Smart Speakers and the Commoditization of Music

For several decades, there were only two ways to listen to recorded music. You could play music you owned, or you could turn on the radio. You may have had records or cassettes, or even reel-to-reel tapes or eight-track tapes, and you were able to play them if you were at home, or perhaps in the car. But for most people, unless they had substantial music collections, music listening meant tuning into their favorite radio station and listening to what other people thought they should be listening to.

Things have changed a lot since then: we now have endless options for listening to music at home, in the car, and pretty much anywhere we go using our smartphones. The latest addition to this arsenal of music players is the smart speaker: Apple’s HomePod, Amazon’s Echo, and others. These devices are changing the way many people listen to music by providing a frictionless experience. You ask the smart speaker to play some music, and the music plays.

But this approach is also changing the music people listen to. When listening to the radio, you generally hear a limited number of songs or pieces of music, because the radio station’s program directors have decided what the station will play. With a smart speaker and a streaming music subscription, you have a nearly unlimited range of choice: 30 or 40 million tracks covering the entire history of recorded music are available with simple voice commands.

The problem with this is that you can only play the music you remember; if you don’t know the name of an album, an artist, or song, it’s not easy to get a smart speaker to play what you want. You can also only get your smart speaker to play music whose name you can pronounce; it is particularly difficult to get specific works of classical music to play on a smart speaker because of this. Some people ask the smart speaker to play a certain type of playlist, music to match a mood, or an activity; some people simply ask it to play music. In the case of Apple’s HomePod, asking it to play music and nothing more will result in it playing your personal radio station, a selection of music that you have purchased from the iTunes Store, loved on Apple Music, or played recently. This is inoffensive music; music that doesn’t suck. You generally won’t be surprised by what you hear, and it fills a void: it is background music, wallpaper music.

In the past, people used the radio for wallpaper music; they would often hear the same songs over and over, in a gradually shifting playlist that would change from week to week, interspersed with advertisements and news. And they would become familiar with much of that music. Now, with a smart speaker and a music streaming service, there are no ads, no news, no repetition, just music. Music to fill the empty space; music to fill the void.

When people listen to music like this, they lose the emotional attachment they have to that music: they are simply turning on a spigot, and as long as music comes out, and silence is kept at bay, they are satisfied. They may not recognize all the music they hear, especially if they are listening to a playlist of new songs, and they may not know who is performing that music. They may not care; if they are simply using music to fill space, does it really matter what they listen to as long as it doesn’t suck?

We have shifted our music consumption from something very personal, where we knew what we were listening to, even if we didn’t always choose it when listening to the radio, to now something where, for many people, listening to music lacks that personal connection. As music becomes commodified, it loses its value. Individual artists are no longer appreciated for their music, since most people, when listening to music in this way, will rarely hear more than one or two tracks from an artist. They will hear a style, a mood, perhaps a certain level of energy, but, in that case, does it really matter what they listen to?