#139: Noise Pollution

A quick reminder that I’m now sending out mid-week essays focused on urbanism and the future of cities (in addition to the Friday newsletter). This week’s was about the relationship between software and the built environment, Stewart Brand’s shearing layers, and how to reconcile different rates of change within the urban system. These are exclusive to paid subscribers and you can sign up here!

This article from a few weeks ago examined the fake artist names that are optimized to appear in Spotify’s search results, with names like “White Noise Baby Sleep,” “Relaxing Music Therapy,” and “Air Conditioner Sound.” As with all SEO, the creators of these tracks try to craft names that match adjectives or reasons for listening to music that people frequently search for. Additional tricks include duplicating the same song title ad nauseam with slightly different keywords attached: “Relaxing Music Therapy has uploaded the track ‘Stream in the Forest With Rain’ 616 times to date.” While these artists aren’t fake in one sense—the tracks actually contain music, or at least contain the sounds implied by their titles—they are fake in the sense that the artists don’t exist outside of the Spotify universe, and their pseudonyms are specific to that platform. You can’t catch White Noise Baby Sleep performing a live show on Zoom, much less at Irving Plaza. The article’s author quotes a music industry expert who observes that Spotify has managed “to make the vast majority of their listeners decouple the creator of the music from the product of that creation.” Beyond the spammy names and titles, and in tandem with Spotify’s endless algorithmic shuffle, this change results in a new way of listening to music, one in which we care less who or what we’re hearing and can’t always find out even when we do want to know.

From another perspective, this is a phenomenon as old as the internet itself, a kind of algorithmic pollution made inevitable by the affordances and incentive structures that a certain system creates. Spotify’s endless, entropic cascades of garbage search results, or the creepy, absurd videos that proliferate on Youtube Kids, or an Instagram caption full of hashtags, are the digital equivalent of urban sprawl, junkspace, or the chaotic clusters of fast food chains grouped around freeway exits. And like those landscapes, we might eventually gain a postmodern appreciation for them, even if that appreciation begins as an ironic or academic lark, and even if we’re destined to eventually admit that it’s still not that good for us. Every popular medium shapes the content that is created for it and while most platforms start by aggregating what has previously existed, eventually they impose their own logic. Spotify’s weird nooks and crannies suggest that the marriage of text and sound, and the expectation that music should have a name, might be a waning anomaly of the overly-literate modern age, still necessary only because we have to type words into a box to search for it.

Before streaming, at the dawn of the Napster era, the act of becoming interested in music frequently preceded the act of hearing it. I would learn about artists and albums via word of mouth or magazines, then search for them on Kazaa or Soulseek. Every so often, I would download something mislabeled—a Ween track that was actually just some random person’s home recording—but I wouldn’t always find out until later when I encountered the same song elsewhere and realized it was different. This was never much of a problem, because the world outside of P2P filesharing provided plenty of context to help triangulate the authenticity of a song, but it exposed the artifice of slapping a name onto a digital file (no record store ever sold me a burned CD inside a Ween case). Twenty years later, the process has come full circle: The long tail of obscure made-for-Spotify music capitalizes on that same artifice by fostering an ecosystem where names of things don’t inherently matter as long as you trust the algorithm to keep serving up what sounds good. “Fake” is no longer a mismatch between canonical reality and a digital copy; now it’s a song that was authentically made by an artist who doesn’t really exist. One of the internet’s most fascinating and energizing qualities is its explosion of our singular enforceable reality into tiny disparate pieces. But sometimes a platform like Spotify gathers up those pieces and puts them back together, and when that happens, Spotify gets to decide what they mean.