Why blame our own self-existence problems to the expansion of technology in music consumption?

By Syahzanan H.F. (Nan), with her mind and soul. |

Disclaimer: This is a response to ‘Spotify dan Betapa Narsisnya Kita’. This article offers another perspective on the relation between music digitalization and our narcissism. After all, we are all just starting the new era of nostalgic moments for the new generation.

Last month, I read an interesting feature, titled ‘Spotify dan Betapa Narsisnya Kita’ (Spotify and How We Show Our Narcissism) written by one of my university lecturers who is also a senior music journalist, Pak Idhar Resmadi. He stated that nowadays, online streaming services have limited ourselves to enjoy music from conventional media such as vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs alongside radio and TV broadcast. 

As Pak Idhar mentioned, the root on his statement regarding this issue is that either Spotify or Apple Music are considered to limit an individual’s chance of digging other music genres or other works from any musicians that were not suggested by Spotify or Apple Music algorithms of certain users.

Another skeptical argument about the online music streaming service that Pak Idhar had explained was how he felt there are no more sense of unity of music, graphic design of the album and the lyrics that unite them all in the name of music product, like most old physical albums have proven themselves. But actually, most Indonesian independent musicians releasing their songs into digital platforms are still paying attention to details of their cover album artwork, without any significant difference from musicians who came before them. On online music streaming service, users can still see the graphic cover from the song that they played. In addition to that, it’s not the memorabilia aspect of the physical album that’s dying; it’s the form that’s changing. Musicians have been using other forms of media to support their album, especially through music videos, music video teasers, and campaigns through social media. The album cover is not left behind, however; to share a musician’s song on social media, the most obvious feature displayed of it is its cover. 

Of course, to attract new people to listen to the music of certain musicians, the visually attractive album art suiting the album’s musical concept is still an important element that any musician and label should be aware of. The idea of the visual concept as one of an important element in music production in this digital era has been explained by two bands we interviewed on Sound Check, Vol. 3 and Vol. 4, Rebelsuns and Lightcraft. These two bands has differing music genres with their own style of storytelling; Rebelsuns has a strong visual concept of 80s comic strips on their latest single, applied not only on their graphic cover of the song or album but also on their latest lyrics music video, and meanwhile, Lightcraft has a visual concept of their latest album applied on their merchandise such as t-shirts and tote bags.

Another disagreement from me is regarding the statement of the effect of online streaming service, which Pak Idhar argued has changed the purpose of music to merely just a creation of space ambiance. I think the culture of small gigs since the 90s in Jakarta cafés might be one of the historical reasons why a few small to medium-sized cafés today are still playing background music to support their café ambiance. There are also a lot of cafés using a live band to fulfill those needs. The music itself has been one of the most important elements in creating a certain mood for places like restaurants, cafés and pubs since the 1920s, especially with jazz music being favored at that time. Later, with the mass process of music production in 1980-1990 through vinyl and cassette, many of those places choose to play songs from a few musicians who were popular and had most sales of their vinyl or cassette, because it was actually more efficient than having to pay a live band. 

In the 2000s, CDs and MP3 Players – in legal form or even pirate versions – had been frequently used by Indonesian people. The business owner of restaurants, cafés, and pubs also had more of a realization to add music as one of their values with more efficient cost by playing music through CD or MP3 player. Today, online music streaming services are actually helping musicians reclaim their works that has been digitally pirated by irresponsible people who were not aware of the importance of this issue. Even though Spotify only gives a royalty of 8 rupiah per play – as what had been said on Pak Idhar’s article – this online music streaming service has been responsible enough in doing their business by paying any musician rights, compared to restaurant, café or pub owners playing pirate version in their venues. Of course, if we are talking about fair ethics, are we all as Indonesians capable enough economically – including small to medium business owners – to pay a royalty of every song played on our business places, whether we are playing it on a computer or with a live band?

Furthermore, Pak Idhar also said there is a principal change on music production with the rise of streaming services, such as short intros and catchy choruses turning into an important formula in making a song today. Actually, this formula has been used since the 1980s by some pop stars selling their album in physical forms like Michael Jackson and Madonna. The chorus of Madonna’s ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ had repetitive phrases similar to its title. Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ intro also had that formula, mixing those catchy lyrics and chords with the music video. Meanwhile, Indonesia also had pop stars who used this kind of formula like 80s pop divas Vina Panduwinata and Christine Panjaitan. Both of those Indonesian remarkable divas’ songs were influenced by 80s electro-pop and glam rock with themes of a typical love story in its repeated chorus lyrics.

The 2000s era has become some sort of a turning point for Indonesian pop music alongside with the American pop music scene—which still becomes a reference for the global music industry. At that time, American pop star idols such as Britney Spears alongside with pop-punk bands such as Green Day has become cornerstones to Indonesian musicians. In the meantime, the Indonesian music industry was also developing from themes of hopeless romanticism in the 80s into more sentimental sounds from few bands of the Malay pop genre

As I have stated before, the simplification of technical matters are not simply started in the digital generation. Hence, it has been present since music itself has become a commodity of expressing identity. The digital platform is only responsible for making it more massive in seconds, not exactly creating a new pattern. Moreover, there are also plenty of musicians who are paying attention to sound art but also not being pessimistic about the digitalization of music through online streaming service. For example, Eliane Radigue, whose work has embraced sound art through Spotify with 14 minutes long of the shortest song duration.

Music Selection and The Shifting Medium

Honestly speaking, Pak Idhar also had a paradoxical statement about information flow, in which he said: “Before the digital era, we have been filled up with information, but today we can choose which media alongside with information we want and relevant to us.” (“Jika dulu informasi menjejali kita, maka saat ini kita bisa memilih media dan informasi yang relevan sesuai yang kita inginkan.”). When in fact, even before the digital era, we already have our own will to choose which information is relevant to what we want to know, despite through a more difficult medium and time than today. For example, we can get information about the history of punk rock in the pre-digital era through painstakingly searching at various overseas book stores. Of course, at that time, any pieces of information and knowledge about music and any other things has become an expensive privilege for some people. Meanwhile, today, with IDR 25,000 you can buy internet data which already has access to any information or knowledge that you want to seek.

Then, the problem that comes after is that when these outright information comes to us in various ways, it is also easier for us to approach with our devices. Thus, this will shove us any pieces of information that we don’t even want to know more rapidly. 

In the field of music journalism itself, Pak Idhar argues that the role of media that reviews about the music industry is more overt in the pre-digital era—because to enjoy music repeatedly, you have to buy the physical album, and therefore, album reviews from certain journalists have a crucial role in the process of decision making to buy the physical album. However, today in the digital era, reviews about the music industry in media are still relevant, because not everyone has time to explore certain songs that does not appear on top charts.

Moreover, if we are talking about exploring music, those kind of activity is actually more easy to do in the digital era. Because today, music has become more inclusive. Well, at least any kind of music genre could be easily enjoyed with the help of devices, software applications, and the internet. It was different from the previous era where you had to bet on an opportunity cost whenever you’re buying a physical album from a musician that you had not heard of yet. And when the album you bought did not come near your expectation, you might feel disappointed and become reluctant to dig other unpopular albums. This kind of absence of music discovery in the pre-digital era has been reduced in the digital era. Therefore, you do not have to lose a certain amount of money or time in order to discover new music that suit your taste.

I think a person’s desire to search for songs from unpopular musicians is not a new thing from the development of technology in listening to music. Because, even in the pre-digital era, if a person did not have a certain will to search for records or CDs from any musicians that did not appear in MTV charts, of course, that particular person has been closing her/himself from the process of album seeking. In the digital era, online music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music balances out the power created by historically-significant popular music charts. Through online streaming service, the barrier between the distribution of mainstream and sidestream music has turned to almost equal. 

The obstacle between mainstream and sidestream music has become some sort of pride within its listeners who sometimes flatter themselves into self-arrogance in which artist that is ‘cooler’’ according to numbers of listeners or how they distribute their music.

As for example, the culture of rock has been built in producing and distributing their own songs, then sending it into record labels or even making their own D.I.Y record label. Meanwhile, Asian pop music that has risen in the last decade chose to be managed by a few companies to produce and distribute their songs; they also have their own music producers and trained singers. This has become a clash within its listeners in order to stay popular. Nowadays, because the compulsion of digital media, a few listeners of rock music has opened up themselves to another genre, even songs with lyrics in another language, simply because they are just curious on how a certain genre can be popular in the mainstream. This phenomenon also happened another way around when Asian artists who cannot pass to be trained singers or in-house music producers were using rock music culture in distributing their own songs through D.I.Y record label though mostly were new wave or dance-pop genre.

So, as I have stated before, the problem that lies within exploring unpopular songs or music genres are not because of the algorithm of music streaming service that only offers us certain songs, but our actual desire to explore other music genres. On the pre-digital era, if a person did not have those desire to explore vinyl or CD of other musicians than albums in the top charts, he/she also did not have a better understanding of broader music genres. Even a person who is usually exploring one genre of music may not have any desire to explore any other various music genres.

Next, talking about the pirating culture in the music industry, it thrived from doing re-recordings of certain favorite songs from different musicians and bringing it together in one self-recorded media that usually been called a mixtape. The demand for selecting a few songs that hasthe  same harmony or storytelling has increased in the 90s, thus, creating a market for people to enjoy mixtape with the pirated version of the songs. Besides, at that time, there was an economic depression in Indonesia which leads to people minimizing their own expenditure by buying pirated album versions cheaper than the original album.

In 1990, the Walkman had a crucial impact for said generation in listening to music. Alongside the popularity of the mixtape, there was also playlists containing list of songs for several occasions or simply just a list of songs to accompany your urban daily activities. Playlists then became such a common thing through the Walkman and the radio that still had plenty of listeners at that time.

The change into the digital era does not carry a difference whether or not a certain playlist is made merely as a supporting product for another event, reducing music into a secondary purpose. The only divergence is the medium that has shifted from cassette or CD into online streaming service software applications. This ease in creating playlists has led creators to become more creative than their predecessors. In today’s digital era, you can find playlist that has bizarre names that would not ever exist before, such as ‘Grocery Store with Dad’ or ‘Grandpa Couch’—or even something only fellow Indonesian would understand like ‘Dicariin Emak di Warnet’. Eventually, this phenomenon is fascinating for people who were born in digital era because from the unpredictable playlist title comes curiosity and nostalgic feelings to certain memories.

Talking about individual music selection in this digital era, we can easily share songs that we are currently listening to or even any songs that we like to our social media. This circumstance is a shifting form of communication in discussing musicians’ works from an actual conversation into a text dialogue on your social media. Even though you can do an actual conversation regarding these online released songs, but of course there is also nothing wrong with sharing your thoughts about those songs on your social media.

Regarding the prejudice towards people who shared songs into their social media only to be accepted by certain circle, I think this reality is a normal thing that we need to endure. Even snobbish people who are trying to know everything have already existed even before the digital era. Besides, ain’t sharing our song preferences are nice thing to do when you have friends who also like to explore any music genres? So, then, we can inform each other about songs outside our comfort genres. Also, is separating your friendship according to what music you are listening to still an appropriate thing to do? Do you still think that you are way cooler than other people because you are listening to a certain music genre?

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