Miscellaneous Music Education

The Walkman Effect and the Current State of Music

In his article “The Walkman Effect,” researcher and musicologist Shūhei Hosokawa outlines the innovation and the inner and outer effects of the new listening device. He claims that the Walkman was the beginning of the personalizable listening experience that created the personal autonomy of choice. 

Rather than alienation from the world, the Walkman was solid as a sort of self-enclosure for people. To Hosokawa, the Walkman represents a symbiotic self that affects the transformation of the outer urban environment and the inner environment as both a strategy and device.

Music is generally both public and involved with noise, including street musicians, the cacophony of cars and construction, portable speakers and open car windows. But the Walkman is private. Walkman owners listen to music in a hidden mental sphere, removed from outer sounds. The Walkman is not a technological revolution, but a social one.

Suddenly, music is able to be confined in a compact and portable space, a mobile event, an autonomy that Hosokawa identifies as not alienating but self-unifying. The singularity and the autonomy that the Walkman allows are realized by its miniaturization. 

Also, instead of being a part of an environment that contributes to the musical noise, a person noticeably creates their own inner environment that removes a key confrontation between human and world. The Walkman allows the listener to move into an autonomously made version of reality while simultaneously not encouraging a narcissistic regression of the self. 

Moreover, listening is now overlapped with other various acts. With walking, eating, drinking, playing, skating, and running. Music is no longer restricted to exclusive points in time. The Walkman listener outwardly conveys, still, that this is not their removal from society, but their inner secret, their own personal realm in which music is merged with them through their movement and decision-making. 

The effects Hosokawa recognized in the Walkman have only intensified with the birth of the smartphone. However, it’s not predominantly CDs and tapes being played, but streaming services that are even more personalizable. Companies such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and Pandora offer users the ability to create aestheticized collections of music just for themselves. 

Now, I want to clarify that this is not fully negative. The progression of the easy-accessibility of music with the advent of the internet is, on one hand, great. People are able to discover music they might have never had access to before from both the past and present. There is the ability to customize and grow your own taste according to whatever you desire. Communities grown around certain types of music appear online, sometimes offering spaces for young people, particularly, to share their interests and talk across states, countries, and time zones. 

My dad often talks about how impossible it was to access certain music when he was growing up. You had to find a CD or record in a store. There was less niche access to growing artists, who had to be picked up by a label and distributed and played on the radio. The radio has been almost wholly shut-out as a vehicle for musical discovery. I know I am lucky to live in this age where I can rabbit-hole from one artist to the next, building my knowledge and repertoire, enjoying a whole host of things my dad didn’t have access to. 

In the same vein, it’s more possible than ever for young people to find success as musical artists. Take the emergence of bedroom pop in early 2017, where artists like Clairo and Steve Lacy made music in their homes with simple equipment, only to become worldwide sensations.

However, with all good things come side effects. A negative side effect of readily-available music is more capitalist marketability. Spotify’s algorithm is notorious for pushing certain songs to listeners and promoting particular artists. There are also cleverly disguised sponsored albums and artists promoted on the app. 

In the case of Spotify, the complicated algorithm is responsible for most new music listeners discover. Nearly one-third of new music discovered by Spotify listeners comes from the Made For You playlist. 

Breaking the algorithm down into its most rudimentary workings, it uses two main criteria, track and user representations, to serve music to listeners. The recommendation engine generates playlists such as Discover Weekly, Daily Mixes, Time Capsule, On Repeat, On Rewind, Decade or Mood Playlists, and personalized search results. There are also more feature-specific algorithms that depend on reward systems to generate recommendations, asking questions of similarity between artists and how much listeners like certain tracks or artists.

If you learn these algorithms, it is easy to exploit the system and promote artists in order to get more visibility. There is a level of false discovery to Spotify which creates the illusion of choice for its listeners, but in no way equates to truly uncovering something by yourself. Sure, it’s all based on what you like, but it exploits your taste, too, to create feedback loops.

There is also the issue of music platforms more personally exploiting artist’s labor. Continuing with the example of Spotify, the company notoriously underpays per stream. Artists only make a whooping .003-.005 cents per listen, resulting in a notoriously low payout. For instance, one million streams then roughly equates to four to seven thousand dollars. Only the biggest artists in the world could actually make a living based on the music uploaded to Spotify. Others have to hustle, tour frequently to break even, take second or third jobs. 

Another problem with the state of music is the burgeoning presence of AI. Services like Udio allow for the generation of music in different styles of artists without the artist themselves. I believe that AI is the last affront to what it means to be human, and what it means to make art that means something. 

In the case of music, AI also exploits the labor of the creator, allowing for the seemingly-innocent play of the consumer. But what does that really mean when you consider the effect? Studios can remove the artist all together from the process of creation, taking the products of their labor and creating an uncanny, hollow representation. 

All the joy, all the social messaging, all the hard work and desire and dedication is at risk of being taken from music in one fell swoop. It doesn’t help that services such as Udio are marketing towards an internet audience who often, without thinking too deeply, see the opportunity to create viral content. 

Think of the 1960s, think of the power of music to reach and affect people, think of Joan Baez singing protest songs. Think of the artistry behind music, think of the great jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong, think of the mastery portrayed through each performance and awe one might feel in their presence. Think of Jacob Collier, who shows in his work all the fun of creating and playing with the boundaries of musical innovation. This is what’s human. This is what music is about. 

AI represents the last alienation from the individual and their labor. It also represents the ultimate danger of the personalizable experience that began with the Walkman as so eloquently made clear by Hosokawa. 

I’m not sure what comes next in the state of music. I also realize that I represent a pessimistic few who might not be widely agreed with. Many say that AI increases efficiency and improves various interfaces such as patient care. Yet, I find those so-called positive effects just as in-human. To be human is to be inefficient sometimes, to make mistakes, to have to work for the pursuit of knowledge and never reach perfection. I feel there is an imminent danger at hand. I love music and I cherish my favorite artists like Bill Callahan and Wilco. I’m scared of a future when the things I love disappear.

For now, I put on my Spotify playlist I’ve created for the month, press shuffle, walk around and feel free listening to my favorite songs.

By Wordgirl

Between her time making playlists for future DJ sets, Wordgirl loves to watch movies and read books. You can find her hanging out with her cat, Mouse, and playing music too loud in her headphones.