The Music Streaming Dilemma

I just finished watching The Social Dilemma and it rocked me to my core. It is a documentary about societal problems and how they are exacerbated by social media: childhood depression, suicide, political polarization, radicalization, etc.

The film is told from the perspective of Silicon Valley tech insiders who had helped to design and develop services like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. It also uses dramatic re-enactments to personify how a recommender system algorithm is designed to capture a user’s attention with sophisticated machine learning techniques not unlike the ones that I teach in some of my courses. 

These recommender systems have been trained on enormous amounts of personal data that is being collected while users engage with these addictive services. What The Social Dilemma points out is that these “free” services produce terrible externalities and face almost no regulations. They are being used both by advertisers and political actors to influence their users in often harmful ways without the users even knowing it.

Another Tech Dilemma: Commercial Bias

When it comes to media recommendations (i.e., movies, TV shows, music), there is a less detrimental, but still significant, problem caused by commercial bias. The problem is the record labels pay streaming music services (e.g., Spotify, Apple Music) to surface the songs by their artists on high-traffic playlists and through personalized recommendations.  

As a result, users become unfairly exposed to specific songs, and due to the mere exposure effect, they will tend to prefer these more familiar “sponsored songs” over time.  This, in turn, prevents other talented artists from being discovered as they might in a more fair marketplace.

While this is not illegal, I would argue that it is unethical because

  • users are often unaware they are being fed “sponsored songs” instead of high-quality recommendations, and
  • it creates a “pay to play” barrier for many artists.

Together, these two problems combine to potentially create a homogenous music landscape in which a few wealthy record labels can dictate music tastes to large groups of users through the control of a small number of music streaming platforms.

A failed promise to “Democratize the Music Industry”

When I was starting out my academic career in music technology as an undergrad in the late 90s, there was a grand vision for a “Celestial Jukebox”. This service and/or device would give listeners instant access to any song anywhere anytime. The path started with peer-to-peer sharing on Napster then moved on to the Apple iTunes store, and finally reached the end game with music streaming apps like Spotify that are now installed on millions of smartphones.

The realization of this Celestial Jukebox along with the availability of inexpensive music recording software has been long thought to lead to the democratization of the music industry (Huffpost 2008.) However, having music be accessible, and having music be surfaced are two very different things. Music streaming services are the modern-day equivalent to radio DJs but unlike terrestrial radio, there are no laws that prevent streaming services from creating a pay-to-play marketplace.    

I have many friends, colleagues, and former students working for the big music streaming services. They are good people who love music and want to support artists. But as I watched The Social Dilemma, I was struck by the refrain from many designers and software developers: They all start out with beautiful ideas and the best of intentions but lament their creations once a greedy business model and the need to satisfy investors takes over. They feel a sense of guilt once their runaway social media companies lose their way and inflict harm on their users. Sadly, I believe that this may also be the case for many of the music streaming services as well.

Do big music streaming services support local musicians or their investors? as a Humane Technology

Tristan Harris was one of the central voices featured in the Social Dilemma. He spent years working on various Google products before becoming disillusioned and starting the Center for Humane Technology. The center’s main goal is to educate people about the potential evils of social media. As a parent, technologist, and concerned citizen, I think this is a noble cause that we need now more than ever.

For the past few years, my students and I have been developing a locally-focused music recommendation system called The idea is to connect a listener’s favorite artists on Spotify with talented local artists through automatic playlist generation and live event recommendation. The idea that exposure to a local artist on Spotify will lead to interest in attending a recommended show, and ultimately supporting the local artist over a longer period of time.  

My hope is that can serve as an example of humane technology. Our goal is to use music recommendation to lift up local music communities by surfacing music from hard-working artists. These artists might live in the community or come to town to share their musical talents through live shows.

Developing local music communities, in turn, helps to financially sustain both artists and small businesses (e.g., venues, recording studios.) It gets people out into the parks and bars and clubs to socialize and to dance. And speaking from personal experience, it motivates kids to learn to play music and to find friends to play music with.

As discussed in the documentary, we vote with our clicks so by choosing to stream local music is a way to show support for your local community.