‘Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice.’ Boris Yeltsin’s wide-eyed visit to a Texas supermarket in 1989 is infamous – it was rumoured to be the moment he realised communism was finished. How could any other system, he wondered, compete with all this choice?
But it’s a consequent question that’s been troubling the music industry of late: How much choice is too much? With tens of thousands of new songs uploaded to streaming services every day, multiple industry stakeholders are starting to wonder who benefits.
For labels, quality product can get subsumed by a glut of inferior mulch. The same applies for artists, many of whom already see the economics of streaming unfavourably. Streaming services themselves want to generate a perception of a high-end offering, and there’s a fine line to tread between completeness and dross. Also, they’ve begun to worry about the costs of storing all this stuff.
And then there are the consumers – the fans – among whom a small but growing movement is kicking back against endless choice. If you can have any record you want at the tap of a finger, are you really going to value any given one, they ask? As most of us know, the best music can sound so new as to be alien on first listen. Music can take time and effort to truly fall in love with.
In my novel The Edge, the protagonist, a music industry exec., considers this question: ‘The albums Adam had to dig out of record stores, had made the dread decision over which to select, to spend his meagre pocket money on, had dared to carry to the counter under the cold stare of pale young men riddled with obscure knowledge, had taken home and studied – often recoiled from – had worked to understand and often to love, had haunted and electrified and terrified him, were now torn up in a digital frenzy of recycling, before everyone moved on to the next thing.’
For more than a decade now, the combination of cheap, easily obtainable music-making software and easy-access digital distribution has threatened to over-democratise music. There are more uncomfortable questions here. How much democracy is a good thing, exactly, when it comes to culture? If anyone can get their music into the marketplace, what happens to quality? Removing the gatekeepers and smashing the cultural pyramid might sound fun, but it turns out that labels and other filters of music – writers, radio programmers, human play-listers – might just have something to offer.
Amazon Music recently announced its offering had reached 100 million songs, but artists fear that streaming only rewards a tiny elite of superstars. This isn’t quite true, as I’ve argued here before, but there is evidence that too much choice is becoming overwhelming, driving fans to stick with the tried and tested.
I’ve also written previously about the emergent power of TikTok to break music. Tik Tok is itself, in some ways, an example of what a completely democratised television might look like (ironic, given the very undemocratic regime it operates under.) As a fag-end-of-Gen-Xer, I’d prefer the curators to come back into the room – but that horse, for now, has bolted.
Still, those questions remain. How much democracy is a good thing, exactly? And how much choice is too much?
Jamie Collinson has worked in the music industry for twenty years. He’s lived in London and Los Angeles, and has written journalism for The Guardian Online, The Spectator, Caught by the River and many music magazines. His debut novel, The Edge, is published by Oneworld.