were, and then go hope somebody in one of them spoke English and was willing to explain Swedish pop history to a random kid from Texas.  

The world was full of music. But I was standing in the same record stores, flipping through the same few mute sealed packages over and over, wondering what was inside them and what was missing, wanting to know.
 

Large Language Models, by encoding our language, also encode our beliefs about ourselves, exactly as confused and conflicting as they seem to us when we read them, too. When we ask these models to answer questions, we would like to think we are invoking our most aggregated collective wisdom, but more realistically we are usually eliciting the mean of our conditioned beliefs. We talk to ChatGPT as if it has patiently and lovingly studied us, crystalizing all the latent truths we have half discovered and half suspected. But what we have actually constructed is an erratic analogical model, and the most interesting parts of it are probably the ones in the middle, which are also exactly the ones that LLMs as chatbots are least intent on revealing.  

One of the many amazing things ChatGPT can do, though, is describe images in words. Another one of these amazing things it can do is produce images from descriptions.  

It's entertaining to chain these two things together. Tell it to describe a picture in precise detail, then give it back that description and tell it to generate that image. Here's a picture of my wife and I eating a casually celebratory dinner:  

 

And here's what image-to-description-to-image turns us into:  

 

It made us younger and hotter, obviously, but the other details are also intriguing. All the drinks have limes, now, and straws pointing right. The one closed umbrella has been rendered canonically open and multiple. Every major detail in the original picture has been transliterated into its paradigmatic, normative form. This process is even more obvious if you keep going a few more iterations, feeding each generated image back into the loop:  



 

We have converged on the LLM equivalent of Platonic Forms: the most soft-taco-like soft tacos, the most people-being-photographed haircuts, the most endlessly elemental green picnic benches. Somehow we've ended up with several of the definitive little metal containers of small-bite-accompanying sauces, even though the original picture had zero of these. If photography is the documentation of specific light that actually exists for an isolated instant, independent of our subjective and temporal experience of it, then this is the opposite of that: an illustration of the schemata through which we perceive. But in the case of images, instead of a mean schema that integrates all of our diverse models, we get a median one drawn carelessly from the somewhere in the middle: these anonymous pretty people and their tiny aiolis, not depicted so much as photorealistically caricatured by schematography.  

But then, one of the interesting things about photography is that our experience of our environment is never a simple geometry of light. I have a favorite vantage point on the Longfellow Bridge, between Cambridge and Boston, where I stop and take another frame of the same slow movie almost every day. The view is singular. The river and the sky bracket it cinemascopically, with the Esplanade stretched out across the midline, and Beacon Hill and downtown Boston rising up ahead of the bridge. I like this image, too, but it absolutely does not capture the feeling of standing on the bridge.  

 

Run this photograph through our schematograph converter, though, and you get something that is wildly inaccurate but also sort of closer to the feeling:  

 

The resulting dreamscape is, like the couple and their soft tacos, surprisingly stable across further iterations:  



 

The actual Boston city-planners could explain some hard-learned lessons about running elevated freeways through the middle of your city, and maybe also give some basic-engineering tips about how suspension works. But as a rendition of what our cities would look like in the future if we had learned nothing from the past, this is both shiny and apt.  

For now, though, while the city is still less shiny and more walkable, walk across that bridge, down the ducklings' path and past The Embrace to the office with me. The office windows overlook Readers' Park and the Boston Irish Famine Memorial, across the street from the Old South Meeting House. This is an intersection richly invested with American history, and also a Chipotle.  

 

Schematography quantizes the particular odd geometry of this plaza into something more generically recognizable as City.  

 

The urban equivalent of tiny aiolis appears to be rooftop HVAC units, which the schematograph has introduced into the view on its own. It seems a bit confused about the nature of automobiles, and has placed a couple of them on rooftops, one on a sidewalk and another wedged sideways next to the crosswalk that goes nowhere. The bench placements are a little dubious, and somebody appears to have left a garbage can on top of one. There's no way in or out of the little park, which the man at about 10:30 in the image has just realized.  

These weirdnesses mostly get normalized out with a few more iterations, other than the bad parking, which is arguably the most Boston-like feature that survives the schematography:  



 

Sometimes schematography is kind of what we're trying to do with photography anyway. This is a picture I took at a concert, and if you weren't there and naturally don't care about which specific show I was at, the schematographs of using darkness and lights as a sensory proxy for loud music in a crowded room are about as effective as the original:  





 

The drummer appears to be running out of drums by the last image, and is the guitarist going to play the thigh-high chinmes with the end of his guitar? Also, does the singer's uncle, dancing in the background, realize that he is visible to the audience?  

Sometimes, though, we take pictures to remember moments that specifically matter. Here's one of those:  

 

Run reality through the schematograph and you can be reminded sharply about the difference between what actually happens and the assumptions that pile up in our data.  

 

In the warroom of our unexamined dreams, the men are steely and pale, the cable-management is magical, and we have outgrown disposable coffee cups. Military men will clone themselves like minions if you aren't careful. You bring in just one to run the PowerPoint and by the time he has the screen-mirroring working correctly the room is full of them.  




 

70 billion parameters are enough to suggest that some things are virtually certain. Men are serious, and serious things are meant for serious men. Serious men can be old or worried or both, but not neither. Serious men drink tap water. Women are occasional, but also the only ones who appear to be aware of what's going on around them. Something important is happening off-screen.  
 

None of this is really news. Important things are always happening off-screen. Sometimes an unguarded reflection sneaks through, and we get a glimpse of the implied subject. The important present things for the future of Artificial Intelligence are probably the ways in which these schematographs and chatbots and accelerating generations are not intelligence, but the important present things for the future of people are probably the ways in which this automation is only superficially artificial. AI is not an alien oracle come to enlighten or enslave us. It's us, in increasingly elaborate costumes, aspiring to be unrecognizable in the most astonishing detail, but always absolutely unmistakable in our own limited and reconverging imaginations.
Filter "bubbles" are charmingly weightless, delightful to pop. Sure, there's a slight soapy residue afterwards, but check your backpack: there are probably still a few old hand-sanitizer packets you shoved in there during the pandemic. Except sometimes you reach out, flirtatiously, to pop the shimmering bubble, and hit an intransigence made of polarized glass. Less bubble, more dome.  

Spotify generates a lot of playlists that are "made for you", which generally means they have been aggressively adjusted to prioritize your previous listening. This is excellent for comfort, but terrible for exploration.  

For example, Spotify is currently giving me a Synthwave Mix playlist on my Made For You page. I like synthwave, but I haven't been paying much focused attention to it lately, so it would be useful to me to hear what's going on there. "My" Synthwave Mix is made for me, though, so what it suggests is going on in synthwave is a) the handful of synthwave-adjacent bands I already specifically follow, and b) a lot of other bands I also already follow who are very definitely not synthwave.  

I have a tool for this, though. If you stick the link to a Spotify made-for-you playlist into this:  

https://everynoise.com/playlistprofile.cgi, e.g. Synthwave Mix  

you can see what that playlist looks like before it gets personalized. In my case, this is almost completely different from what I end up with; only one artist* from the underlying source playlist ends up in my personalized version. That's not a lot of discovery potential. If there were a product feature to turn off the personalization, at least I could have discovered something here. Agency unlocks curiosity.  

But since there are still, for the moment, better tools for genre exploration, I'm content to just ignore almost everything they make for me. In practice there is exactly one personalized Spotify playlist I use: Release Radar. This one is different because you actually do have some control over it, albeit not in a way that is totally apparent from looking at it. Release Radar will do its own inscrutable magic for you if you let it, but first it will find you new releases by artists you Follow. So if you follow enough artists, you can crowd out the "suggestions" and get a very useful release monitor. I follow 5124 artists, but you probably don't have to be that obsessive if you aren't me. Release Radar maxes out at 200 tracks. Even with 5124 artists to monitor, there are usually not more than 200 of them with new releases in any given week, so this is OK-ish. If you aren't me it's probably way more than enough.  

In weeks when there are fewer than 200 new releases by artists I follow, Release Radar will fill out the rest of the 200 tracks with releases from the previous 3 weeks. This is an earnest idea, but counter-productive for me, personally, because I monitor new releases every week and I don't want to have the old tracks shown to me again as if they are new. So I generally stick my Release Radar playlist into the same playlist viewer linked above, where I can see the release dates of the tracks, and extract just the ones from the current week into a new playlist.  

I usually do this first, and only really look at the new tracks once they're in the new playlist. This morning I went for a run before I'd done this, so I just put on Release Radar itself. The older tracks come at the end, and I wasn't going to be out for 12 hours, so it didn't matter. Later when I went to make my new-songs-only copy, though, I noticed that the first few tracks in my no-personalization viewer were not the same ones I had just heard. Weird. Flipping back and forth between the two views, it was clear that they were very different. Every Release Radar is unique, so my Release Radar is already filled with my artists, and thus you might think that this is the one time when "made for you" can't do any harm.  

But oh, wait. Those older songs. Ugh.  

Release Radar actually does assemble the list of new songs by artists I follow, like it's meant to. The pre-personalization view shows that this week 199 of my artists had new releases; only the 200th song in the underlying list is filler from a previous week. But then the made for you filter-dome snaps down, and songs I want to hear from this week are obtusely replaced with older songs by artists Spotify thinks are more familiar to me. Which are exactly the songs I am most likely to already have contemplated in the weeks when they were new. Two algorithms later, I end up with only 79 of the 199 new songs the first algorithm had in mind for me. "Catch all the latest music from artists you follow", Release Radar promises at the top. That's exactly what I want, and exactly what it could give me if it wanted to.  

Algorithms, though, don't want things. We want things, and the algorithms do what they are ordered to do. I want all the latest music I might care about. Somebody who still works for Spotify wants something else. If you aren't me, maybe it still doesn't matter. If you only care about a few artists, you won't have this problem. If a streaming service only cares about people who only care about a few artists, they won't fix it**. If they don't employ enough people who care about everything, they may not even know. Maybe what they really want is to not have to care or know, and they have a comfort metric that allows them not to.  

But all of this, the domes and the not caring and the not knowing, makes the world worse. I don't want to miss joy in favor of somebody else's obliviously generalized idea of my comfort. Neither should any of us.  
 

* The one artist isn't even actually a synthwave artist. You can't really blame Spotify for that, though, as it's hardly their business to know the internal jargon of zero-cost content makers.  

** One might reasonably ask why, given that I no longer work for Spotify, I haven't switched to some other streaming service, and the answer is that whatever they do or don't fix in the app, they still have the most useful programmatic API. That's how the playlist viewer works, and if you want new releases by all the artists you follow bad enough to write code, you can have that, too. And if you're me, now you do. One playlist minus one is zero. Ultimately the only person in "personalization" is the one doing it, and if you want your personalization to be personal, that person has to be you.  

It's probably not the one I wrote. It would be weird if my book were your favorite book. It's a geeky book about music-streaming and music and algorithms and technology and curiosity and morality and where we are right now, and your favorite book should probably be an immortal novel about how we always are, or something you have re-read every year since you were 12 because it reminds you what you love and believe.  

But my book about how streaming changes music is also kind of a book about loving and believing things, and the fears and joys that love and belief produce, because everything is if you really think about it, and I wrote a book about this stuff because I really think about it and didn't know how to stop.  

As a method of not thinking about something any more, writing the book seems to have been fairly ineffective. I have kept thinking and writing about music and algorithms and technology and humanity. My new job, which doesn't have music anywhere in the wording of the mission, is just as fundamentally about figuring out how to use math and machines to amplify humanity instead of phase-cancelling it.  

As an organized explanation of why I think streaming is good for music and music-streaming is good for humanity, though, I made it as coherent as I could. (And then a really good editor goaded me methodically into making it more coherent than that.) If you love music, you might like reading this book while you listen to whatever you are currently discovering or wondering or doubting. It's a book about discovery and wonder and productive doubt.  

And it was officially published today.  

You Have Not Yet Heard Your Favourite Song; Canbury Press, 2024.
US: bookshop.org or amazon.com or kindle
UK: uk.bookshop.org or amazon.co.uk or kindle UK  

In London: Waterstones or Blackwells or Foyles
In Montreal: featured at Librairie Résonance  

 
 

Some related links as I notice them:  

- A review in the Telegraph, also available via Yahoo News
- A conversation with Mark Richardson for the Third Bridge Creative blog
- A conversation with Walt Hickey on the Numlock Sunday podcast
- An appearance on The Ray D'Arcy Show on RTE Radio 1 Ireland (June 25 from about 26:10-50:37; clip)
- An appearance on Your Morning Coffee Podcast (June 24 from about 7:00-18:00)
- A conversation on the podcast The Gist
- A short interview on Newstalk in Ireland (with a Cactus World News shout!)
- A radio piece in German on Deutschlandfunk Kultur (with blasts of gothic metal and wisps of theremin!)
- A print rendition of the same interview from that German radio piece in Die Tageszeitung
- A "new book" mention on Tinnitist
- A conversation with Chris Dalla Riva in his newsletter Can't Get Much Higher
- A book citation as part of my introduction into a story about algorithms and music discovery in Mission magazine (with the excellent pull-quote "If you don’t want algorithms to feed you passive listening, get active.")
- An earlier appearance on Ari Herstand's The New Music Business podcast with some book-anticipation towards the end
- The book's page on Goodreads
My kid was that small once, too, so I know why this one sounds excited when she says "They have smoothies!" The world is full of strange things, and slowly you learn what some of them are, and that they are delightful. You learn to convert a world of unknowns into a world of delights, one pattern at a time.  

And I was a parent of a kid that small once, too, so I know why this one, there in line at an airport banh mi stand at the beginning of what will almost certainly be a long day of strangenesses that resist conversion to delight, says "Oh. These are not normal smoothies. We can try to find you a normal smoothie somewhere else." The world is full of chaos. As a parent, in general but particularly in airports, you accept this in principle, but try to create a zone of exception around yourselves.  

Except: here you are, in an airport, with a human who began with nothing and has progressed to delight at smoothies somehow, about to take them somewhere. We say things like this to children, our own children and our inner children, at our individual and collective peril. Our zones of exception tell ourselves stories of the world as other. We casually normalize some smoothies, and thus some people, some exceptions to the universal chaotic laws.  

But the chaos is not other. We are not exceptions to the chaos, we are its most glorious children and works. We perturb it by throwing ourselves into it with all our powers: the power to integrate new tastes, the power to stay curious and open, the power to inpsire curiosity and openness. You had a tiny kid who had once never had anything that cold, and you made a kid who has learned to recognize smoothies on an airport menu as an opportunity for joy. You have given yourselves a choice, in this moment, between the order you both already know and a kid who discovers the sensation of boba popping out of the straw, a kid whose adventure begins every day before they even get on a plane, a kid who learns to say "What is that!" with italicized exclamation as they emerge into the world. This is why we have airports. This is why you left your house with her this morning. You have a choice, at every moment but particularly this one, between trying to stay as you are, or expand; between trying to pretend you circumscribe a predictable world with your arms and your enumerations of normal, or letting the world itself be the normal, and all of us become the ones together in its lovingly chaotic embrace.
  1. The technical goal is to organize music so it is explorable. Exploration rewards curiosity.

  2. The product goal is to help listeners find joy. Joy is various.

  3. The feature goal is to connect individuals to communities. Music is a social energy.

  4. The business goal is to make money for artists. Not from.

  5. There should be one reward system, consistently applied. All financial contracts should be public.

  6. Listeners are entitled to their own data. Their stories, their love.

  7. Artists are entitled to their own data. Their audiences, their work.

  8. People are collectively entitled to their collective knowledge. Coherences, congruences.

  9. Musical taste and preference are emergent transiences of humans, yearned after by empathetic systems. Not imperious instruments of control.

  10. Never refer to music as “content”, even to yourself.

There is no chapter about generative AI in my book about music streaming. In part this is because while I was writing it, things were changing in AI so quickly that almost anything future-looking I tried to say would have been abjectly obsolete by the time the book was printed. But mostly it's because music's most pressing problems are cultural and economic, and do not require incomprehensibly complicated technical solutions. Spotify did a lot of machine learning for music recommendation purposes, and my rueful experience was that I could almost always do better, at least in the explainable human terms that I personally cared about, with SQL queries and math. I like math, but I hate SQL and once spent 4 years of my life trying to design a better query-language and data-model than that. I didn't pick tools because I liked them, I picked them because I cared about the results, and those were the tools that allowed me to produce results with human and cultural implications I could understand and attempt to improve.  

All my jobs, I realize with the forced perspective of spending the last few months explaining my life to strangers over and over, have involved negotiating with machines on behalf of humanity. Algorithms and computer programs are tools for accomplishing human purposes. SQL JOINs and LLMs are ultimately both imperfect techniques for collecting collective knowledge, and like all tools should be held to the standard of allowing humans to be more human, more intentional, more curious, more joyful.  

The music book is also a book about technology and algorithms and cultural mediation. In its first draft it had a very long and detailed chapter about the very many ways this technology can go wrong, which my editor cheerfully volunteered to preserve by moving it to an appendix. On reflection, I realized it actually belonged in a different book.  

That book is provisionally called The Robots Will Not Win. The robots, at the moment, are not acting entirely convinced of this. My music streaming book is split about equally between new fears and new joys. As I started outlining the next one, it quickly became clear to me that I know more about the fears of AI than the joys. I don't want AI that pretends to be people. I don't want an internet clogged with mechanical recapitulations of word-correlations that humans have already established. I don't want luminous fictitious tiny houses in which you would have to climb over the sofa to get to a kitchen where the faucet pours water directly onto the countertop and the oven has no door. I don't want AI that turns human agency into vaguely prompted parades of anonymous golems.  

And yet, I love people and I love computers. I love tools. Good tools imbue us with superpowers. We deserve good tools. Or, put the other way around, the more powerful our tools, the more urgent our obligations to make sure they are specifically built to empower humans, individually and collectively.  

I didn't write this book intending it to be the end of a life-chapter, but when the interesting timing of my Spotify layoff presented the opportunity, it was surprisingly easy to change a few tenses and understand it as a cross between a progress report and an exit interview. There are plenty of things still to be done in music, but I'm going to try to help them with human advocacy and technological guidance for a while, instead of SQL queries embedded deeply in existing corporate constraints.  

Meanwhile, it's not time to write the book I want to write about AI yet, because I don't know how it ends, or even necessarily how it goes next. But I know how it has to develop, because the tools change but we are still ourselves. I know what it feels like when good questions lead you to better questions instead of easier answers. I know that when we understand the fears better than the joys, the only thing to do is to make the joys we are missing.  

Back to work.
Or have you? If you haven't, and you want to, you can now do so in paper or screen form, on either side of one of the oceans. It comes out in June from Canbury Press.  

US: bookshop.org or amazon.com or kindle
UK: uk.bookshop.org or amazon.co.uk or kindle UK  

 

If it's news to you that I wrote a book, I announced it here. Some of the verb tenses have changed since then, but the future tense in which I have been talking about it is creeping steadily closer to present.
Spotify's Loud and Clear site includes an analogy between musicians and football players, ostensibly to explain how "aspirations" to make money from creative/athletic pursuits are more widespread than actual career success.  

This comparison is not original or unique to Spotify, and does make some limited sense. With both art and sports, you can choose to spend your time on them, and the process of making music or training for football is labor in the sense of requiring time and effort, but most of the people making this choice are not going to end up being financially compensated for their labor. A small minority are able to make a living from it, but you cannot join this minority simply by wanting.  

The key difference between music streaming and football, however, is that in music, every stadium is Wembley.  

If you are an amateur soccer player, you know that you are an amateur soccer player. You play on an amateur team, in an amateur league, probably with amateur referees in a random city park that has other uses the rest of the week. No matter how astonishing a goal you score, it is a goal in an amateur game in a park on Sunday.  

In music, however, everybody plays in the same venue, nominally in the same league. Any song on any of the major commercial music-streaming services could be streamed 1 billion times tomorrow. Structurally, in the music version of football, an amateur player from a local park could kick a ball and it could slip past Caoimhin Kelleher in the 121st minute to send Liverpool crashing out of the FA Cup.  

That game was at Old Trafford, not Wembley, but the point is that this mostly doesn't happen. The statistical economic dynamics of music and football are very similar, which is why the analogy presented itself in the first place. But the aspirations are exactly why it doesn't work. In football, not only do you know your current status, but you can see the potential future steps in your career, and how they might happen. You could impress a local scout with your park goal, and get a tryout for a local semi-pro team. You could lead the semi-pro league in assists and get signed for a year by a second-division team. You could captain your second-division team to promotion, and like a fairy-tale, three years later you are getting crushed 7-0 by Manchester City and trying to claw your way out of the relegation zone so your dream can continue just a little bit longer.  

In music, there used to be a story like this. You played club gigs in your hometown, and gave demo tapes to your friends. Somebody who ran a local label maybe heard you and liked you enough to help you put out a record. Maybe that record got played on college radio a little, and got you a chance at a deal on a minor major label. Maybe your minor major-label debut had a minor hit. Maybe your label stuck with you and you got to make more records. Maybe your third album has a song about getting drunk alone in your hometown and introducing yourself again to your friend's mother and it blows up and suddenly you are playing in Wembley. Or Fenway Park, at least.  

Streaming offers the tantalizing illusion that these laborious steps have been eliminated by technology. But really they haven't. Music is an attention economy. The dominance of the biggest attention companies used to be reinforced by constraints of physical distribution, but it mostly survives the format shift. Most of the songs on the biggest playlists still come from the three major labels.  

Which doesn't mean that the story of your potential career hasn't changed. The new steps might involve playlists instead of clubs, viral videos instead of college radio, and maybe a judicious distribution deal instead of an old-school contract with an advance you will never recoup. And these new steps, if they happen, could happen more suddenly than the old steps, and thus it can feel like they could happen suddenly at any moment.  

But, still, mostly they won't. Mostly the paths to big success still go through labels, particularly major ones. Mostly the old major-attention economy survives through minor adaptations. Whatever aspirations they have, or labor they expend, most of the 10 million artists on streaming services will never get beyond semi-professional status in the most marginal sense of "semi". I have songs on Spotify, too. They took labor to make. A few people have streamed them, and I have been paid a few cents for those streams. Last time I checked, my lifetime earnings from streaming music were well on the way to $5. From $4.  

But I am an amateur. I know I'm an amateur, I'm not trying to make a living by making music. If streaming services all start imposing minimum stream-thresholds for royalty payouts, I may never get to that glittering $5 in the distance, and that will be morally disappointing but practically fine.  

If you're trying to become a professional, it's not fine. If regressive thresholds take away your sense of progress, that's not fine. If the successes you aspire towards operate like lotteries, so that you can't work towards them, that's not fine. If the people who operate the economy in which you will or will not be able to make a living sound like they are dismissing you as a non-participant, that's not fine.  

I like the football analogy, actually, but I think it applies the other way around: if you own a stadium, and you invite all the players in the world to come in and play in front of all the fans, you don't have to promise them all glory, but you better not try to tell them that some of their goals won't count.
I like legislation as a tool for social change, so I'm positively predisposed towards the Living Wage for Musicians Act as a tactic, and I agree with its goal of making it possible for more people to make better livings as musicians.  

But I don't think this proposed law, as written, will work.  

Here's how it would operate:  

Music-streaming subscriptions in the US would have a federal government fee of 50% added to them...  

This ought to be in the headline of every article covering this story. "Make Streaming Pay", the UMAW slogan for this effort, sounds like a vendetta against streaming services, especially coming from the same people who brought us "Justice at Spotify" previously, but as a music listener you should understand that the people who would pay this time are you. The proposed bill would add fees to music subscriptions. Fees are a well-established tactic, but not exactly a well-loved one. It's at least faintly ironic that Congress is scrutinizing Ticketmaster's excessive fees at the same time that this bill is proposing to add one to music streaming.  

And 50% is a lot. A $10.99/month subscription would get an added $5.50 government fee, raising the total to $16.49. The bill even specifies a minimum of $4, so a $5.99 student subscription would rise to $9.99. While I don't think either of those are unreasonable prices for all the music in the world, they're giant relative jumps. I would fully expect them to be publicly unpopular as a proposal, and thus hard to find support for in Congress. If enacted, they would probably cause many existing subscribers to downgrade to free (ad-supported) alternatives. Enough people doing so could cancel out the monetary benefit, so this should not be proposed without careful modeling of likely price flexibility. I doubt that has been done, and certainly no evidence of it has been presented by the bill's advocates. I would also expect most or all streaming services to lobby vigorously against this change because of these effects, even though the fee itself is not paid by them. Except...  

and music-streaming services would have a 10% tax on their "non-subscription" (meaning mainly advertising) revenue in the US...  

You can't add fees to free, so here's the other half of the plan. Most streaming services already pay ~70% of revenue to licensors, keeping ~30% for themselves. A 10% tax on revenue thus cuts gross advertising profit by a third. Since Spotify (whom I single out here only because as a public company they report music-specific financial results, which Apple/Amazon/YouTube Music as divisions of larger companies do not) has mostly not turned a net profit at all, this proposed tax will almost certainly be taken as intractably punitive, and I expect all the services with ad-supported tiers to resist it. Spotify probably cannot afford to threaten to pull out of the US like it threatened to pull out of Uruguay when a (different) version of this idea was proposed there, and would presumably not want to increase their own prices again having only recently raised them in most countries, making it hard to take the tactic they are taking in response to a 1.2% tax in France. So I would expect Spotify to lobby against this as if it is an existential threat.  

There's also a very important question here about what constitutes a music service, and in particular whether YouTube (not YouTube Music) and TikTok count. The bill doesn't address this, although the UMAW advocacy for it strongly implies that YouTube, at least, is meant to be included. I do not expect Google to quietly accept a 10% tax on any meaningful subset of YouTube advertising revenue.  

which would be collected into (and by) a new government fund/agency...  

Streaming music royalties are already split into three different components: to licensors, to publishers (for songwriters), and to performing-rights agencies (also for songwriters; it's a long story). This bill would add a fourth. That seems to me like the wrong direction, and grounds for skepticism even before we get into how the new fund would work. As an example it also implies that every country would need to create a similar fund of their own, although the bill as written seems to ignore the fact that it applies to the flow of money in only one country, while the music itself is global.  

which would also collect and tabulate monthly streams by unique master recording...  

This detail is unexplicated in the bill, but introduces a very serious technical requirement. Music is delivered to streaming services by licensors in releases composed of tracks, and it's normal for there to end up being many different tracks that have the same original audio, e.g. a single and that same song on the subsequent album and the same song again later on a compilation, and all these again in many different countries. Reconciling these requires audio-analysis software that can correctly match two tracks of the same recording even if they've gone through slightly different processing, and correctly differentiate between two different pieces of music even if they contain substantial similarity (like a song and a remix of it that adds a guest verse). And even after you've correctly matched tracks by their audio, their credits might differ, so you have to figure out which credits you're going to use. I can testify from 12 years of involvement with the process at the Echo Nest and Spotify that this is all not a trivial problem, and can be error prone even in a long-running production system. The administrators of the new fund are going to have to hire more programmers than they probably realize.  

impose a cap of 1 million streams/month on each such recording...  

This is arguably the most critical, progressive and interesting detail in the bill. Rather than just increasing all artists' current income by a small proportional amount, the bill attempts to specifically support artists who might not currently be making a living from their music, by effectively redirecting some or most of the money from songs with >1m streams back into the payment pool. This is why the recording-matching has to be accurate, but sadly is also the key to trivial manipulation of this scheme to evade its intent. Each detected "unique recording" is subject to a 1m cap, but it's not hard to produce multiple tracks that sound the same to listeners, but intentionally defeat the usual methods for automatic matching. Were this bill to be passed, I expect it would become normal practice to do this across releases and services, to make every track of the same recording register uniquely, so that each one gets its own 1m cap. The producers of very popular songs would have a strong incentive to also try to do it over time for each song during a given month, hoping to accumulate N million streams 1m at a time across N variations of the same song.  

The 1-million-stream threshold here is arbitrary. The bill itself doesn't justify or explain it. Rep. Tlaib has mentioned in speaking about this bill that it takes 800,000 streams/month at a current average rate of $.003/stream to make the equivalent of minimum wage, which is correct math, but that's per artist, not per track. The unavoidable market truth about music (like most non-commissioned art) is that financial reward is not a function of quantity of labor. You can spend any amount of time making a song, and maybe nobody will play it. If we really want, as a society, to give people a living wage for the labor of making music, as opposed to lucking into popularity, then we need to spend our government energies on grants or Universal Basic Income, not on streaming taxes and fees.  

and then divide payments proportionally by capped streams...  

This sounds like just unremarkable process, but is sneakily the most serious flaw of the whole bill as written. The fund combines all streams from all services, and all money from all services, and distributes that combined money according to those combined streams. This sounds like the pro rata royalty-allocation method already in use by all major streaming services. The crucial difference, though, is that services do not do this with one big pool of money and streams, they do it with an individual pool of money and streams for each payment plan (in each country). This is essential, because the revenue per listener varies widely across countries and plans. A stream from a Spotify Premium subscriber in Iceland is worth considerably more than a stream from an ad-supported listener in India.  

By combining all the streams and all the money, this plan would make it possible to use the cheapest form of artificial streaming to accumulate fraudulent streams that would share money from the most expensive ones, thus inaugurating a golden age of streaming fraud.  

This is not only a fatal flaw of the bill as written, it's one that reveals that the writers of the bill do not know how the existing royalty methods work, and didn't consult with anybody who does.  

90% to "featured" artists and 10% to "non-featured" artists...  

It's a minor selling point of this bill that it would result in some royalties being paid to "non-featured" artists, like session musicians and backing vocalists, who do not (usually) get royalties at all from the current system. The amount is small, though, and administering it would be a procedural headache. Because those people don't currently get paid royalties, their participation isn't necessarily included in the licensors' metadata. And, conversely, because those people don't get royalties, they're currently mostly paid for their work in old-fashioned wages. Give them a share of the royalties and we might find that that becomes an excuse to pay them less up front, in the same way that tip workers are often given lower base wages.  

The bill does not say how royalties would be split between multiple featured or non-featured artists. I guess it's loosely implied that it would automatically be equal shares to each, since there's no mention of any mechanism to specify otherwise. The bill does specify that "artists" means individual humans, not corporations or generative AIs (!), which seems to mean that bands are not part of this scheme, only each person one at a time.  

And, notably, the bill as written specifically does not include songwriters. This is a little surprising to me, since I think of advocacy for higher royalty rates for songwriters as part of the same family of social-justice causes as higher royalty rates for performers, and songwriters get the smallest share of royalties in the current system. I'm not looking forward to the antagonism between "performers" and "songwriters" that this omission might provoke.  

who sign up with the fund and provide payment information.  

This, too, is both a distinguishing characteristic of this plan and a drawback. The whole point of this fourth royalty scheme is to route it around the first three, although in practice it's mainly the payment of recording royalties to licensors (and thus to labels) that the writers are trying to avoid. Labels, particularly major ones, often write artist contracts in which advances are paid up front, and artists not only get a small percentage of the royalties later, but even that small percentage is accounted for as repaying the advance as a loan. So an artist might, in practice, get no royalties for a while, or ever. (Although, again, they were paid an advance, and if their royalties don't earn back the advance, they don't have to repay it any other way.)  

But, of course, you don't have to sign a label contract in order to release music on streaming services. DIY distributors either charge small flat fees, or take very small shares of your royalties. But labels provide services in addition to taking royalties (and paying advances), and maybe you want those. I suspect that musicians signed to major labels are mostly doing OK, at least temporarily during their maybe-short label tenure. And if they aren't, and their label contracts are why, maybe that's where the laws should be pointed.  

But that means this fund is yet another thing an artist has to sign up for and manage, and which in turn has to manage and verify them. I have not found any good estimates of how many artists currently do not do the work to register their songs to collect performance and mechanical rights, and how often there are contradictions between ownership claims, but I'm sure both are common. There's precedent in performance-rights organizations for international cooperation, but I don't know if any of those operate on this scale, and even if they do, this bill doesn't propose to use them, so this new fund (and its equivalents in other countries, if they exist) would have to reinvent all of that process.  

The stipulation about individuals, not companies, seems obviously like a preemptive attempt to keep labels from registering on their artists' "behalf" and collecting this new windfall too, but I'm not immediately convinced that won't happen somehow anyway. And indeed it might have to for the scheme to accommodate the estates of dead artists, whom I assume it doesn't intend to exclude.  

Even if we imagine that nobody attempts to evade this rule, though, the existence of a fourth royalty that bypasses labels is likely to push labels, and the three major-label companies in particular, to object to this bill too. And were it enacted, I would expect to see labels begin to change the terms of their contracts to reduce or eliminate artist shares of the recording royalties since they're now supposedly getting this new Living Wage paid separately.  
 

The notable thing this bill does not include is any mechanism or support for this claim that the UMAW, who collaborated on it, continue to make here:
The Living Wage for Musicians Act is built to pay artists a minimum penny per stream, an amount calculated specifically to provide a working class artist a living wage from streaming.
The bill, as written, is very definitely not "built" to pay $.01/stream. UMAW's intro puts the current average stream rate at $0.00173 (including YouTube), and after an hour or so of spreadsheet noodling I could not see any way it would more than double this for the biggest beneficiaries (artists whose tracks all approach 1m streams without going over), even if nothing else in the industry changed in reaction. That would be $0.00346/stream, still a long way from $0.01. It doesn't help my confidence in UMAW's math diligence that their "calculator" to show the effects of this bill not only just multiplies streams by $0.01, but doesn't even bother to apply the 1m-stream cutoff.  

Nor have I seen any explanation of why the suspiciously round penny is coincidentally the magic living-wage level, and I'm willing to bet a large number of pennies that no such explanation exists. There are many very-good bands who do not have 1 million streams total, all time, across all their songs on Spotify. That's not a multi-year living wage for a group of people even at a dime per stream.  
 

But OK, it's easy to criticize. If I'm in favor of laws, and I share the goal of improving the lives of musicians, what should we do instead?  

When in doubt, try to remove imbalances of power. Reduce complexity, reduce secrecy. Personally, I would start by trying to simplify and improve the existing royalty process, rather than adding another incompletely-thought out layer with uncertain consequences.  

We got a good idea about how to do this, by accident, recently, when Spotify and Deezer and UMG collaborated to change their contractual rules for recording royalties to pay nothing to tracks that don't reach 1,000 streams over the course of the last year. This is a regressive measure I personally despise, but the interesting part is that they actually couldn't pay those songs nothing, because the performance and mechanical rates are set by law (at least in the US). If the recording rates were also set by law, those wouldn't have been subject to secret contract negotiations either. Moving all the rates into law would also allow them to be determined (and debated in public) as a coherent set, which would make a lot more sense. And while we're at it, we could eliminate the spurious performance royalties, reducing the number of royalty components to two, one for the performers and one for the songwriters. And, in fact, if we allowed artists to designate original songs, so that this information was passed on by licensors to streaming services, then both royalties could be paid at once for those tracks, reducing the reporting overhead for artists and services both, and recovering some of the money currently lost on the way to artists who never took the time to sign up for BMI or ASCAP.  

Those simplifications would not, in themselves, provide a predictable living wage for all working musicians, either. But they would make the current streaming model less mysterious, and less beholden to secret agreements between a few giant corporations. Plenty more work would remain to be done. But that work would be easier think about, and easier to do. And less likely to produce earnest laws that probably have no chance of living up to their authors' hopes for them, or ours.
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