On “data-driven” discovered genres, artistic conversations and faces in clouds.


What is “escape room”? Cherie Hu writes how Spotify discovers the genres of the future: labels for the found clusters of music that people are actually listening to. The names seem to be labels that someone slaps on a playlist and Spotify adopts. More hazardous than the tags on Bandcamp.

From the marketing perspective, genres are so idiots don’t forget what sort of music they were supposed to like. In what passes for artistic journalism these days, claims to be “data-driven” are an excuse to write whatever you were already going to say anyway when dispensing a hot take. A new way for writers to describe events that don’t make a story as if it is one.

Neologism was a competitive sport amongst rock journalists in the 1980s. If you claim a genre and get people to adopt your term, you win the discourse! You could be the next Paul Morley! Simon Reynolds is much better now — Rip It Up (UK, US) remains essential reading — but he was bloody terrible for made-up genre names back in the day. One of his early books (Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, I think) is a collection of his worst ideas along these lines. “Arsequake”. You arsequake, Reynolds.

I like author Lois McMaster Bujold’s creator-driven definition of “genre”: “any group of works in close conversation with one another.” This signals something useful that may be interesting.

I am sceptical of “data-driven” cultural discovery. It reifies statistical artifacts, filter bubbles and faces seen in clouds. It’s entirely unclear that a cloud of listeners for a week or month signals an artistic conversation. It’s not even clear that it constitutes a “community of taste,” as Bujold puts it, rather than a coincidence. If it was for a year, maybe. You should be so lucky as to have any year-long coincidences left by the time you start looking.

The other problem, of course, is that Spotify seems to have put into place a fabulously gameable automated system. I’m sure 4chan will have a ton of fun when they discover this one.

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