Updated: May 6, 2019
Written by Stephanie Parker
The airwaves have been controlled by record labels for as long as there have been music charts. Even the famed disc jockey, Dick Clark, was once embroiled in a payola scandal. Following the rise in public awareness of chart manipulations, people have largely understood the charts to be an indication of the artists that record labels want the public to like. Oftentimes these musicians are good; they're entertaining and charismatic. Those with the winning combination of record label backing, attractiveness, and musical talent have enjoyed long careers topping the charts.
The rise of music streaming was supposed to put the power of payola in the hands of the people. Independent artists and musicians on indie labels were told they would gain prominence through the democratic process of discovery and sharing. Eventually the gains made on streaming platforms were supposed to catapult these musicians to national radio play and success. Spotify loves to champion the story of Major Lazer and his summer smash “Lean On,” which became the most streamed song on Spotify in 2015. Democratically chosen by the people, the song first took over listeners earbuds before transitioning to the radio airwaves. However, there are many cracks in the egalitarian streaming narrative. It’s been well documented that top record labels have formed deals with the major streaming platforms in order to have their music placed in prominent positions on top playlists. Unsigned artists have bemoaned the musician payment structures and the lack of promotion for their new releases.
"Think about the great pains taken by artists to create music that feeds the algorithm"
Some artists have embraced the issues with streaming and created albums that take advantage of the algorithm by increasing listening time. The Migos most recent release, Culture II, did just that. Clocking in at nearly two hours (1hr 45m) with a dizzying 24 tracks, listening to the album is feat of endurance. Even the Migos seem to get bored of themselves. To finish the album is to forget that one had even begun listening. However long and repetitive Culture II is, it proves the Migos’ business acumen. They created a playlist– pardon– an album that takes advantage of the common music listener. One who is a passive participant, a mood surfer, a culture vulture.
Though the charts are no longer being swayed by twenties slipped into a record sleeve, they are still controlled by forces other than the listeners themselves. The algorithms, the record labels, and top artists have control over what we hear and how frequently we hear it. So the next time you tap on one of Apple Music’s curated playlists, think about the great pains taken by artists to create music that feeds the algorithm. Applaud them. Then, consider digging up some tunes by an artist that makes music for the joy of it.