During a March 15 presentation meant to publicize its April 3 trading date, Spotify executives told investors about the company’s goal of creating “self-driving music,” a nonsense term that basically means that the streaming giant wants to automate the music discovery process even more than it already has. “The more music people discover, the more they will listen, and the more artists will be successful,” explained the company’s CEO and co-founder Daniel Ek. In true tech company form, Ek was proposing a tech-centric solution to a problem that music buffs, especially hip-hop fans, have already solved on their own.
Spotify has turned the music industry into a game where artists have to rack up millions of streams in order to turn a profit, so from the vantage of a tech company, it probably seems logical to develop fancy algorithms that guide listeners from one artist to artist in the hopes of spreading the (relative) wealth. In the real world, however, this approach doesn’t make a goddamn iota of sense.
One of the ways in which people who actually like music find out about new artists and albums is by following the behind-the-scenes people — think labels, session players, songwriters, and producers.
In hip-hop, where producers might only make one or two beats on a project, this process is even more pronounced. If you check the credits of a mixtape that’s on DatPiff or Livemixtapes, you’ll often see the name of a track’s producer listed right after the song title. Most well-known producers specialize in one or two specific sounds, and so half the fun of listening to a project by, say, Bun B, is seeing how a southern hip-hop legend will handle a instrumental from DJ Premier, whose name is synonymous with New York boom-bap.
Meanwhile, a superstar rapper can elevate an anonymous producer simply by working with them, such as when Jay Z’s The Blueprint prominently featured production from the then-obscure Kanye West and Just Blaze — and after that happens, fans sniff around the underground for which other rappers their new favorite beatmaker has worked with. Conversely, when a big-name producer like Zaytoven decides to lend their beats to an unknown trio of Atlanta rappers named Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset, then suddenly, the name Migos can become ubiquitous.
Rather than trying to train rap fans to passively accept new vibrations being shot into their ears, it would be fantabulously easy for Spotify to create mechanisms that work within this pre-existing, organic process. When you listen to a hip-hop song on Spotify that features a guest rapper or singer, you’re already able to click on that person’s name and go to their artist profile, where you can check out their solo work, as well as other albums they’re featured on. Why not create similar profiles for producers? Making it so that every producer had a little hub indexing every album they’ve worked on would be intuitive and in line with hip-hop’s long-held customs — and would serve Ek’s stated goal of making music more accessible and helping artists eke out a living on streaming platforms.
The point of technology and automation should be to make it easier for us to do the things we already do, not to ask us to change our behavior in the promise that it’ll be easier once we do it. Discovering music is leisure, not labor, a way to pleasurably occupy our time and distract us from the pressures of work and the stresses of our daily lives. If Spotify wants to streamline that leisure activity to the point of nonexistence, then how are people supposed to spend all that extra time on our hands? “Diligently working with a Spotify playlist on in the background” would be their answer, I suppose, but that sounds terrible.