The long-talked about Beats Music will launch next month. But the question remains: How will Beats separate itself from other music-streaming services already doing the same thing?
This week, Dr. Dre’s Beats brand announced it would launch a new music streaming service, Beats Music, to join the crowded field alongside Pandora, Spotify, iTunes Radio, Rdio, and the recently dead Twitter #Music. While the market might feel over crowded, Beats Music promises to be better than the rest through artisinal expertise, with former Pitchfork Editor-in-Chief Scott Plagenhoef hired to manage programming, and Trent Reznor taking a role as Chief Creative Officer. Reznor promised the service would try to separate itself from other services through curation, “like having your own guy when you go into the record store, who knows what you like but can also point you down some paths you wouldn’t necessarily have encountered.”
I have never bought a piece of music that I didn’t regret at some point. During the daily rite of opening the music player on my computer I can never find anything I want to hear in the 40 gigabytes of music entombed in it. Having a personal music library has begun to feel like a record of failures of taste or self-control, a stark list of songs I wanted to like for some long-since gone reason, or else songs I had listened to so much that playing them one more time would be redundant. And there is all of the music I have bought or downloaded or stolen. Every now and then, I will be out at some bar or party and hear a song that I own, and have played to myself over and over, but can’t actually name, as if I had never had it in the first place.
Like Spotify, Beats Music will seek out celebrities, musicians, and other notable figures to make playlists for users to browse. TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino reports the company has worked on a feature that would let users follow other user’s profiles and listen along live to whatever’s playing in another person’s stream. Building on the recent popularity of self-broadcasting services like Twitch and Ustream, and the eagerness of companies like Sony and Microsoft to build them into PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Beats Music could carve out an element of communal sharing and provide a platform where the act of listening is inseparable from being together with someone else.
The trap in all of these technological half-measures is that they must always come in a cellophane wrapper of commerce, and while placing emphasis on the social elements of a streaming service makes a story seem new, the novelty masks the underlying reality that experiencing music today must always come along with shopping.
The trap in all of these technological half-measures is that they must always come in a cellophane wrapper of commerce, and while placing emphasis on the social elements of a streaming service makes a story seem new, the novelty masks the underlying reality that experiencing music today must always come along with shopping. A decade ago, music was the thing sold. Today, the value of individual works have degraded to near zero, which means the only way to meaningfully extract value from them is in aggregate, with a backdoor business of ad-sales to prop up a support that cannot support itself on its own.
There is an irony in building services to propagate nearly valueless goods as a platform for advertising other goods, underscoring just how much of faked grandeur there was in the old offline economies of music. In its own sad way, music-streaming services are a reminder of how little fakery there is left to sell now that we are surrounded by a ceaseless flow of digital artifice. Things were in no way better time before this flood of cheap and free access, but admitting that fact still leaves this present moment feeling transitory. It is less a new paradigm than a resting point along a path of disintegration whose inevitable endstate seems to be where we end up selling our company to one another, with music or movies or stories or games serving only as pretext to this transaction.
Part of what is now so insufferable about my own private collection of music is the realization that I came to so much of it through vouchsafes from people I had faith in. Paying for some little piece of a cultural work that might signify a social bond between them and me always felt like it was worth it. Inevitably, these kinds of relationships are the least durable. With conceptually infinite libraries of music now available, this underlying structure of social infatuation is becoming more visible, where what we are willing to pay to be a part of is access to the broadcasting of an idealized version of someone’s identity.
Fifty years ago we mythologized great bands that defined their eras, and today we are coming to mythologize great listeners who create an aura of custodial care, a necessary reassurance in a time when the simple possession of things is no longer a reliable comfort.
Platforms like Beats Music and Spotify derive their value from making visible the human hand behind the curation, and, perversely, they hide that layer of intimacy inside an architecture of salesmanship that guarantees the exciting discovery of listening. The ultimate hope, music-streaming services believe, is that when listening along with digitized others it will recall all those trips to the record shop, when you talked to a clerk who really seemed to care, but whose name now slips your mind.
Michael Thomsen is Complex'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.