- Dror Margalit
Why do I need to ask my Spotify what my music taste is?
Humans tend to have a sense of nostalgia. We are so prone to think that things were better in the past that we often fail to see that some things in the present are the same as they have always been and even better. Theodor Adorno is no different. In his text, "On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening," he argues that we no longer have a taste in music, and music was commodified. This sounds terrible, right? I do not think so. We need to acknowledge that we have never had a taste in music, and it has been commodified for years.
Theodor Adorno argues that the masses' taste in music no longer exists. According to him, the individual lost the freedom of choice in music, and "preference in fact depends merely on biographical details or the situation in which things are heard." But before we conclude that this is bad, let us see when it began. Since the very beginning of music creation, the environment conditioned the music and thus conditioned the listeners' taste. A couple of centuries ago, for example, a person in the Middle East could not have a French music taste. This person had no other choice but to listen to their local environment's music and have music taste offered in it. The primary change that has happened since then is that the mass media enlarged the scale in which music is distributed. Therefore, it extended the environment and accelerated the process of globalization of taste. So the lack of personal preference and freedom of choice that Adorno presents are the same as they were throughout music history, only that now they are extended to the global environment rather than the local.
The globalization of taste still does not explain Adorno's arguments on the commodification of music and the manipulations that record companies do on listeners' behavior. What is more, those things have become even more extreme today than in Adorno's time. When I am asked what my music taste is, I often reply that I need to ask my Spotify. My music taste “was taken from me” by the artificial intelligence technologies which enable music streaming services to create tailor-made playlists based on the listeners' preferences. By introducing listeners to music that they will not hear otherwise, streaming services can influence taste more precisely, with one goal in mind: gaining profit. Sounds terrible, right? Again, no.
Like the generalization of taste, music commodification has always existed and accelerated with media development. From the first time musicians started pricing their creation, a part of the relationship's goals between the musicians and the listeners turned into gaining profit. The listeners have influenced the music because they have been the musician's source of income, and the musicians have influenced the listeners' taste by shaping the conditions of their musical environment. Today's popular music musicians and listeners have the same relationship as musicians and listeners always had, scaled up to the global environment.
So yes, humans have no influence on their own taste in music, and music has been commodified. But it has always been the case. Musicians need to make a living, and being exposed to music tastes from all over the world means, well, being exposed to music tastes from all over the world. It does not sound too bad to me.
Adorno, W. Teodor. "On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening." Esthetic Theory and Cultural Criticism (p. 270-299).