The great irony of Silicon Valley's curated-music craze

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The music industry has always chased trends, and as tech companies have started getting into the game, they’ve not only picked up the habit but taken it to an unimaginably expensive level—one that makes the most coke-fueled excesses of the Fleetwood Mac era look miserly in comparison. And right now, the market is going bananas for curation: After years of investing in algorithms that can figure out that someone who likes the Beatles would probably also be interested in Creedence Clearwater Revival, which has helped the online radio behemoth Pandora claim 250 million users, the tide has turned. “Curation” is now the buzzword du jour.

Yesterday, word got out that Google will be buying the playlist site Songza for a “substantially higher” amount than the $15 million it was previously rumored to have offered, according to a Billboard article. Songza offers users, in its own words, “Music Curated by Music Experts”—that is, playlists broken down not only by genre but by mood or compatibility with different activities, some of them as specific as “Lounging in a Cool Hotel” or “Hanging Out in the Man Cave.” The tech giant has plans to fold Songza and its team of 50 or so curators into the unwieldily named Google Play Music All Access, a subscription-based streaming platform it launched to compete against Spotify that hasn’t offered very serious competition so far.

Apple also recently acquired a curation service: the Beats Music platform, whose place in the $3 billion acquisition has been massively overshadowed by Beats’ much larger and more profitable hardware division. Now that Apple and Google have both bought their own curation services, other companies will most likely be scrambling to get their own.

The irony in this craze for curation is that for the longest time, and until quite recently, it was a widely held tenet amongst techies that the removal of cultural gatekeepers was one of the great benefits that the Internet had given music fans. With the help of algorithms, so the story went, you don’t need to depend on music critics or record clerks to discover new music. And so far, the popularity of services like Pandora and the presence of algorithm-powered “radio” streams in all the major music platforms has backed up that sentiment.

There are some major drawbacks, of course, to having your listening steered by computers. They’re why sites like Songza exist, and why they’re now worth so much: For as smart as music recommendation algorithms have become, they’re still not especially clever. Humans have other tools besides tempo analysis and users’ browsing histories to make connections by, so they can go much deeper. Plug the White Stripes into Pandora and it’ll guess that you also want to listen to the Black Keys and a bunch of other alt-rock bands, which would probably satisfy some casual listeners, but it can’t follow a more interesting stylistic thread that would connect them to Howlin’ Wolf, Grady Martin, or the Seeds.

More essentially, people may just prefer knowing there’s another person putting together their playlists. Eliminating cultural gatekeepers has been a great advance in that it has removed a lot of the fear and judgment that came with exploring music when you had to buy it from snobby record clerks. But it’s hard to make a personal connection with an algorithm. In an era defined by an obsession with artisanal everything, it’s not surprising that listeners would gravitate toward services that offer handcrafted playlists and a deeper sense of authenticity.

Even if you could ask Pandora to generate a playlist to accompany a breakup or a soundtrack to coming down after a night of hard partying, it seems unlikely many people would trust it to do so. But with something like Songza, you can trust that someone who’s been there before has thought the selections through. That’s a valuable thing now, in more ways than one.


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