photo by Sandra Rybick
It all started with the cassette mixtape: flimsy, lightweight, delicate and accompanied by that tiny piece of lined paper etched with a hastily scribbled tracklisting. It takes hours putting together the damn thing, hitting “record!” and “stop!” in between commercials on the radio, fast forwarding and rewinding to get the transition and the timing of the songs just right.
Questions of utmost importance always come to mind in the process of making the mixtape: Can Missy Elliot follow Aerosmith? Will the girlfriend like this Aaliyah song? How is it possible that she likes Silverchair AND the Backstreet Boys so much? Though you had spent hours bent over your boombox, you knew your 8th grade girlfriend Nikki was worth all the effort and all the important decision-making, right down to the mixtape’s illustrious title (you eventually went with “Summer 1999”).
Thankfully, mixtaping got a little easier when CDs came along and iTunes made the creation of playlists a two-step process of a click and a drag. Also, music no longer lived on spools of tape, or on shiny compact discs in colorful jewel cases; they lived in 00101011 coding, .zip folders and .mp3 attachments, able to be put together and disseminated to hundreds in seconds.
Although the philosophy behind the mixtape remained the same during the mp3 boom – its songs were chosen by its maker for a special reason, like a birthday or anniversary, and given to a special person, like a crush or simply that friend who needs a better taste in music – it seemed that technology granted the playlist the ability to assume a bigger role than just soundtracking Sweet 16 birthday parties. They could soundtrack just about anything, and for anyone and everyone.
And now with programs like Spotify and Turntable.fm, the sharing of playlists and individual songs has become so effortless that we, the mixtape makers, have nearly become DJs, musical curators per se, to anyone within our reach.
To read about how Turntable.fm is changing the actual music industry, check out yesterday’s article Turntable.FM and the Rise of Community-Centric Radio.
The Age of Curating
Whether we head a blog on Norwegian folk music or have Facebook list each song we listen to, we are constantly broadcasting what we like, what we approve and, what we deem “cool.” While radio DJs and mainstream media art critics have long held the power to influence which artists are praised and which albums should be bought, it’s clear that the internet has changed the dynamic between the curator and the consumer.
Take for instance a recent deal between Spotify, the Europe-based music service that offers full-album streaming, and Facebook. Now, Facebook users can have their music history posted to the new “news ticker” feature in real time, and if friends want to check out any of the tunes, they can simply click on a song link and listen instantly. It’s much like Last.fm, but since it’s happening on the social-networking behemoth Facebook, it’s happening on a much larger, larger scale. Over time, the new Facebook “Timeline” feature will include summaries of users’ listening history, pointing out favorite artist and songs.
This setup immediately allows for individual users, like you and me, to essentially “DJ” to all their friends; and if a user has upwards of 1,000 friends, that’s a pretty big audience.
“I know which of my friends enjoy the same music as me, and so when I receive playlists from them or notice what they’re listening to on Facebook, I trust their instincts and recommendations and check them out,” said Mark Donalds, a junior from Temple University and CMJ fanatic.
Even Mark Zuckerberg himself acknowledged the effects of such a deal when he first announced the partnership in San Francisco last month, commenting, “You discover a huge amount of new music this way… listening can spread quickly…”
In regards to Spotify’s own platform, the ease of creating and sharing playlists is touted as one of its best functions. With the opportunity to pick and choose from the thousands of albums that are readily available (for free!), the possibilities are almost endless. Classical jazz mix? Sure. Disney theme songs mix? No problem.
Friends swap them, your cool roommate who is a record label intern can email you two a day, even artists themselves distribute them. Just this past summer Gregg Gillis, AKA Girl Talk, shared his ultimate summer/BBQ mix, a 154-track roundup of everything from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and Pavement’s “Range Life” to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love.”
Even though most people don’t take on a hefty list like Girl Talk, they still easily endorse handfuls of artists – both independent and major – by sharing them through their Spotify playlists. Exposure can quickly skyrocket if these playlists are publicly made available and go viral via Twitter or Tumblr.
At the very least, these mixes offer the alternative to the prototypical whole album. “I feel like I grew up giving and receiving way more mixtapes and playlists than full albums by single artists,” said NYU sophomore and CMJ attendee Kay Mitchell, “and besides, playlists are just way more exciting with their variety and element of surprise.”
The epitome of the new age of music curatorship can be found on Turntable.fm. The social-media site lets its users virtually “DJ” to a room of four other users with similar music tastes. With every song played, the room gets to vote on the DJ’s choice and help decide whether he/she should be replaced. It’s as close to the DJ experience as one casual music fan can get without actually getting in front of a crowd and spinning records.
Of the Turntable.fm experience, journalist Paul Miller said on his popular blog This Is My Next, “It’s amazing how much the opinions of others impact my own enjoyment of the music. It’s like I had all the anxiety of a DJ – terror that every new bar of music could turn the crowd against me – except I wasn’t the DJ.” Folks like Diplo and Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber have even been known to spin on Turntable.fm and try their hands at rooms full of tough critics, wanting only just enough approval to be able to play another track.
What also takes Turntable.fm a step beyond both Spotify and Facebook, is that offers a more intimate DJ vs. audience interaction. Not only are you selecting songs for a room full of users, but you can chat with them about these songs in real time. Before you know it, you’re making new music friends every night. New York Times reporter Sam Grobart discusses this in more depth in his article “Spotify is Great, But Turntable.fm is Amazing.”
Will We Overdo it?
Having your handpicked playlist blasting away on some random stranger’s iPod might have been a farfetched idea ten or even five years ago, but with the internet’s ever-expanding bubble and the way in which we consume media like voracious, short-spanned creatures, you might even call it commonplace today.
But the rise of the everyday music curator can be a little troubling. Think of the rise in citizen journalism versus the decline of seasoned reporters and long-established and reputable newspapers: It’s hardly a secret that the power to sway consumers can be easily transferred from one Twitter-happy user to another, one SEO-accomplished blogger to another.
While it’s encouraging to know that you could become the next “IT” blog in a week’s time, the thought that there could be so many voices preaching this and endorsing that might just be more discouraging. Don’t curators exist to help filter through all the noise? Is it possible that we, the playlist-making, mixtape-creating community, could ever become part of that noise?
Written by: Michelle Geslani