There really is a tidal storm of music out there! A never-ending, algorithmically-curated musical selection that is spat out ad-nauseam especially for you, your gender, your socio-economic grouping. Perhaps I should just let it wash over me, or perhaps I should just have nice cup of tea, turn on the wireless and calm down a bit. Perhaps not.

I have a problem, but it’s not one of those problems that there’s a twelve-point program to help you get through. It’s much worse and it’s something that I think goes so deep into my make-up and psyche and is something that no matter how many bouts of group discussions, submitting to a higher-being or admitting that I am powerless to do anything about it will have any effect on.

It’s a serious problem in today’s world and I’m beginning to feel isolated and alone and that there is no one else with the same issues.

I think my problem may stem from my childhood and I’m sure if I was to lie down on a suitably well qualified head-shrink’s couch and pour out my inner-most feelings of woe and angst to them, then they could probably write a book on the subject and become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. The real problem is that there are myriad adverts on whatever media telling me my condition is wrong and that there is help out there if only I embrace THEIR brand of cure.

I say my problem started in my formative years and if I cast my mind back and look into my mind’s eye I can see myself late at night cowering under the covers of my bed and pulling the pillows around my head to drown out the loud music, the shouts and the squeals that were coming from downstairs and seeping up through the floorboards into my darkened room.

So, before you all get a bit worried for my mental wellbeing and start calling whatever helpline now exists, let me say now that I grew up in various very busy pubs in the UK where licensing laws were at the time very lax and after-hours drinking was the norm, if not encouraged given the number of off duty cops that used to be present in these bacchanalian festivities. The covers and pillows were not enough to quash the racket and so I also had a little portable radio and a flesh coloured hearing-aid type headphone – yes, just the one at that time. So, one ear would be pressed to the pillow whist the other would delight to the sounds of Radio Luxembourg or BBC Radio One and the mighty, mighty National Treasure that was John Peel. My folks loved music, but being surrounded by it in their place of work they rarely played music in the flat, though there was always a music centre in the living room. Out in the car there would always be the radio on and it would invariably be tuned to BBC 1 and, Sunday afternoon being the only time my parents really had off, it would usually be playing oldies with, the now known predatory paedophile, Jimmy Savile at the helm.

So, what’s your problem then, I hear you ask. Well, I once again succumbed and signed up for one of the online music streaming services. Peer pressure was high, the advertising was convincing and who in their right mind could resist having access to a gazillion-and-a-half albums at the swipe of a finger on a touch sensitive screen? I’m weak, I admit it, and wilfully capitulated to the multiverse of digital audio that was out there waiting to be discovered. And that, in a nutshell, is the crux of my problem.

Yes, there has always been lots of music out there to choose from and yes, there has always been more than you could ever hope to listen to in one lifetime, but back in the day we had DJs who chose what to play and we were guided by their tastes. Now we have carefully “curated” (I hate the use of that word in this context) playlists tied to algorithms that will look at what you have listened to before and select the music that you should listen to now and no doubt take into account what your age is, what your income is, what your sexual preferences are and perhaps what you had for breakfast. And I don’t like it one bit. Not at all. Not a smidge. There’s just too much to choose from and before you have had a chance to consume the latest offering from your virtual DJ there’s a million and one other records that you really must hear.

For a start there are just not enough hours in the day to consume the volume of new music these services are thrusting down your ear canal and for every good record I’ve so far come across there has been a dozen or more suggestions following in its wake that have been derivative and, for want of a better word, shit (perhaps “not to my taste would have been a better use of words). I don’t want my music to be chosen, or even suggested by a clever program that has analysed my listening habits and come up with an exquisitely curated (grrrrrr) selection for me to choose from.

I’m very happily married, but I have heard the youth talk of dating apps where they swipe away a potential partner for the evening without first having got to know a little more about them. Eventually you may well come up with the astutely curated (double grrrr) soul mate you had been yearning for all your life, but chances are you are going to end up with a blister on your finger (and not in a good way) and a yearning for someone a little more meaningful to happen your way. The algorithm may well think it has you sussed and knows your preferences, but life is not based on a strict set of pre-determined likes and dislikes and, like it or not, to my old-fashioned way of thinking at least, this is not the way to fall in love. And nor is an algorithm an ideal way for your music to be chosen for you.

Getting back to John Peel (I promise not to mention Savile ever again in my writings) and his choice of tunes. Yes, there was some dross and yes there were some that had you the option you would have swiped away, but you knew his basic taste and you knew that he searched out and listened to plethora of new music and new bands without the requirement of trying to cater to your tastes. (I’m also sure a lot of the music on these streaming services is listened to by machines trying to pick up similarities in style etc). Note this well because I think this is pretty important: the algorithms pander to your predetermined and digitally determined tastes, whereas John Peel played what he wanted, sometimes good, sometimes “meh” and sometimes brilliant, but in the end you had to lie there in your unlit room with your single earphone and listen to it all. Some tunes would be growers and you’d get to hear them again and go out and buy the single or the album, some you just couldn’t live without after that first taste and it would be in your collection as soon as you’d saved the requisite pennies and some would fall by the wayside…a lot like old fashioned dating only without the financial transaction.

Reading this you may think that I don’t get on with the online streaming services, and you would be right. They are too clinical and don’t have soul. They have too much choice and too much plagiarist copycat music. John Peel and DJs like him were matchmakers in the truest sense of the word. You found your matchmaker of choice and they showed you a small selection of what was available. Some of their matches would work and some would not, but they thought about what they put in front of their audience and they cared, in a human sense, about the music they were offering up and were passionate about you embracing their choices – I just don’t get that with the current slew of streaming services. There is a Dead Kennedys’ record called Give Me convenience Or Give Me Death and I think that title is pretty apt in this discussion – yes, we have the convenience to swipe and yes we have a huge amount of music at our fingertips, but that convenience breeds contempt and a disrespect for the music and it devalues it to a one off aural fling…at best.

So, my problem persists and it seems that modern solutions are not helping in any way. Perhaps I’m past it and just don’t have the mental dexterity to juggle the never-ending onslaught of new music that is being shoved my way, and perhaps I’m being a tad luddite in my harking back to a time when DJs and not machines suggested and directed my musical tastes. Perhaps I ought to start exploring real radio and the DJs that follow in the footsteps of the likes of John Peel (I hear BBC Radio 6 is rather good and free) and liberate myself from this endless blitzkrieg of stuff I really should like but in the real world simply don’t.

Stuart Smith

Originally published in Hifi Pig Magazine. Read the latest edition and catch up with free back issues here. 

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