It was introduced as an innovative platform. But what, exactly, is the goal of Twitter #music?
Last week Twitter announced a new music app for browsers and smartphones built around captured data from users’ accounts. The service presents a person with a list of what might be of special interest based on musicians linked to his/her account, what's currently popular among the general population, or a general sampling of "emerging" musicians that are popular—the precise determinants of which remain unclear.
The aggregated lists are supported by plug-ins to iTunes, Spotify, or Rdio, which allow users to stream a sample of each song in the list, or play a long-running stream of extracted samples before deciding to purchase.
The service is a strange marker in the transformation of the music industry from access to a small number of desirable objects—a Four Tops 45 or Beatles LP—to persistent access to an innumerable catalog of undesirable objects—Sisqo's second album, or Hemingway's Whiskeyby Kenny Chesney—which need to be cut through to find a good track at the far end of the catalog, a process for which Twitter #music is specifically designed.
Twitter #music doesn’t promise a revolution in how people think about music; it simply intends to 'change the way people find music,' but even this claim is not entirely true.
Following in the footsteps of Amazon’s product suggestions, Facebook’s targeted ads, and Google’s increasingly retail-centric search, music companies are transforming into pathfinding services for fans, algorithmic data gurus that promise to measure your tastes with computerized accuracy and bring back something from the gaping morass that speaks just to you.
It's irrefutable that we have access to a far greater volume and variety of music through services like Twitter's music app, but access is only a benefit when we expect what we are accessing is scarce in the first place. Few people pay for conversations, for instance, or to play a game of tag with friends. Yet over time people have come to think of music as something that only an especially talented few could make, which can only be experienced passively and after an admission fee.
Much of the value of music in the middle and latter parts of the 20th century came from manufactured scarcity. Companies took modest variations on rhythm and blues and transformed them into quasi-religious events, which required cash for entry. A hundred years earlier, music was mostly communal, and variations on songs depended on the mood and customs of the local saloon's piano player or labor camp's guitar plucker. Music was less a thing produced and consumed than an act participated in and shared between people stuck together in the same place for a moment or two.
The introduction of corporations into this system of communal creativity and sharing necessitated a romantic fixation on people half the world wanted to be friends with, but who had to remain unreachable even while the intimate rock star mythologies spread.
The invention of the rock star depended on framing instrumental talent in personal terms, allowing for every audience around the world to imagine that the celebrities were part of their community. It was a kind of theft of goodwill, exploiting the eagerness of the audience to share with and support anyone who had a song to play by businessmen interested in building huge supply chains of record-pressing factories, cargo companies, advertising agencies, concert promoters, and product licensors.
As the logic of supply chains has broken down around the free and easy access of the Internet, companies have restructured the industrial logic of music into one of controlled bodies of data—where digitized songs are corralled into a massive ocean of server-side files that users pay to access, or else trade their social media information to have special guidance through.