Thursday, March 25, 2010

Playlist Nation: The Unbearable Lightness of Sharing (a Fingertips Commentary)

Quick question for you: do you make playlists?

Okay, kind of a stupid question. If you're reading this, you're probably more than a little interested in music, which means you have an iPod, which means yes, of course, you make playlists.

Next question: do you share your playlists? All sorts of web sites have sprung up over the last five years that encourage you to do so. Some are stand-alone communal playlist sites, others are on-demand streaming sites that offer a playlist creation function (e.g. Lala, Mog, and even MySpace now, with the acquisition of imeem). Go to these places and you'll see there are plenty of playlists posted. Someone, surely, is sharing.

Even so, playlist sharing is not at this point a mainstream activity the way that simply listening to an iPod is a mainstream activity. You yourself may share playlists all the time, or you may not even be aware that it's something you can do.

Leading to the big, final question: do you listen to other people's playlists? While you don't in theory have to be a playlist sharer to be a playlist listener, the blanket assumption of playlist sharing is that people who are sharing theirs are also listening to the playlists of others.

And so it is that playlist sharing is becoming, in theory, its own kind of music-consuming experience. With all these playlists available, people don't have to stumble around online looking for songs to listen to; they can also tap into other people's playlists. And in so doing will no doubt find out about music they didn't otherwise know.

Which--bing bing bing--turns out to be a big part of why sites that offer online playlist sharing think they are valuable. The communal playlist site 8tracks sums it up with a pithy tagline: "Share your mix. Discover new music."

It all sounds great, and the future of music cognoscenti, ever furious to second-guess the future before it arrives on its own, are all over it. Wired's Eliot Van Buskirk in late November wrote an article focused on 8tracks with a headline that said it all: "Playlists Could Be Free Music's Killer App."

The article focused on the economics involved: because playlist-sharing sites can launch with much less of an onerous licensing burden than an on-demand listening site, playlist sites are more likely to thrive and ultimately become the best place for people to listen to free music, whereas on-demand may ultimately be available only via a subscription. But Van Buskirk was implicitly enthusiastic about the communal playlist concept as a music fan too; at the end of the article he shared a playlist he himself made on the site. is spiffy at first glance. I like how simple it looks, how easily it draws the visitor in. Each playlist is just eight songs (thus the name), so that sounds manageable, yes? You can either click on one of the 24 intriguing graphic squares on the home page, each leading to a playlist, or you can browse by genre. Once drawn in, however, watch out.

Want to browse by genre? 8tracks gives you seven all-purpose genres on the main page. Okay, so let's start with "alternative rock"; click it and you'll see the eight most recent lists with that genre tag, out of (yipes) 21,000 more. And let's stop right there because a human being cannot "browse" 21,000 items of any kind, never mind playlists, even if they each have only eight songs. (Another barrier to effective browsing: because of its licensing arrangement, 8tracks cannot tell you what songs are on any given list, can only mention three of the artists included.)

And okay, not all genres have quite that many playlists. R&B has only 2,100, synthpop a mere 200. So maybe the thing to do is to scope out the genres first, narrow down to one you'd like? Good luck with that. You are then invited to click through page after page of genres, 50 per page, with literally hundreds and hundreds of choices, in no discernible order, and with nonsensical overlaps (there's "R&B" and then there's "r & b," for instance). There are standard genre names like indie, soul, jazz, and reggae and then an astounding assortment of less standard things like rain, bastard pop, fuck you, and bob. All told there are 77,000 (and counting) playlists to sort through.

I don't mean to bog down on details, but in the end, pundit pronouncements aside, these are the details that comprise a user's experience. And the details are preposterous. is the future of nothing. No doubt it's a brilliantly busy place but the web is filled with brilliantly busy places; the internet is heaven for splinter groups. This doesn't make any one of them worthy of widespread attention, never mind a "killer app."

And, the larger point: the idea that the future of music hinges upon masses of people sharing playlists online is absurd. Yes, there are already apparently thousands upon thousands of people doing it on countless different sites, but numbers of users in this case are not only irrelevant but actively misleading in terms of the success and value of the overall concept.

I know that we are trained on the web to believe it's all about eyeballs or followers, that it's the sheer number of people doing something that makes it a winning concept. But this is an advertising-centric goal only. If the intent is to attract advertising, then yes, attracting many visitors is a logical aim.

Not so with the sharing of playlists. In this case, the more people who do it, the less helpful it is. There are already way too many playlists online to be useful, and if playlist advocates have their way, we've just gotten to the tip of the iceberg. Lord help the Good Ship Music when it plows straight into this one.

The situation is almost poignant, because in theory and aspiration, the playlist is a wonderful idea. I'm sure there are any number of delightful playlists buried among's 77,000, or on any of the other playlist-sharing sites that exist. Used properly, with restraint and constraints, playlists could be an invigorating part of a thriving music industry.

But it doesn't look like we're heading in that direction. And, as it turns out, having too many playlists online is only part of the problem.

I. The Rise of the Playlist

To be better prepared for the rest of the argument, let's rewind a bit.

Music has been online for more than a decade now and we are still trying to wrap our collective arms around how this impacts the ways we find, listen to, and absorb the songs that musicians continue to give birth to. (They just don't stop, these people. All those songs. I mean, honestly.)

So, okay, we all know the obvious things: how music, once digitized, became effortlessly reproduceable, and how that led to the ability to transport songs into physical and logistical contexts far beyond the old idea of putting a record on a record player and sitting down in one particular room to listen to it.

Forgetting for a moment the havoc this has played with the economics of the music industry, let's concentrate on the one underlying revolutionary circumstance here: no longer requiring a physical object to exist, songs no longer had to stay where the people who created and recorded them put them.

Thus piracy. Thus the iPod. Thus all the present-day dreams of "music in the cloud." A song does not need a physical object to exist. The very idea seems to excite and confuse people.

Apple was the first company to figure out what to do with this new reality in a significant way, and therefore the first company to get the physically-oriented record companies to play along. The iPod has been something of a success, yes?

Towards the goal of helping average consumers deal with these ghosts of songs, these songs unmoored from their physical contexts, someone somewhere along the way at Apple decided that the experience would include a new organizational and conceptual element: the playlist.

It seems obvious enough now but it was new with the first iPod: this idea that consumers were henceforth going to be actively deciding not only when to listen to any given song but in what context. The menu hierarchy on the iPod put "Playlists" at the top of the "Music" menu, above "Artists," "Albums," and "Songs." Apple's designers--due either to research or intuition or both--understood the ramifications of song-as-electronic-file and that people, now that they could, would inherently want to group songs together for all different sorts of reasons, and listen to them in these new and shifting contexts.

The iPod playlist was, of course, a direct descendent of the mixtape that avid music fans, in the cassette age, would make for themselves and their friends--a carefully selected and ordered group of songs, culled from a variety of albums, ideally to be listened to in one sitting.

But the playlist of the '00s left the mixtape of the '80s and '90s in the dust functionally speaking. Making a mixtape was actual work, occurring in real time and consuming physical space, and limited physical space at that--typically 60 or 90 minutes' worth of magnetic tape. You had to record songs before you could hear exactly how they sounded together, and you had to play them in their entireties to record them.

A playlist, on the other hand, is made with a few clicks and drags. It can be as long or as short as the maker wants it to be. And because shorter is harder--the narrowing down to cassette length for a mixtape was always tricky--playlists err on the long side.

The playlist as a result is a far more elastic concept than the mixtape, and making playlists a much more common activity than making mixtapes used to be. You don't need a lot of time, you don't need a lot of thought. You can dump all 203 Kinks songs you have into one playlist called "The Kinks." You can find a few dozen extra-quiet songs and put them, in no particular order (why bother? you'll shuffle it anyway) in a playlist called "Headache." These kind of things work fine for your own purposes.

But here's an interesting thing. Most individual iPod users understand the inherent quantitative limits of playlists. On one's own iPod, there comes a point of diminishing returns--so that even in our own private, relatively limited digital music universes, playlists stop being useful when there are too many of them. Playlists can't be effortlessly organized like albums (by artist; artists in alphabetical order), and when something can't be obviously organized, there exists a practical limit to how much of this something can exist before, basically, all hell breaks loose.

So imagine the kind of hell we're talking about when theoretically millions of people are throwing their playlists online in uncountable, unstoppable numbers.

II. What's Not to Like

And so, yes, a big part of the problem here in Playlist Nation is sheer volume, as already noted. But even if we could somehow manage the crazy numbers of them--who knows, maybe someone will figure out an effective filtering system--online playlist sharing still fails as a music listening experience.

The first reason relates to the playlist's origins in the iPod. By its nature, the iPod playlist is a casual, impromptu affair, often little more than a quick dumping together of songs for very personal reasons or, just as likely, for no particular reason at all.

And now, via online playlist sites, people are being encouraged to share these not always brilliant groupings of songs with the whole wide world. Unlike mixtapes of old, which were typically created with a specific purpose and usually for a specific person, playlists online are created with unnerving randomness and launched onto the internet at breakneck speed. (Note that on 8tracks, if you filter by most recently posted, the first eight playlists you see on the front page have all been posted within the last hour.)

Certainly there must be people out there creating thoughtful, well-designed playlists, but if so they are drowning in a flood of real-time frenzy. The briefest of visits to any playlist sharing site will be enough to familiarize you with the Stupid Playlist Tricks that predominate in that world. (The most common problem is the way-too-long playlist but that is hardly the only type of silliness on display.)

And then, as a sort of maladroit pièce de résistance, playlist sharing online takes widespread poor design and adds to it the bane of anonymity. Online playlists are presented by an endless array of screen names and avatars. It passes for social online but it's still anonymity. ("Nobody knows you're a dog," as the famous cartoon caption read.)

And anonymity defeats the point of sharing playlists. Think, again, of the mixtape's very reason for being: it was one individual's deliberate effort to put a limited number of songs together for one particular friend or, sometimes, a small group of friends. There was nothing anonymous here. This was human-to-human connection. In theory the main reason you wanted to listen to a friend's mixtape was exactly because of the friendship, because someone you liked and respected chose these particular songs for you to listen to. The music discovery was a by-product of the friendship, not the other way around.

What's more, a mixtape's very physicality was part of its essence. It was a three-dimensional object that sat on your desk or near your stereo or in your car, a reminder of your friend and the work that went into it. An online playlist is ever so much more ignorable, just something else to blip across your ever-changing screen, something else to glance at quickly and/or ignore and/or delete. Even if it comes from a friend, it's far easier to overlook, not deal with, never listen to.

And if instead it is just a list of songs from an anonymous stranger, where on earth is the inducement to pay attention through 30 or 40 or 60 or (way) more minutes of unfamiliar songs? When playlists are created by anonymous screen names on web sites accumulating dozens of new lists by the hour, there is no authentic connection, and little motivation to listen very carefully for very long, if at all.

III. Many to None

As it turns out, however, the lack of long-term motivation to listen to playlists may easily coexist with the continual motivation to create playlists. This is something that online playlist proselytizers and entrepreneurs either don't understand or to which they turn a willfully blind eye.

That was indeed something of a dirty secret of the mixtape era--the fact that they were all too often more fun to give than to receive. Coming up with the songs, crafting the order, nailing the segues, even writing the titles down just right, and then handing it over to a friend--for serious music fans, that's really where the fun was. Being at the receiving end? Often, somehow, less fun.

The dirty secret of the mixtape era becomes a flagrant lunacy in Playlist Nation, beginning with how this is always called "sharing" ("Share your playlists!") when this is actually not sharing in any proper sense of the word.

True sharing requires both sides to be partaking in what is being shared, requires a more or less equivalent desire to give on the part of the giver and to receive on the part of the receiver. Playlist "sharing" is unilateral sharing--a giving that is largely ignored or lost in the torrent of everything else that's ongoingly uploaded. Here, the giver gives and prays to the heavens above that someone, anyone, might want to receive.

Media theorists have long since noted how the internet has upended the traditional "one to many" broadcasting model with a "many to many" paradigm. I contend the academicians have overlooked the perhaps equally significant "many to none" paradigm.

And the more the "many," the likelier the "none" at the other end. Once put online, a playlist is merely some more lines of text and buttons in a continual tsunami wave of text and buttons. Spurred by boredom, random listeners may stumble upon random playlists. But this isn't connection. This isn't "social." It's web surfing. It's not much different than Chat Roulette. Next!

For all I know, most of the people who post playlists aren't even expecting any listeners. A playlist may be seen as nothing more or less than another mode of self-expression, like joining an offbeat Facebook group or choosing an avatar. And at that level there's nothing much wrong with it. (Or, maybe there is.) But in any case, playlist sharing cannot be considered a serious new way of encountering music, not if the vast numbers of playlists put online to be "shared" are rarely if ever heard by anyone but their creators.

IV. The Stunning Conclusion

The lack of substantive sharing when it comes to online playlists belies a selling point pushed by playlist-sharing sites and many music futurists alike--the underlying idea that music is an inherently social activity, that people naturally and incessantly want to share music with each other, that we are indeed perpetual music sharing machines, at long last enabled by web 2.0 technology.

I believe this view has no basis in fact or history. Yes, there is beyond doubt a percentage of music fans out there who are keen on active sharing--who constantly seek out new sources of music anywhere they can--but strong anecdotal evidence, not to mention the occasional research paper, suggests that this segment is an overwhelming minority.

The reason more people don't share music more often? It's all but heresy to suggest it, but what the heck, I promised a stunning conclusion: people don't share music more often because for most people, the connection to music is not primarily social at all but, rather, internal and personal.

This contradicts what the music futurists and social media mavens are telling us (24 hours a day), but I contend that most engaged music fans do not relentlessly look to their friends either for new music suggestions or to make suggestions to them. Some do, quite joyfully, but they are the vocal minority. And many who do enjoy sharing their musical discoveries with friends tend to have very specific friends with whom they do this. They are not parading with their music down the hallways of their lives on the off chance someone might connect.

Because at its core the music makes a personal connection in your own individual mind and heart and spirit. When you sense another who understands, you share. But this is not a "contagious" activity that spreads willy-nilly throughout one's (actual or virtual) friend base.

Age is a factor in this to be sure. It seems more natural to share music with friends when you're in your teens and 20s than later in life. You might do a bit more parading at that age. But even for those in their teens and 20s now, things will change later. The futurists forget this, time and again--the fact that people's behaviors evolve naturally with age, the fact that the future does not turn into what everyone does in their teens and 20s, and that the internet doesn't change that. People with plenty of time on their hands to make lots of playlists--and maybe even listen to other people's playlists--will find that time diminishing as they get older, work longer hours, have children, shift focus, etc.

And this may be the ultimate and entirely unremarkable reason why playlist sharing, however much of a side activity it may be for some people, has no significant mainstream future: because listening to playlists takes too much goddamned time. Never mind that there are too many to listen to; I'm talking about how any one given playlist itself represents a serious time commitment.

So much of what we do online has been streamlined, designed for speed, created for zippy convenience. But even in its digital form, released from the plodding cassette tape, a playlist maintains one crucial, analog-like reality: to experience it, one must listen to it end to end. Forgetting those nonsensical 200-song playlists for a moment, let's remember that even a modest 15-song playlist takes maybe an hour to listen to.

Playlists are time sucks because they're attention sucks too: if you're not listening relatively closely, it defeats the purpose of even listening at all. The underlying point is to discover new music, right? You just can't do that if you're not paying attention. And isn't that an endemic problem online? That no one is in fact paying attention to anything for very long? A playlist is really kind of an oddity, a dinosaur, a relic from the day when people actually had more than two or three minutes to devote to any one thing before moving on. (Next!) Maybe that's one of the reasons they're flooding online but making no impact. We'd love to think we had that kind of time. We'd love to think we could pay that kind of attention.

And yet. The fact that random, frenzied playlist sharing is an exercise in collective expressive futility should not, in the end, blind us to the beauty and power of a good playlist, which generates from the beauty and power of sharing music in a genuine social context rather than the often artificial "social" context of "community" web sites. "Many to none" is outlandish; one to one, or one to few, is another matter.

So that's where we can and should take the playlist idea moving forward. Forget publishing playlists so that "someone" may see them--this is an empty gesture that feeds the ego while missing the place where music matters: the soul. For the sharing to have meaning, it should start not from "what are my favorite songs that I need to tell the whole world about?" but from "What friend do I want to reach out to, with music?"

And here's your assignment: think of a good friend of yours, perhaps someone you haven't been able to connect with for a while. Make a playlist with this person in mind, and either send it to him or her via a link to one of the available playlist-making tools (I recommend using either or, or--a radical idea, I know--just burn the thing onto a CD and send it to him or her in the old-fashioned mail.

And if this seems like a little too much work all of a sudden, never mind even the playlist. Simply take one song you've recently discovered and really love, think of one particular friend who might also love it, and send it via the transmission method of choice (email, tweet, Facebook, etc.).

Don't let the music futurists brainwash you into thinking you're "supposed" to do this all the time, with all of your friends. This is not a grand, public gesture. This is not a "look at my great taste in music" bit of online territory-marking. This is, simply, true connection. We are not here for anything more, or anything less.

(This is a full re-post of the essay that was published on the main Fingertips site on Monday. The only difference is that this version lacks the footnotes of the original.)

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