Those old enough to know better get a wry smile and a sense of disquiet when they see pig headed generation Y’s and misguided millennials falling down a rabbit hole of no escape, with boundless, unconstrained enthusiasm. The generation I am speaking about has prominent members who can be characterised by a certain air of obvious arrogance and a self-certainty that they are right. Yet, they are so lacking in basic insight and wisdom, it’s risible. Still, they have the steering wheel and they are determined to do the driving, whether or not it takes us all to oblivion.
This evening, I stumbled across a collection of on-line music-related APIs. These APIs give you access to data held by streaming services, music recommendation services, music discovery and analysis services and so on. The theory goes that, with these three or four dozen APIs and all that rich data, you can build exciting and new music presentation apps, for mobile device or the web, which will deliver the music that you might like and want, reliably.
That’s all very nice in theory and it appears to work, superficially at least, in practice, because it is predicated on the idea that music and music meta-data is just digital data, there to be crunched, tabulated, analysed and statistically grouped to your heart’s content. This is supposed to give you special insight into music or to radically improve your listening experience. Except that it doesn’t. People might assert that music is just data, but that isn’t true either. It’s much more than that.
The thing is, what the API providers gloss over is that they have decided, a priori, which aspects of the music are worth recording as data elements. Sometimes the choice is made on aesthetic grounds. The programmer in charge of creating the API decides which aspects of the music are important and so those are kept as data elements, at the exclusion of other possible data points. At other times, the choice is purely practical. If there is no way to measure the characteristic with a computer, or it’s prohibitively expensive or slow to do so, then that data is deemed to be unimportant.
Consequently, if you ask these APIs which music will make you cry or speak to your political beliefs, there is no way to do it. You might be able to parse lyrics for keywords, but that doesn’t exclude satire and deliberately ironic usages of those keywords. There is no data and no API that can tap into the emotional affect of the music.
Similarly, key connections between seemingly unrelated music and artists are not recorded. They’re not even noticed and the raw meta-data that would make these connections possible is in nobody’s database. There is no API to serve you. The data wasn’t thought to be necessary.
The problem with the “it’s all just data” point of view is that it ignores the function of music, as old as time, which is to communicate in emotionally affective ways, provide memorable marker points for key life events and bring people together in different relationships, both intimate and communal, bound by melody and song. If you don’t recognise that it’s all to do with feelings and delightful surprises, the interplay between expectation and variety, or deny that the interaction between music and listener is the key factor in the whole business, then you will fail utterly to provide the means to make meaningful applications, for music, that genuinely connect with people at the level where the music speaks to them directly – in their feelings.
And so that is what we have, except the millennials providing this data and access protocols to reach it are seemingly blissfully unaware of these egregious gaps in their understanding of what music even is. They’ve missed the art of it entirely. It makes me wonder if they hear music the same way I do, when I listen to it. Perhaps not.
Perhaps music has become just another form of audible wallpaper; a meaningless, somewhat distracting, but ever-present, backdrop to everything else they are doing in their lives. Maybe they are affected emotionally, but can’t access the vocabulary and understanding to shape their data and APIs according to that model of understanding. Maybe what I hear as intimate communication from artist to listener they hear only as entertaining beats with which to enchain and synchronise their bodily movements. Given the apparent absence of understood meaning, is it any wonder they like to mash up and remix? If music is nothing more than data to sculpt with, then what does it matter if the meaning is lost and the dynamics destroyed? Who cares if the lyrics don’t make any sense anymore?
I suppose this is why the majority of music discovery and play list suggestion apps tend to feel gimmicky and insane, to me; destroying, rather than enhancing, my listening pleasure and distorting my relationship with these works of art beyond any semblance of recognition. Maybe this is why DAW programmes are so bad at supporting real world song writing workflows and lead you down blind creative alleys, because that’s how the programmer who wrote the software thought music should be created. Maybe, in declaring that all art is data, we lost the art.
Music is not waveform sample data any more than a painting is just a set of infinitesimal pixel points of colour. That misses the entire point of the work and ignores the reason it was made and the purpose for which it was intended. Reductionist views of “art as data” strip the art of layers of subtle meaning, which are the essence and joy of the communication that is taking place between maker and viewer or listener. You can look at the waveform data for a music file all day long and never understand the inspiration behind its composition, or fathom the emotional connection that the composer intended you to experience.
Sometimes I feel I ought to inject a voice of reason into all this madness or develop something with a little subtlety and wit, recognising the limitations of the exercise. However, the interjection is rarely welcomed. These young, clever guys (and it is usually guys) know far better than old has-beens.
I think I’ll go back to my prog rock and the kids can stick to their Taylor Swift remixes and Skrillex mash-ups. These are not the APIs I seek.