Unlike Samsung's portentous Jay-Z announcement, services like Pandora and Spotify don't amplify the zeitgeist of a generation but instead offer guided tours through the arcane and the obscure, an algorithmically curated flow of generation-definers compressed into an hour that makes your Thursday evening hour on the treadmill slightly less tedious.
Services like Spotify and Pandora offer cheap tricks and they price accordingly, paying roughly 1/10 of one cent per stream of a song, which their business plan offsets primarily through charging advertisers to have their commercials interrupt the stream of feelings once every hour or so. The advertising model of doing business has become so entrenched in the way we access media today that it is almost impossible to imagine doing without it, from broadcast television to Internet browsing itself. Any business that depends on advertising as a primary source of money is acknowledging there is more value in the future purchasing behavior of its audience than in accessing the current work.
Unlike Samsung's portentous Jay-Z announcement, services like Pandora and Spotify don't amplify the zeitgeist of a generation but instead offer guided tours through the arcane and the obscure.
Pink Floyd acknowledged the strangeness of this value proposition with an analogy: a grocery store that can't afford to buy food to keep its shelves stocked. Imagine one where you could take as much food as you wanted for free but only if you agreed to look at a few commercials on the way out the door.
Services like Pandora work precisely because they repackage goods that have already lost almost all of their value. If in 20 years time there are still a million people who seek out and listen to some track from Magna Carta Holy Grail, those listens will also be almost completely worthless because the music wasn't distributed to be heard in the first place. It was made to create a cool rationalization for commerce. In Jay-Z's case he becomes a reason to buy a Samsung phone, and once there are no more phones left to sell, the whole world can listen to Jay-Z and it won't be worth much of anything.
There will be some new musical psychodrama used to sell some other generation on its own zeitgeist, revisiting the things that moved older generations to buy stuff will be an indulgence of kitsch, rather than a form of participation in music, which has historically been something we do together and not something that needs buying in a shop.
Until then, Jay-Z will lead the way in forever destroying the line between art and commerce. He already told us once: He isn't a businessman, he's a business, man.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.