Listeners have generally been suspicious of radio playlists. They represent the most obvious and perhaps the most extreme example of gatekeeping within the music industries. Although they now pool diverse sources of data, the general practice has remained the same: a small committee of radio employees is responsible for choosing the entire output of the station. Music is prioritised and sorted. In many cases it is consigned to oblivion. And this is not necessarily due to its quality. The committee is susceptible to gimmicks and bribes.
We now have streaming playlists too. These rely on even more data than the radio playlists. They are also more numerous. A radio station might only have a limited number of records on rotation. The streaming playlists cover a wider of amount of music by genre and by mood. Some of these playlists are based primarily on algorithms. Spotify’s ‘discover’ playlists, for example, are determined by music you have previously listened to. These streaming playlists do still have much in common with radio playlists, however. Ultimately, it is down to a committee, or even an individual, to make decisions about inclusion.
And yet many people look upon streaming playlists more favourably. It feels as though they cater for personal needs. Radio station playlists, in contrast, often feel as though they are designed for an idealised and stupefied consumer. This consumer, as with all idealised individuals, bears no resemblance to anyone who actually exists.
I prefer radio playlists, however. And this is because they engender suspicion. The listener knows that their taste is being prescribed. This process works in much the same way as canonisation. The radio listener is subjected to a body of works, which is presented as the dominant culture in the field. When it comes to the canon, it is good to have knowledge of what a self-appointed elite has determined as the best that has been thought and said. And if you are a popular music fan, it is good to know the records that have been picked and promoted to be the most commercially successful. At the same time, however, this prescription gives you something to kick against. It encourages you to search for alternatives. It also encourages people to produce alternatives.
Streaming playlists work differently. They are an example of the internet’s tendency to produce echo chambers. These playlists are designed for a ‘you liked this, now try this’ culture. The digital realm has been criticized on this basis precisely because it streams. People only encounter media that chimes with their own views. They only come across art that reflects their pre-established tastes. These listeners don’t get to hear a central canon of works and nor do they get to hear anything that challenges their algorithmic self.
Streaming playlists are hugely popular. They are driving the successes of Spotify and they have provided stiff competition for pop radio. This is changing the musical landscape. The consequences are not necessarily good for either the mainstream or the underground. As streaming has risen to prominence the singles charts have become moribund. They are moving very slowly and there is little public awareness of what they contain. Although there is undoubtedly a lot of commercial music being made, there is no dominant pop culture. As such, there is no rallying point for musical rebels to gather around. They don’t know what to be alternative about because they don’t know what they are alternative to.