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No Expectations 013: This Must Be the Place
Algorithms make bad music fans. Plus, ‘King of the Hill’ as comfort show.
Thanks for being here. You can expect a fresh newsletter from No Expectations straight to your email each Thursday at 9am cst / 10am est. Subscribe, share, like the post on the Substack app, and tell a friend. You know the drill by now.
On Tuesday, I moved to a new neighborhood in Chicago, so this will be another relatively light newsletter. For the last week, my brain has been entirely focused on what could go wrong: Did I make the right call hiring movers? Did I pack everything properly? Am I a dummy leaving a $1000-per-month unicorn one-bedroom apartment in North Center that I’ve called home for seven years? After a move-in experience where nothing went wrong and just a night in the new spot, I know I made the right decision. Bear with me this week: the No Expectations newsletter will be back at full strength soon.
Algorithms want to take the humanity out of musical discovery
“I’m Xavier but my friends call me X,” says a luminescent green orb on Spotify’s mobile app. It’s an Ai voice modeled on Xavier “X” Jernigan, Spotify’s head of cultural partnerships, and it’s a new tool from the streaming service called DJ that promises to be a “personalized Ai guide that knows you and your music taste so well that it can choose what to play for you.” You open Spotify on your phone, head to the music section of its cluttered home screen, and click the DJ button. In my case, the Ai Jernigan said something along the lines of “now, I know you like Hiroki Ishiguro so I’m gonna kick it off with a little bit of that.” I don’t think I’ve listened to Ishiguro on Spotify in years, and the following playlist went jarringly to Girls, then They Are Gutting a Body of Water, a new-to-me band called skirts, and finally, Mojave 3.
While you could joke that the latest cultural innovation from the world’s biggest music streaming platform is basically Pandora, at least that old-guard online radio service doesn’t have a robot butting in every five songs pretending to be a real-life disc jockey. “Up next, I got some songs you’ve been keeping on repeat: Greg Freeman up first,” the fake Jernigan tells me, and sure enough, it plays songs by artists I’ve recently written about in this very newsletter like Free Range, Friendship, and Dari Bay, all in a row. When the Ai DJ said, “And now, we’re going to switch it up with an artist you loved in 2016: Twin Peaks,” I decided I had enough. It’s not that I don’t love these artists, it’s that listening to them in such an order felt like an uncanny valley facsimile of what an actual night spent curating tunes by yourself would feel like: just much worse and much more hollow. Plus, I don’t need an Ai voice to tell me how well it knows my tastes every four or five tracks. It’s one thing to sell your data for access to the world’s catalog of recorded music for $9.99 a month but it’s another thing entirely to have your data spat back at you so crudely.
Spotify’s DJ is yet another crystalization of the fact that algorithms cannot replace the human magic of discovering something great. This Ai voice is not and will never be a music community. It won’t be seeing an exciting local band play a small venue before they grow a national audience. It won’t be passing the aux cord back and forth with your buds over a few beers. Hell, it won’t even replicate checking out a song your friend with good taste posted on their Instagram Stories. The more I explored DJ, I felt increasingly unmoored by such an impersonal personalized listening experience. I kept thinking, “Who is Xavier Jernigan?” I don’t know much about him besides that he used to be P. Diddy’s personal assistant and hosted a Spotify morning show I never checked out. Was there a world where he’d be recommending Hiroki Ishiguro and Greg Freeman to me? Did it matter? It wasn’t even that guy but just a digital copy of his voice. My experience was like a really shitty version of Her where Joaquin Phoenix’s character just checks out completely from boredom.
It’s not that algorithms aren’t occasionally helpful. Despite my many obvious ethical qualms with it, I still use Spotify for its convenience, especially on a deadline when I need to rinse an artist’s entire catalog for an assignment that pays just a few hundred bucks. When I was a kid, I found out about some of my favorite bands of all time via the iTunes Similar Artists tab. But no matter how many “New Music Friday” or “Lorem” or “Road Trip Indie” algorithmically-generated playlists I check out to convince myself I’m keeping enough tabs on what’s popular as a writer, it never beats a playlist a real-life human fan could come with. It’s obvious to me that the more algorithms are used, the more homogeneous their recommendations become. Any collaborative filtering system will become a purgatorial feedback loop: if you like this, why not try this even more dumbed-down thing? It’s a race to the bottom.
As generative Ai tools and algorithms become more ubiquitous in art and music, the incentives for both the artist and the listener become warped. Musical discovery becomes automated and effortless while industry forces set limits on and stifle creativity and artistic unpredictability. (If you, an artist, want to go viral and reach an audience, why don’t you try cutting the second verse and pitch-shifting up your vocals so you can add a “(Sped Up)” parenthetical to your song title like Steve Lacy?) It’s not like these limitations don’t already exist currently in the way the music industry is set up, but it’s only going to get worse with the rise of Ai and an increasing reliance on algorithms for discovery. The convenience of gaming these systems to land on a big playlist might seem more appealing than fostering a community in your city, seeing bands grow from small gig to small gig, and collaborating in real life.
A couple of weeks ago, Bloomberg reported on a rumored shift to Spotify’s mobile: a vertically swiped homepage similar to TikTok. “Sources describe the update to me as similar to TikTok’s functionality in which, instead of selecting from a long list of carousels featuring static cover art, the interface allows listeners to swipe vertically through content recommendations that play automatically,” writers reporter Ashley Carman. The move, which Spotify has not confirmed but looks poised to unveil this month at an investor event, is supposed to appeal to Gen Z and serve as “a way to unite the platform’s various verticals—music, podcasts and audiobooks—in one place.” You can see how it probably works around the 37-minute mark of this presentation video: you open the app, you scroll to a personalized playlist, then a DJ Akademiks podcast video, and then an audiobook. It’s like Tinder but for content. Swipe down for the new Måneskin LP and swipe up for an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience. What more could young people want?
Entertainment shouldn’t be effortless. I don’t want to sound like a “just go to record stores–disconnect from the internet—reject technology” Luddite but I do think there should be some humanity and work that goes into experiencing art. If you’re watching a Netflix show, why should you watch something after like Bridgerton just because the app suggested it and autoplayed it? Wouldn’t you want to know if the show is good and worth your time? Did your favorite musical discoveries happen because they popped up on a New Music Friday playlist or did you catch them opening up for a band you like or heard about that artist from a trusted friend? The latter options seem more fulfilling to me. There’s a time and place for technology making things more convenient for people but algorithms will never be your community and can’t be more rewarding than making an effort and discovering something great. Music and art are too important to let a robot figure it out for you.
What I listened to:
The above is a banked playlist of older favorites I saved for weeks like this when I am too busy or burnt out to make a relevant-to-the-newsletter mix. Still, there are some good tunes here.
Report: Henry True, Minor Moon, and Free Range at Schubas (2/24)
I don’t have much to add here since I wrote about Free Range’s excellent new album Practice in the newsletter last week but I had such a blast at their album release show Friday. The openers included Henry True and Friend of the Substack Minor Moon (both excellent) and Sofia Jensen’s headlining set ended up with a Neil Young cover. A perfect night and a needed reprieve from stressing myself out about moving.
Villagerrr, Like Leaves
Ohio’s Villagerrr (three r’s) makes really tasteful and subdued indie rock. I’m a little late to them: I only heard about the band a couple of weeks ago through Greg Freeman, who opened up for them in Columbus before his Chicago gig. Villagerrr’s music is instantly palatable and rewarding. If you dig the tunes I recommend here in this newsletter, I bet you’ll like this. “Alone” is the early favorite. Their latest single, “barn burnerrr,” is also fantastic.
Sharp Pins, Turtle Rock
I can see myself writing more about this LP at a later date but Kai Slater of Lifeguard, Dwaal Troupe, and Hallogallo has just put out a solo LP as Sharp Pins. Matador finally announced they signed Lifeguard this past week but Slater’s album feels really fresh and exciting. These are great pop songs that sometimes feel like a bedroom-recorded Big Star or Teenage Fanclub. Check out the whole thing but “Bye Bye Basil” is an early standout.
What I watched:
King of the Hill
Listen, EO hit the Criterion Channel and Alcarràs hit Mubi this past week but I was in no emotional state to watch anything remotely challenging or sad with my impending move. Instead, I’ve been on my third King of the Hill rewatch. It’s one of the funniest and most surprisingly perceptive comedies of all-time.
Lost In America
With his directorial work in the eighties like Modern Romance and Lost In America, Albert Brooks basically pioneered how inward and neurotic comedy got over the past couple of decades. I wish I familiarized myself with his work years ago: Really funny and groundbreaking stuff.
What I read:
There’s nothing at all dystopian about a self-driving car that automatically goes to the junkyard if you are late on a payment.
“The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Goodman Theatre, and Steppenwolf Theatre say ticket sales rebounded last year from 2021, but not enough to restore their financial health, as federal dollars that got them through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic are drying up.” The piece details how sporting events are back to pre-pandemic levels but not so much for the performing arts.
Friend of the Substack Hannah Edgar has a fascinating and thoroughly reported piece on Chicago’s Athenaeum Center’s shift from storefront theater to Catholic non-profit. They report on new guidelines and a mission statement at the venue that requires content reviews and more religious programming. It’s clearly rankled some in the Chicago theater community and is a poignant and bizarre document of an outlier theater trying to get by from the pandemic.
What I wrote:
Thrilled to be writing for NASCAR to help promote their street race in Chicago this summer.
I helped feeble little horse with the bio for their new album Girl With Fish. The LP floored me and I’m rooting for these guys. They’re all incredibly kind and creative people: talking to them I was struck by how obvious their friendship is and how seriously they take their collaboration. Few bands are so lucid about what they’re trying to do and how they work so well together. Their new single “Tin Man” is a good intro to what’s to come. After seeing them in January and now getting to know these songs, I can’t wait for people to listen to this album too. Pre-order the record here.