Vibe Capitalism

I’m sharing these as I enjoy Robin James’ writing:

No Genre, Just Vibes (full text here v2 No Genre, Just Vibes Talk - Google Docs)

What stood out for me though was a chain of thought that led through vibes focused spotify playlists, to avidity. Some key points in that line of thought:

Moving from pop culture to the C-suite, here’s a very top-down push from Spotify and Apple Music to represent vibe as somehow more progressive than genre. For example, the description for Apple Music’s “Vibes” playlist reads “the most exciting sound right now isn’t found within the boundaries of traditional genres.” This description suggests that today’s best and most interesting music transcends the bounds of genre. John Stein, the project lead on Spotify’s flagship genre-less playlist POLLEN similarly describes today’s ideal listener as having surpassed genre’s limits and baggage

Using the language of vibe and alignment to describe her curatorial strategy for LOREM, Szabo connects her–and Spotify’s–understanding of genre-less listening to the broader pop culture discourse of vibes, specifically insofar as vibes surpass or evolve beyond Modernist investments in things like universality or what Complex’s Jacob Moore calls “rigid rules around genre.” So, prominently on Spotify but increasingly suffused throughout pop culture, there’s this idea that vibes are a superior aesthetic category to more traditionally modernist ones because vibes aren’t burdened by the politically problematic features for which things like genre or subjectively universal beauty are notorious (i.e., Eurocentrism, identity politics, etc.).

This is a very self-conscious move on Spotify’s part. Speaking to Complex’s McKinney, POLLEN project lead John Stine describes the audience’s vibe as “having diverse taste…openness and eagerness to find different things from different spaces.” This vibe-focused playlist is designed to appeal to listeners who think of themselves as having moved beyond genre’s old-fashioned provincialism (e.g., its association with racial difference). You might say Stine’s framing here has very “In This House We Believe….” vibes, i.e., it speaks to a neoliberal centrism focused on exclusion through nominal inclusion, wherein adherence to rigid identity-based boundaries is a sign of cultural backwardness (think Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” here).

The bit that really interested me though was:

While it is true that musical genre has plenty of identity-laden baggage, vibes don’t overcome genre’s racist, sexist, and classist functions so much as naturalize them behind the apparently identity-neutral language of orientation. Vibes are translations of what anthropologist Nick Seaver calls “the ‘postdemographic’ ideology of algorithmic recommendation” (16) into qualitative musical terms. In his fieldwork studying the engineers who built and maintained the recommendation algorithms behind several popular music streaming platforms, Seaver found that they are deeply invested in systems that categorize users by their orientation to listening rather than the demographic and identity based systems of traditional radio formats and musical genres. He explains, “people who work on these systems are generally reluctant to recognize demographic categories as technically salient,” categorizing users instead “primarily in terms of musical enthusiasm, or avidity.

I hadn’t come across avidity before and it is described as:

Avidity manifests as an interest in musical exploration or a willingness to expend effort in pursuit of new music” (3). Or, as Szabo put it, “My passion is discovery.” From this perspective, people’s listening preferences have less to do with identity and more to do with their orientation to listening. And an “avid” orientation is not exactly omnivorousness (liking both highbrow and lowbrow genres), and is more accurately thought of as the active proclivity to finding more new and less of the same. And this is the same horizon programmers at the major music streaming services attribute to themselves as listeners. And because POLLEN is Spotify’s flagship genreless playlist, it’s clear that the people behind the scenes at Spotify view this vibe as superior to others.

So, avidity seems to strongly map to what, here at Resonate, has been categorised as an ‘explorer’ listener type.

I don’t wish to devalue the necessity of trying to communicate how a listeners credits will likely be spent but I do feel that a bit of critical background to this category of listening is also of value here:

As this underlying elitism hints at, though the discourse of avidity doesn’t use explicit references to “demographic” (which is generally used in a Gaussian way anyway!) social identities, it nevertheless reinforces updated versions of those same systems of oppression that created these identities. As Seaver explains, “when they displace demography with avidity, developers are…claiming elite cultural status for themselves – figuring themselves as ‘cool’ cultural intermediaries, unlike the prototypical user” (15), who is commonly figured as “teenage girls who wanted to hear the same pop music on repeat” (9). The choice of foil here is notable: from at least the mid twentieth century onwards, the abjection of (implicitly white) teen girls has served to cohere claims to pop music greatness–just think about how much hate is spewed on fans of boy bands like Backstreet Boys, One Direction, solo artists like Justin Bieber or Harry Styles, or even, back in the day, Britney Spears. Rockism–the idea that music made by and for white men is inherently superior to music associated with less privileged groups, especially pop–is perhaps the most famous example of such abjection. The (mis)perception of teen girl listeners as having insufficiently flexible, adaptable, and ready-for-anything tastes Seaver identifies among his research subjects is one new iteration in Western culture’s longstanding habit of defining “good” music as whatever is the opposite of what teenage girls purportedly listen to.

So yeah, maybe food for thought about the explorer listener type, avidity, and the relationship to the algorithmic, speculative-vector-math-horizon forms of capitalism within which we find ourselves.

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Thanks for sharing the article. This stimulation of vibes-oriented consumption and avid musical exploration makes perfect sense in our times where surface hyper-individualization and short attention spans created by constant content overload became important raw materials for marketing strategies.

Mass curators and algorithms aggregating an ever-changing ever-the-same flow of sound for an audience that companies assume is glad to give up communal sharing and the comforts of genre in exchange for the complete freedom to be spoon fed novelty and uniqueness.

All this reminds me of Adam Curtis’ information-age capitalism critique, mostly along the lines of this quote by him:

In our age of individualism, we see computers as ways through which we can express our individuality. But the truth is that the computers are really good at spotting the very opposite. The computers can see how similar we are, and they then have the ability to agglomerate us together into groups that have the same behaviours.

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This Adam Curtis quote is really echoing this Damon Krukowski blogpost

Particuarly this part

“Strange,” evidently, fit that role better than any other Galaxie 500 song. Or you might say: “Strange” resembles songs by other bands more than any other Galaxie 500 song. Twice as much as any of our other tracks. Ten times more than some. The algorithm would seem to have identified “Strange” as our least peculiar song – the one most likely to sound like whatever else you had played.

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