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Stock screens for pop music

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Tuesday, Sep 27, 2005

I was paging through one of those independently published rock magazines that seems to have a few thousand record reviews in it each month and it was making me enormously depressed. The bands blur together on these pages of solid gray blocks of print and merge into a collective anonymity. And when I break out my magnifying glass to read the reviewer’s prose, their desperate attempts to sound singular themselves while dismissively comparing the bands to other more-famous bands or glossing over the bands’ efforts with a hundred words of copy only makes the whole endeavor of making and consuming new music seem that much more pointless. One’s increased access to music can generate this enormous sense of unfulilled responsibility that can result in one’s feeling simply indifferent to all new music, preferring instead to retreat into old classics, or the stuff one listened to in college. One can’t hope to keep up so one simply gives up. These magazines with the scads of reviews are engines of this kind of resignation. Above all else they seem to communicate that you shouldn’t even bother.


I’m ambivalent about reviews in general, since I think the criteria most reviewers apply are irrelevant—idiosyncratically personal, or worse, straining toward some bogus objectivity in reference to canonized works. But much of what makes people enjoy music is the sense that other people are enjoying it and understanding it, that it is communicating feeling among a group of people. (The rest is a sense of nostalgia, enjoying music that reminds you of yourself at some other point in life.) Pop music defines subcultural identity, and it allows listeners to feel as though they have been invited into other cultures they ordinarily feel excluded from. It allows for the illusion of community in the absence of one, like sharing a TV show with millions of anonymous viewers, and having a sense its being talked about, whether in celebrity gossip magazines or at the proverbial water cooler. A review of a record would serve more of a purpose if it tallied what sort of people were listening to it. This is why most people don’t bother reading reviews at all and are content to learn about music from the radio or their friends. Who else is listening to it is at least as important as what it sounds like.


The sheer amount of music has become akin to the vast number of businesses in our economy, and perhaps what is needed is something akin to a stock screen that filters what’s out there to a list of few names. Perhaps as digitally distributed music catches on, statistical qualifers can be attached to music and different songs can begin to be defined numerically in relation to their audiences. Relational databases like those that serve up Amazon’s recommendations can be leveraged, using iTunes sales data, to produce statistics that can permit one to screen music in terms of genre, audience, regional popularity, longetivity, bass/treble ratio, and so on. You can request songs with the same data profile as one you already like, and have iTunes produce a list for you on your cell phone. You can’t tell me that this isn’t already being beta tested somewhere.

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