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.
The unvarying constant is that music organizes around industrial logic and not human need. The promise of services like Twitter #music is that they will make it possible for more bands to earn a living within the winding gears of that industrial machine than would have been possible in years past.
Justin Bieber famously used the free access of the Internet to turn himself into a mini-industry that was quickly mergered-and-acquisitioned by Island Records. In its first week, Twitter #music has helped boost a number of acts, including Arcade Fire, M83, and Sum 41, each of which saw their daily rate of new Twitter followers triple in the days after the service launched.
In line with the short and fickle attention span of people driven to discover things through the Internet, each band quickly returned to their normal volume of Twitter exposure after the brief spike, which underscores the logic of services like Twitter #music. The commodity being sold is no longer music, but an ability to follow along with what other people are doing based on portals that make these herding masses trackable.
We are not any closer to having musicality return to our lives in the old sense, where it was as universally accessible as conversation. 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. Social reference and predictive suggestions based on data-mining other people’s online habits is exactly how people have found music for years, from iTunes to SoundCloud to Pitchfork message boards.
The only new idea is that Twitter is now at the center of the aggregation and recommendation process instead of Apple, Spotify, or your local DJ. Music has a new owner, but the structure and logic of ownership is still the same. We used to all sing together, but with Twitter #music we only get to take turns selling to one another.
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.