Music Recommender Systems and CCR

I recently found myself, as I do more often than I should, scrolling through reddit. This thread caught my eye and confronted me with my own assumptions and biases about music listening and discovery in the age of streaming.

My first reaction was to think “Obviously someone who likes the Grateful Dead enough to be on the subreddit for the band also likes, or at least has heard of, Creedence Clearwater Revival.” While embarking upon my own CCR listening session, I reflected more on how the recommendation-driven approach of Spotify and other music streaming services has radically restructured the ways in which people discover new bands they might enjoy, even if those bands are both Bay Area rock bands founded in the 1960s.

I will date myself and add a bit of self-deprecation here by noting that I bought the CCR compilation Chronicle: The 20 Greatest Hits at a Sam Goody sometime in the late 90s, and thought I was the coolest 12 year old a few years later when they were featured in The Big Lebowski and I already knew their songs (side note: I still don’t like The Eagles through no fault of their own because of this movie). I dimly recall my mom questioning my decision to buy this CD and wondered why I didn’t want something from a more contemporary band but I was not to be deterred in my quest to discover classic rock! In the early days of the internet, music streaming did not exist and the way my friends and I would find out about new music or expand our horizons was by listening to the radio, watching MTV/VH1, raiding our parents music collections, or getting someone’s older sibling/cousin/friend to share some hitherto unknown artist.

But I digress…what this post really got me thinking about was how fundamentally different music listening and discovery is today. To be clear, I do not think that the “old” way of stumbling into a given musical artist is better than what the streamers are able to provide for modern listeners, but I do feel that these recommendation algorithms can divorce music from its cultural context. Is this artist being recommended to me because they preceded the band I am listening to right now, or because they were influenced by them? Do they share a dummer? Or does the platform just have the data to predict that I’ll enjoy them based on the habits of similar users to me?

I guess I was just so struck by someone unironically asking on an internet forum if anyone had heard of Creedence Clearwater Revival that I have thought about it more than once in the past week. It speaks to the personalization that is part and parcel of streaming platforms, but also the solo nature of music discovery as opposed to the fundamentally social processes involved in hearing about new sounds from other humans. All of this is taking place at the same time as Americans are spending more time alone as we continue to churn through these not-quite-still-a-pandemic months. This trend even rose to the attention of national media recently, perhaps reflecting a situation where a lonely redditor, fresh off of putting his nickel down to hear Willy and the Poor Boys, has no one they’d like to talk to in person about their new favorite band and so takes to the internet to ask if their fellow musical travelers have heard of Creedence. In the words of the Dude, “that’s just, like, your opinion man”.

Also, I guess I will be writing about anything on here that’s on my mind that is vaguely about technology, cultural heritage, and related topics.

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