[20 March 2014]
Forgotify serves as an entry into an internet wormhole, into the many songs that streaming listeners forgot, and it shows us a lot about our habits in the process.
“4 million songs on Spotify have never been played. Not even once. Let’s change that.”
This is the call to action on Forgotify, a new site/app that exposes the individual tracks that Spotify’s streaming listeners have missed so far. The actual number of unstreamed items is probably significantly less now, a few months after launch, assuming that others have the same strong urge to click the “Start Listening” button that I did.
When most people talk about musical exploration, what they really mean is “find me music I know I will like.” Today’s music services generally fall into two recommendation camps. One is situation-based, like Songza’s concierge service, or Beats Music’s ‘The Sentence’, both of which allow you to input certain moods and situations and get a playlist to suit your needs. 8Tracks, which features user-created playlists, also relies on more general mood-based tags, though the key is identifying the users you trust most and tracking their contributions.
More common is the ‘related’ camp, which helps listeners find songs based on what they already like (Pandora, Rdio, Spotify Radio, etc.), driven by algorithms that make recommendations based on key attributes of songs and artists. But spend enough time using these services, and you’ll begin to realize that the web of potential artists you might be exposed to is smaller than it seems at first, with the same groups coming up again and again. Unless you actively break out of a certain genre bubble, you might not end up venturing very far outside your comfort zone.
This limited listening span was illustrated in the state-by-state maps that recently made the internet rounds. The first version came from Paul Lamere, from The Echo Nest, the group whose work powers music recommendation platforms (and which was recently bought by Spotify). Lamere’s map showed the most ‘distinctive’ artists for each state, meaning the artists Spotify users in each state listened to disproportionally more than those in other states.
There were some surprising (Idahoans love Tegan and Sara, apparently) and unsurprising (Phish, Vermont) results, but what was least surprising was how the data was almost immediately reported as the “favorite” artists in each state. A later version of the map revealed the country’s tastes to be far more homogenous, with Jay-Z taking the most electoral votes by far.
Forgotify emphasizes the fact that, despite all those hours of listening at work and in the car, the slice of overall recorded sound that we actually listen to (at least via Spotify) is fairly small. Since Spotify prides itself on the massiveness of its catalog – and its artists depend on plays to make any money on the platform—you could say that the app might be poking a bit at the model of the endless streaming library, no matter how futuristic and attractive it might be. It highlights the fact that no matter how long the ‘long tail’ is, it does end somewhere.
It’s also a challenge to the sonic explorers who have long lurked in the music community. Browsing through and clicking on the songs in the Forgotify list is like the ultimate anti-mainstream adventure. While others listen to Jay-Z, you’re finding the stuff that no one else cares enough to seek out, or that is so obscure as to never come up on a related-artists search.
With so much content – music and otherwise – being produced every day, it’s easy to always feel behind, and find it increasingly difficult to be a pioneer. Forgotify offers a chance to stake a claim on something before the masses, a chance to be “First!” as the initial commenter on any thread always claims to be.
Of course, there has to be some reason to be proud of your discovery; being the first to listen to a bad song or spoken-word track is no great feat. To find the desired “needles” in this particular haystack, you have to search hard, just as some seekers dig through the $1 bin at the record store. For every gem, there are a whole lot of duds. There’s a satisfaction in the hunt that only hardcore music nerds will appreciate, especially those completists who can’t stand the thought of their music of choice going unheard.
Some will say that these tracks are undiscovered for a reason, that anyone who would deliberately traipse through this land of abandoned songs has something wrong with him. It’s like deliberately finding the Amazon products with no reviews and no orders, or the books in the library that have never been checked out.
Well, as someone who took the plunge, here’s what I’ve found in my small sample size:
Streaming listeners are relatively uncultured. OK, that’s a broad generalization – but there’s a lot of classical and opera that seems to be skipped over. Admittedly, my knowledge of the classical genre is similar to that of The Office boss David Brent who, when pressed for his favorite artists, replies, “I like all the big ones.” As for the big ones, Beethoven and Bach get a lot of plays. At least as much as Styx, anyway. Spotify wants to offer an endless library of music to suit every taste, high and low – and listeners claim to want that – but we might be giving ourselves a little too much credit.
The world of music is too big to fully appreciate. Services like Spotify give us great exposure to a range of music styles across the globe, but it’s really a challenge to get into every country, especially those that are not part of the commonly accepted ‘world music’ canon. Hence, traditional, pop and folk music from Italy (Angelo Gabriele), Sweden (Waduwill), Egypt (Fayza Ahmed), India (Hemant Kumar), Japan (Fukushima Group) and elsewhere made frequent appearances during my exploration. My favorite: “Trop Beau (Sugar Baby Love)” by a French pop artist known simply as Dave.
It’s not just music. You’ll find a lot of spoken-word and informational tracks among the unlistened-to masses, like Das Frankfurter Herz, a collection of German poetry (as romantic as it sounds). Then there’s the unclassifiable stuff, like “The Party” by a pair named John S. Hall & Kramer, which features carnival music in the background as a man (Kramer?) calmly offers statements like “My life as an overdue library book,” “My life as a way to get to Springfield Ohio,” “My life as a teenage love doll,” “Take my life, take my life, take my life, I’m not using it.”
That Forgotify serves as an entry into many an internet wormhole should shock no one. As I navigated the weird world of forgotten tracks, I found myself asking (and Googling) questions like “Who is Tony Toliver, and why is he wearing that hat?” “Was my dad secretly part of a Peter, Paul and Mary ripoff act called Reckless Fingers in 2007?” I will never get those hours back.
All in all, though, I emerged from making a small dent in the millions relatively unharmed, and a little refreshed. I recommend it for any listener who’s growing a bit jaded from what’s out there. Forgotify is proof that you haven’t heard it all.
I wouldn’t mind seeing this model applied to other things on the Internet: The You Tube videos that have never been watched, the Reddit threads that have never been read, the bit.ly links that have never been clicked. Sure, there’d be some scary stuff (especially on YouTube) but it would be a good reminder that for every meme we’re tired of, there’s a whole lot more to discover, and to eventually beat into the ground. It’s what we do best.