Back in the day, when you wanted to listen to some music, you’d go through your record collection – LPs or CDs – and look for something you might like to hear. Perhaps you had a hankering for a specific album, and you just needed to find it (assuming you hadn’t alphabetized your collection). Or there was a record you wanted to hear, but you couldn’t remember exactly what it was (if you had a really big collection), and needed your memory jogged by the album cover. “The white one,” perhaps, or “the one with the car.”
You can sort of do that today with a digital music library. You can search by artist, album, or track, or you can “flip through” your albums, seeing what you have, identifying music by its artwork.
But if you use a digital assistant to ask for music – Siri, Alexa, etc. – you don’t have that option. For example, I just asked Siri on my iPhone, “What’s the Beatles album with the white cover?” The response:
The human brain can only remember so much. One of the reason that phone numbers are seven digits long – or seven digits plus an area code – is because the brain can’t really remember longer random elements. Try remembering a 10-digit number; unless you use it regularly, you won’t be able to. Splitting numbers into groups – such as xxx-xxx-xxxx – makes them easier to remember, but for most people, memory has very strict limits.
You can remember your favorite songs and albums, but your brain can only hold a limited number of them. If I were to ask you to name, say, ten of your favorite songs, you’d be able to do that pretty quickly. But if I asked you for a list of 50 songs or albums, that would be a lot more difficult.
When you ask a voice assistant to play music, you won’t be able to flip through a virtual record collection to find something to listen to. You’ll be able to easily likely ask for something recent and popular, or something that you’ve listened to recently. But you won’t be able to ask it to play that record by the Rolling Stones, you know, the one with the zipper, that a friend played recently, because you don’t know its name. You won’t be able to request a record that someone gave you for Christmas when you were in college, because, again, you’re not sure of what it’s called. And forget about trying to get a voice assistant to play a specific version of a classical recording… So how will you request music? You’ll ask for the handful of songs or albums you can remember, or you’ll ask to hear music by a specific artist.
Many people listen to streaming music in playlists, and if you do this, you’ll remember their names; this is why record labels are targeting playlists as a way of getting streams. However, the kinds of playlists you’ll ask for are most likely dynamic playlists that change as new music comes out and as older tunes become less popular.
But the rest of the music you’ve heard all your life, the stuff you may have owned on record, will you ever think to ask to hear those albums? Probably not. And the longer you go without hearing them, the further they’ll be from your memory. You can certainly listen to genre- or decade-based radio stations to jog that memory from time to time, but you won’t have a record collection to search as in the past.
The more we use voice assistants to request music, the narrower music will become. We’ll essentially be listening to radio again, and, since most people don’t buy any music at all any more, we won’t have our own purchases to browse when we want something specific. And since streams will be concentrated among a smaller number of tracks and albums, the rest of the artists won’t get much play, and won’t get much money. This will lead to less new music being made, and we’ll be the poorer for it.