This is the era of easy culture. As accessibility to entertainment becomes easier and easier, culture has undergone a purification that rids it of both its complexity and sense of awe. Asher Breuer Weil studies the effect of this cultural phenomenon on the music industry, questioning how this changes the way we consume music.
Gone is the excitement of buying an album; Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal has effectively rid music of its physical manifestation (with the exception of the rising vinyl market, but still not nearly big enough to compete). Gone is the sense of occasion that comes with the cinema; Netflix is a far easier option for those desiring an evening of visual entertainment. Equally, week by week TV dramas have become replaced with the ability to ‘binge-watch’, theatre performances are more and more commonly being broadcast to millions of screens – even books have become victim to the electronic age, with Kindle sales only growing year on year. There is simply no let up to the sheer dominance of screens over culture.
The result of this is that it all becomes easier. I mean by this that culture rarely challenges us anymore, rarely forces us to delve into its depths, and this is a direct effect of its accessibility. Before the age of streaming, when my family wanted to watch a film, we would go down to our local Blockbusters and choose a DVD to rent. If you didn’t enjoy the opening, you could hardly go back and choose another; no, you were forced to persevere.
Beginnings can be misleading, like the proverbial book cover, and are not an indication of the work as a whole. Take Twin Peaks for example: it sets itself out as a simple murder mystery contained within a soap-like neighbourhood, and yet ends as a deeply surreal supernatural thriller. As great art should do, it teases and twists, not following the same plodding pattern throughout.
With literally billions of songs a click away, there is no space for music that challenges.
These days things are different. Platforms like Netflix enable the user to change film within the click of a button. If the start doesn’t get you hooked, you change. If you get bored, you change. There’s simply no space commercially for works that challenge. Except for a few such as House of Cards or Narcos, Netflix Originals have nothing beneath the surface. The scripts are so hastily scrawled out they’re often laughable – 13 Reasons Why being a key example of that. The acting is good, but rarely special. Instead, it feels like if actors are good-looking enough, people will watch. These shows basically rely on the glam-factor, on producing eye-candy sensual enough that people will sit through hours of it on end.
The music industry is affected in a similar way. One glance at a university student’s Spotify will see their friend feed no doubt dominated by playlists titled ’work/chill’, ‘chill’, ‘deep chill’, ‘chill vibes’ or similar. With literally billions of songs a click away, there is no space for music that challenges; ‘chill’ is effectively the same thing as easy.
Anything that isn’t immediately likeable can be skipped within five seconds of listening, so why bother? Why would you want something not instantly gratifying when it’s available to you? The answer to this isn’t easy. Music, like film, is highly dependent on your mood. You’re not going to want to listen to metal whilst working, nor do you want folk whilst at the gym. Yet within these genres there is still scope for difficulty. Brian Eno is ‘chill’, and still a thoughtful artist. Kendrick can get you pumped, and yet is a standalone rapper in the complexity of his songs.
I find that music that isn’t easy is often more enjoyable, and where patience is required, a greater appreciation emerges. Any song that can engage you beyond its aesthetic is most likely a song worth listening to, regardless of whether it suits your precise musical tastes. Swans and PJ Harvey are two recent examples of artists I didn’t enjoy immediately, but grew to appreciate. Within this process, you learn to find nuances in their music, ‘intersonic’ patterns between songs and albums that aren’t immediately obvious.
— TIDAL (@TIDALHiFi) June 22, 2017
Growing with an artist is a process that endears them to you more than just listening to the hits. I may like the music of Calvin Harris for example, but I have no relation to the artist. He panders to the crowd, producing songs tailored to please in a single listen. There is no artistic development to follow.
The problem with Spotify is that it focuses both on the moment, and the single song.
By contrast, artists like Frank Ocean or Kendrick Lamar show their personality in their music, such that you can track their mental state as the music comes. With Ocean’s Blond, you find him tender and nostalgic, with Kendrick’s DAMN. you find him angry and frustrated. These are deviations from the norm that allow the music to transcend its temporal state. They become part of an evolving body of work that isn’t dependent on the time of release. Where Calvin Harris’ easy music takes advantage of the monetary moment, neither Kendrick nor Ocean are bothered by it.
The problem with Spotify is that it focuses both on the moment, and the single song. ‘Discover Weekly’ and ‘Release Radar’, two of the services that help you find new music, both give you individual songs, not albums. Doing this is equivalent to taking away the stars from Starry Night and expecting it to have the same impact.
An album is an album more than it is a collection of songs. The cover art, the ordering of the songs, the song titles – these are all fundamental to comprehending the music. By handing music to you in this way you become disconnected from the artistic process, and without it, challenging music will obviously get skipped.
The biggest victim of this is classical music, being the genre that requires the most time. It’s no wonder that the most work composers get these days is to produce music for films, although even this is being threatened by films like Fast & Furious enlisting mumble-rapper supremo’s such as Lil Uzi Vert and Migos to score them.
At this moment in time, I don’t think music or film are in such a bad place at all. There are still so many great musicians and filmmakers thriving both commercially and critically. The concern is that as generations grow up knowing only instant gratification from culture, they might begin to ignore real artists. Their film taste will be conditioned by Netflix, music by Spotify. Where social media slowly batters down our individuality, it would be nice if our artistic tastes could at least remain pure. Sadly, I think we’re headed in the wrong direction.
Are we trapped in the luxuries of instant gratification? Does this affect the way you consume art? Let us know in the comments or via social media.