Algorithm pandering lowers album quality

Before the widespread popularity of music streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal, music lovers would often torrent thousands of dollars worth of albums. Their justifications went as follows: “If I didn’t torrent this album, I wouldn’t have purchased it because I don’t have the money to buy every single album/single I enjoy. I’ll see the artist in concert if I really enjoy the product.”

Thankfully, streaming services have mitigated this situation for the better. For a modest monthly fee, or at the price of listening to the occasional advertisement, one can access a virtually limitless body of music.

Blogger David Turner, who focuses on the streaming industry, says: “A platform like Apple Music…pays $0.0007 per individual stream. Spotify…about half of that. Tidal, Jay-Z’s own streaming service, pays out significantly more than either one of those, but it’s still essentially fractions of pennies” (Slate, “The Spotify Effect,” 09.06.2018).

Artists make a minuscule amount of money for each stream, but even a minute sum is superior to the zero profit made when the album is illegally downloaded. Unfortunately, the streaming model, despite its many substantial benefits, is having a deleterious effect on the quality of popular music. Following Billboard’s decision to count 1,500 streams as an album sale, many artists began to produce bloated albums engineered to rack up streams and climb the charts under these new standards.

For example, Migos’ 24-track “Culture II” evidenced a serious decline in quality control from the 13 compact tracks of “Culture I.” The online music magazine Pitchfork puts it aptly when their review states, “Maybe the Migos just had that many ideas they simply could not deign to edit down. But it seems more likely to be another attempt to game the current Billboard and RIAA rules” (Pitchfork, “Migos,” 01.30.2018).

Drake’s recent output is representative of this trend as well. His past two albums, “Views” and “Scorpion,” consist of 20 and 25 songs respectively. What could have been strong albums of 15 or so songs became uneven, overly long projects.

Variety music critic Andrew Barker writes, “The beauty of great kitchen-sink monster-albums…is that they seem to demand curation and customization; within all the bloat and the left-field experiments, there are infinite different track combinations to suit every mood and aesthetic inclination. On ‘Scorpion,’ however, the filler couldn’t be more obvious or less interesting” (Variety, “Album Review: Drake’s ‘Scorpion,’” 07.02.2018).

The overall quality of these albums was sacrificed to the algorithm gods. One only needs to recall the ambition and consistency of earlier albums like “Take Care” and “Nothing Was the Same” to know that Drake is capable of doing better.

Thankfully, this algorithmically induced overstuffing has not infected every corner of the music industry. Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole continue to produce excellent albums with little to no filler. This may be because their fans expect them to not “sell out” and sacrifice their critical bona fides. It is not that Kendrick or Cole are made of stronger moral fiber than Drake, but rather that they cater to different consumer preferences.

Still, it remains unsettling that both the emotional and financial interactions between musicians and their listeners have become so mediated by ornate algorithms beyond the understanding of the average person and that these opaque codes have so degraded the caliber of the output of certain musicians. Regardless of the questionable state of the music industry, at the end of the day, there is simply no substitute for taking music recommendations from your friends and attending concerts together.

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