Algorithm Kills the Rhythm Off The Wall

How many times have we set the music industry adrift to sea in a boat with its personal effects?

Then like a Viking, shot a flaming arrow at its sail, to see it engulfed by a bully of flames and sink?

Yet it claws back to life, each time, less physical, less recognizable. 

First as a vinyl record, then as an 8-track, then as a cassette, then as a CD, then as an MP3. Today music doubles as a streaming service triggered by an algorithm.

In summer of 2014, Songza was acquired by Google for a few million.  Months earlier, Beats by Dre was acquired by Apple for a few billion.  The common denominator of both acquisitions:  smart playlist curation based on mood, location and activity of the listener.  In the spirit of Pandora and Spottify, both business models are subscriptions that leverage machine learning to help users discover music. 

100 years ago, in 1913 a Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, set Paris on fire with what is regarded as the most influential compositions of the 20th century – “Rite of Spring”. Within minutes of the first notes screeched from a bassoon, the audience booed loudly and hurled tomatoes at the pagan display on stage.  A brawl ensued, sparking a riot at the ballet!  The Modernist Movement (Picasso Cubism, Jazz, Beat Poetry and then some) was born. 

It is crazy to think if Stravinsky created that tune based on a software algorithm generated by a computer, history would be quite different.  There would have been no violence, no arrests, and disturbance of musical tradition and that would not have been a good thing.

In the 1980s “MTV Killed the Radio Star.” At the dawn of a new century, the algorithm may have killed rhythm. 

In 2006, Chris Anderson invented the term ‘long tail’ to describe a shift of media businesses from selling a few blockbuster hits to selling a large number of niche items.  Although the sales of these niche items were infrequent, in aggregate their sales could outrun the sales of ‘hits.’  Digitization lowered the barrier to entry by amateurs, multiplying the fruits of content on the web.  And the internet simplified distribution as the perfect vending machine, where consumers could get anything they wanted, anytime at zero marginal cost like a bucket of ice at a motel.   The music artist was not bound to the sand-bagging contracts and rules of major record studios.

Soulja Boy is a good example of an independent artist who saw the opportunity present in using YouTube to self-publish and release not only his music video, but an instructional video where he teaches suburban America the Crank Dat dance in an empty swimming pool.  Crank Dat became #1 in the US in 2007 and he was listed on Forbes List of Hip Hop Cash Kings as a multi-millionaire by 2010.

However, since then, the internet has become littered with broken hoop dreams, white-chalked asphalt and loud boom boxes and it has been challenging for independent artists to match Soulja Boy’s success.  In the words of billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, the internet is ‘a long tail ghetto’, where the streets have a twinkle in its eyes for arbitrage.   For content providers and artist to break out of the tail, and climb the Vert Ramp (steep wall that skateboarders use) into mainstream success and be discovered, they are going to need additional resources a.k.a. “Other People’s Money.”

Like many others, I saw the long tail as a fertile playground for independent artists to unleash their creative will, where the previous distribution models (record, cassette, CD) trapped them.  But the problem with the long tail is that ignores the basics of innovation and creativity.  Courage. Failure.  Vision.  Instead a new prison has enclosed the artist.  Content is so cheap to produce and ubiquitous, the premium for the music experience has migrated to music discovery. And now the long tail of demand is wagging the dog of creativity, instead of the other way around.

A song is not a spark, but a Rubik’s cube, which can be solved through a series of reverse engineering methods – an algorithm.   Yet can the artist ‘make it’ on his terms in an era where the algorithm is the ultimate focus group?  Sometimes the customer doesn’t know what it likes and that is where some of the best artists are born to guide, shape and reinvigorate pop culture norms.  Otherwise, hire management consultants. And when was the last time they created a musical movement that changed the world?    

Algorithms may help us find new artists, but it is backward looking.  Because they build their judgment on what was popular in the past, we will likely end up with reheated microwave pop, not break-through movements like punk or hip-hop.  We will get stuck into a loop, chasing hit singles, chasing the long tail, liking what we like, but not growing and learning. 

Steve Jobs famously said, “So you can’t go out and ask people, what is the next big thing? There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, ‘If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse’.”

The growing role of algorithms in all stages of artistic production is becoming impossible to ignore.  As the music industry dies and comes back in new forms, and we beam more content to the Cloud, to streamline distribution costs, a new algorithm will be necessary to beam down called the anti-algorithm: Human originality.