Doug Freeman (@dmfreeman) is a music critic for the Austin Chronicle and co-editor of The Austin Chronicle Music Anthology. He also works in PR and marketing for early stage technology startups at Jones-Dilworth. (See also Sean Adams’ own response to that interview.)
Evolver.fm’s interview with Drowned in Sound’s Sean Adams earlier this week offered an interesting perspective on the current state of music blogging in relation to the rise of streaming services. As Adams notes, one of the primary problems for music blogs today is that streaming services allow anyone to perform the role of new music curator via playlists and sharing across social networks.
As Adams put it, “There was a ‘need’ for blogs at one time, as the only outlet for music online. As we transition to services which turn individuals into ‘channels,’ the need for a blogger to post pithy things and then a track has shifted toward being an organizer and time-saver for those slightly less in the know.”
What I find most interesting about Adams’ lament is that it echoes the very same arguments leveraged against music blogs we’ve heard throughout the past decade. That is, the role of the music critic — i.e., to provide analysis and context around new music, and an explanation of why the listener or reader should care — was lost in the constant hype, and immediacy, of the newly-leaked download. Who were these upstart amateurs dictating taste online?
In truth, most music blogs rarely provide much of a critical context [ed. note: crucially, they do sometimes; see this track-by-track analysis by Sean Adams]. The best blogs do find a voice as they mature and their writers eventually develop broader musical foundations and expertise. Yet while we may trust a blog’s taste and role as a filter, the analysis offered rarely rises above “pithy comments” on the music.
A new form of “blogger” is emerging within the streaming platforms. The nascent version of this is the playlister, curating excellent playlists that we follow through Spotify, Rdio, etc. But playlisting is only the tip of the iceberg of the new editorial voice that might develop within the streaming medium.
Blogs, Scarcity and New Filters of Discovery
The role of the gatekeeper to music discovery — a role that is defined by scarcity and filtering — is what really seems to be the issue here, and the level of scarcity and its power have shifted.
Pre-digital era critics were valuable filters because they determined which music was worthy of purchasing. Blogs upended them by being faster and nimbler at the finding and sharing of new music — not to mention presenting ear candy to listeners as MP3s. That seemed amazingly immediate at the time, but today, we consider even downloading a free song an investment, if only of our time and space in our swelling iTunes libraries.
During the past decade, listeners could find and download almost anything, so blogs’ filtering function was necessary. Suddenly it was the bloggers, with inboxes deluged by literally hundreds of MP3s a day, who had the best access to all the new music the industry could offer. We trusted them to cull from that pile what should be given our attention. As bloggers ascended as tastemakers, though, in-depth and editorially-directed criticism waned alongside traditional music publications — Pitchfork being the obvious online exception that proves the rule.
The New Editorial Voice of Streaming
Music streaming services have certainly begun to erode much of the blogger’s cachet and curatorial role, much as bloggers did the same to traditional music publications and DJs. Yet with all this music now infinitely available through Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody and a plethora of other services, the need for filtering and curation for discovery is larger than ever.
Among the Spotify playlists I subscribe to are the numerous ones created by blogs, which curate songs from their sites into one streaming playlist [ed. note: like this one]. The convenience of this is wonderful, yet it also means I hardly ever visit the actual blogs anymore. Similarly, Spotify apps like Pitchfork’s allow me to read their reviews and listen to the entire album without visiting their sites. I still rely on bloggers to filter music for me, but it was my trust in their taste/brand that first drew me to their playlists and apps.
I would just as readily follow other playlists if they proved as rewarding. The streaming playlister is the new music blogger, to the extent that blogs were simply gateways to new music discovery.
We’re in a transitional lull as music moves to the cloud, for which I hold high hopes and and see amazing opportunity. These playlists and new curation tools lack an editorial voice, information, and criticism. As we shift to these new platforms for music consumption, we have the opportunity — and increasingly a need — to reinvest an editorial role for the listener beyond mere filtering.
Spotify’s apps have been the most progressive in this regard. The incorporation of AllMusicGuide into streaming platforms (though often still clunky) is also fantastically useful. Over the next few years, we will see the rise of something else, however — a new kind of critic, with new kind of voice, specifically adapted for streaming services.
Hopefully, that new voice will not be limited to simply curation and playlists. Every streaming music service should be thinking as much about their editorial voice and presence as they are about their sharing functions, technology and catalogs, because personality and musical expertise will cause users to prefer one streaming service over another.
The blogger might be declining in value, just as the DJ and music critic did before. Whatever will emerge as the streaming platforms’ editorial focus could consolidate all those roles — critic, filter, and personality — into something new and even more potent.
In other words, who will be the John Peel, Lester Bangs, and Sean Adams of the new streaming format?