The headline screamed, in capital letters:

METAL – THE MOST-LOVED GENRE OF MUSIC – IS GETTING ITS OWN STREAMING SERVICE

It was an article posted last month on a breezily designed online publication called Quartzy, which is a spinoff effort from a larger publication called Quartz. Quartzy calls itself “a guide to living well in the new global economy”; Quartz, meanwhile, was founded in 2012 by The Atlantic as “a digitally native news outlet” and self-proclaimed publisher of “bracingly creative and intelligent journalism with a broad worldview.”

But you know how it is online. Publications have to post copy relentlessly, and prefer not to pay writers very much, if at all. So bullshit pieces like this article about metal being the “most-loved genre of music” get published, even (indirectly) by The Atlantic. By now they’ve probably forgotten they even posted it.

I can see what Quartzy was trying to do. Someone saw an article in Billboard earlier in November about a new streaming service that wants to cater exclusively to heavy metal fans and figured they could make a story out of it by combining it with that article’s tangential mention of Spotify data that claimed that heavy metal is the music genre with the most loyal listeners. The Billboard piece was focused on the new streaming service, called Gimme Radio; Quartzy decided to lead with the “most loyal genre” factoid, probably surmising this was more generally interesting to their audience than the fact that someone was launching a heavy metal streaming service.

Quartzy overlooked two important things in the process. First, the Spotify data came from a post on Spotify’s “Insights” blog in April 2015. The Billboard article mentioned that the data came from 2015, because they were using the data as background. Quartzy made it the lead and how do you lead with two-year-old information on a constantly updating web site? By not mentioning that it’s two years old, obviously.

This is amateurish and disingenuous, but not at all the worst aspect of this story. To me, the worst part is the statistical sleight of hand perpetuated by Spotify and worsened by Quartzy when converted into that grabby headline about metal being music’s “most-loved genre.”

Spotify never said this, to begin with. What Spotify claimed was that heavy metal is the genre with the “most loyal listeners.” And this is, in fact, what Quartzy reports if you read the article. If you just read the headline, however, you would miss this distinction. Quartzy‘s faulty transfiguration of “most loyal listeners” into “most loved genre” is an all-too-common presentational sin in the age of online “journalism” (which I leave in quotes for good reason), but I’d say is no worse a bungle than Spotify’s muddling of its data in the first place and Quartzy accepting the Spotify spin without the slightest hint of journalistic inquiry.


What is loyal and why do we care?

What, after all, does it mean that a specific genre has the “most loyal listeners”? This is a two-part question. The first is logistical, as in: how would one go about measuring this rather slippery concept in the first place? Spotify assures us they have a workable methodology. (I beg to disagree, as you’ll see. Quartzy never appeared to wonder.) The second part is existential: what does it mean for a genre to have the most loyal listeners in the first place? Is this even a thing you can be? Does it make any epistemological sense? And if so, is being a loyal listener to a genre by any meaningful measure a good thing to be? And if so, good to or for whom? (Quartzy didn’t wonder about any of this either.)

Let’s start by looking at what Spotify did to ascertain listening loyalty. First, they identified what they called “core artists” in each genre; next, they divided the number of streams each core artist had by their number of listeners. Their findings placed metal at the top, with what their chart identified as a one-to-one correspondence between streams of these core artists and their number of listeners. Quoting from the Spotify post:

“We looked for repeated listens to the core artists from each genre—the ones sitting right at the ‘center’ of the genres, as it were. So one could also reasonably conclude that jazz, EDM, classical, and blues listeners play more fringe artists from those genres.”

(FYI: Jazz, EDM, classical, and blues are all genres that had less than a 0.6 correspondence in the “core artist streams divided by listeners” formulation.)

So much bamboozlement here! To begin with: core artist streams divided by listens equals loyalty? What the what? For starters: who or what determines a “core artist” in a genre? All Spotify tells us is they determined core artists via data from The Echo Nest regarding which artists “are most central to each genre.” (The Echo Nest is a “music intelligence” company, owned by Spotify.) Overlooking the unhelpful tautology—core artists are those that are most central—I question the basic premise that genres are best represented by core artists alone in the first place. This penalizes genres in which fans are by nature curious, who routinely explore all sorts of music within a given genre. Such fans could be very loyal to a genre but elude recognition by Spotify. One could also argue that a genre only truly solidifies as a genre when it expands robustly beyond some central group of artists representing a certain musical sound. To go back and ascertain helpful information about a genre by looking only at its so-called core seems like a random decision, made only for its statistical ease than for its connection to truth.

And then there’s the underlying formula itself. I for one can’t wrap my mind around what dividing streams by listeners even does—can you? There’s no coherent meaning here; it’s not like a batting average in baseball, where hits divided by at-bats creates a clear and meaningful statistic. Let’s say all the heavy metal “core” bands had one million streams, and one millions listeners, great—what does one stream per listener mean? Nothing that seems clear. Let’s go further and say the core jazz artists had 600,000 streams and one million listeners. This would create that 0.6 correspondence mentioned above. Given that we don’t know what the one-to-one correspondence means, we don’t, now, know what six-tenths of that circumstance means either, outside of the already clear realization that jazz listeners collectively listen to fewer songs from the genre’s most mainstream artists than do people listening to metal.

What, in turn, does that mean? Not necessarily what Spotify says at all. Listeners who focus on the most mainstream artists in a genre may not be “most loyal” as much as least informed—as in, they only are aware of the most popular bands. Or, perhaps, rather than “most loyal” these core-oriented folks are nearly the opposite: music’s most casual listeners, in that they don’t care to investigate beyond the usual suspects. Is a genre filled with uninformed and/or casual listeners a genre with the most loyal listeners? I instead argue that a genre where listeners listen to all sorts of so-called “fringe” artists (see above excerpt) would be the genre with the most loyal listeners—meaning, in this case, listeners who appreciate a genre’s musical landscape enough to branch out and listen to many different versions of it. This is precisely the opposite of Spotify’s conclusion, and Quartzy, in the queasy tradition of inexpert internet posts, swallowed the self-serving corporate line without chewing.

And then let’s back up and again ask ourselves what good is it to identify a genre with the most loyal listeners in the first place? Is being loyal to a genre of social significance? Whose purposes are being served by figuring this assignation?


A cautionary tale

Clearly the only thing going on here is a sales pitch. It was first a sales pitch by Spotify, which continues to present itself as a storehouse of quality by wrapping itself in heaps of quantity, and whose musical warehouse is, for better or worse (worse, mostly, I’d say), compartmentalized by a category concept that sounds more definitive than it mostly is (i.e., “genre”). Beyond that, it was indirectly a sales pitch for anyone (hello, advertisers!) seeking to identify target-able groups of consumers by economically meaningful new ways. This is obviously something in which Facebook has been specializing, often to the detriment of civil society, and it’s something that Spotify wants us to realize it can do too. Implicit in the misbegotten message that metal has the “most loyal listeners” is the idea that these listeners can be aggregated and sold to. That was the point of the original Billboard article, after all: here’s a new streaming service for metal fans, and here’s why it’s a brilliant idea.

As for Quartzy, they have no excuse at all for conflating loyalty with “most loved” except as blatant click bait. In this case, their sales pitch is for their own web site. Because we all know that web sites that fool you into clicking through to their articles are in fact the most loved sites on the web.

Look, I know this was just a throw-away article in the throw-away world of constantly updated web sites offering ongoing posts for an audience ever-ready to click away to something more interesting. And I know no active harm was intended here, unlike what’s out there from purveyors of misinformation and lunatic conspiracies. The stakes seem very low in an article misrepresenting music listenership.

But if this is the kind of piece it’s easy enough to click past, ignore, and move on from, it’s also exactly the kind of thing that illustrates the godawful limits of a digital world ruled by algorithm and monetized eyeballs. It’s death by a thousand poorly written and reported cuts. Maybe it helps to look down and say, “Hm. Maybe I’m bleeding a little.”

And then maybe it helps to begin to see each cut as its own little cautionary tale until the long-awaited day arrives when we may collectively break free of our digital trance and re-imagine our relationship with the world at large, and with each other. A new year approaches. One can always hope.

The Mynabirds

“Shouting at the Dark” – The Mynabirds

Laura Burhenn, doing musical business as The Mynabirds since 2010, has emerged as one of indie rock’s fiercest truth-tellers, and this song, although released in August, becomes more relevant by the day.

I’d rather have cuts on my knees
Than blood in my mouth
From biting my tongue
And keeping it down

“Shouting at the Dark” is one of nine songs that Burhenn wrote and recorded in the immediate aftermath of January’s inauguration and the Women’s March that followed. The title alone speaks volumes as the United States has been plunged into an amoral miasma that seems now the inevitable consequence of capitalism finding its most reliable partner in widespread stupidity. Anyone with a heart still beating in his or her chest is shouting at the dark for the better part of the day these days.

The easy glide of the music, propelled by a melodic, rubbery bass line, disguises the open-ended harmonics on display, as melodies manage to flow and lack resolution at the same time. Guitars blend effortlessly with synthesizers, with a human touch consistently reasserting itself into the groove—I like, as an example, that little three-note background tweak we hear at 1:12. I like too the thoughtful, scaled-down guitar solo we get instead of a full catharsis at 2:28. Throughout I have the sense that Burhenn is at once welcoming and challenging us, much as she does in a video that dares to show the singer/songwriter dancing with a troupe of women who neither move nor look like professional dancers but (god forbid!) real-life women.

“Shouting at the Dark” is a track from the album Be Here Now, released in August on Saddle Creek Records. You can listen to some of it and buy it (including on vinyl) via Bandcamp. Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxbG_Ili0NM MP3 via KEXP. This is the Mynabirds’ fourth appearance on Fingertips, dating back to 2010.

Soltero

“Western Medicine Blues” – Soltero

As slyly engaging and unsettling as a song entitled “Western Medicine Blues” rightfully should be, this one is three minutes and forty-one seconds of quirky goodness. One of my longstanding sweet spots is music that straddles that elusive line between odd and familiar and that’s definitely part of what’s happening here. The oddness comes in a variety of flavors, from Tim Howard’s quavery voice, which commands through its unwillingness to command, to lyrics which weave in and out of comprehensibility, to a brisk, sparse arrangement that welcomes a subtle variety of sounds into the mix, from stray guitar blips and bass runs to piano fills and what might even be a saxophone blurt or two. And, one of my favorite offbeat moments: the stopping point we hear at 1:59 and the offbeat, almost church-like instrumental break that follows.

All of this works, mind you, based on the underlying strength of the song itself. “Western Medicine Blues” takes the classic rock’n’roll backbeat and unpacks it into a swift, slinky skeleton of its usual self. There is a verse, a chorus that you don’t realize is the chorus until it repeats later, and then an ear-grabbing middle section, with lyrics that open incisively (“Everything I’ve ever done/Is out of fear of medicine”) and lead quickly down a series of elliptical pathways, ending with the music and lyrics all but deconstructing. Cue then the church-like instrumental break, then the chorus comes back, and this curious but compelling song either completely wins you over or you’re just not listening.

Soltero is the performing name used by Tim Howard. He’s been featured here three previous times, starting all the way back in 2004, and reappearing in four-year intervals after that. “Western Medicine Blues” is the title track from the new Soltero album, which was released in November. You can listen to the whole thing and purchase it via Bandcamp for whatever price you’d like to pay.

In his non-musical life, Howard is the executive producer and editor of the very smart and appealing podcast Reply All. He is based in Brooklyn.

Tristen

“Glass Jar” – Tristen

From its opening instrumental gestures, “Glass Jar” reveals itself to be exactly the sort of graceful, well-crafted rock’n’roll that I, personally, need right now. No posturing and no processing here. We get instead a straight-ahead blend of organ and guitar, and an infectious groove led by an agile bass line. And then, on top, we get Tristen Gaspadarek’s lovely, decisive voice, singing unflappable melodies that lead adroitly to the chorus’s simple, subtle brilliance:

You put me in a glass jar and tap, tap, tap
To see how I move

These lines work with a musical and lyrical synergy not often seen. First, the lyric presents us with an incisive relationship metaphor, with built-in layers of meaning that I feel I will only detract from if I attempt to unpack. Just think about it for a while, noting how beautifully the music reinforces the lyrical strata, boosted by Jenny Lewis’s backing vocals, and coalescing around the hammering conveyed by the on-the-beat clockwork of the “tap tap tap” line. And then note the music’s refusal to resolve at the end of the lyrical line; it takes that chugging little organ line in the background to bring us to some kind of end point. That organ line in fact has been an understated star of the show since we first heard it answering the lyric “They’re all assassins” in the first verse (0:32)—it’s just the kind of instrumental motif that a good song will volunteer effortlessly.

The Nashville-based Tristen (she uses her first name only) is a singer/songwriter who makes me simultaneously hopeful and despondent about the state of music. Hopeful for the realization that smart, nimble rock’n’roll is yet possible here in this “barbaric slaughterhouse known as humanity” (as per Wes Anderson); despondent for how easily something this good can slip past any kind of widespread recognition. “Glass Jar” has been out for months. It’s been posted by exactly four other blogs on Hype Machine before this post. And this a song enhanced further by the vocal presence of the aforementioned Lewis.

The sad truth is that in this viral-sensation-oriented online culture we’ve aided and abetted collectively for the past 15 years or so, smart and graceful doesn’t tend to generate the clicks. Draw your own conclusions but me I’m fucking fed up with the whole thing. Nothing good comes of mob action, whether in the physical world or the digital one. And nothing attracts a mob quite like viral attractions. And the web has been calibrated to foster viral attractions.

Anyway: “Glass Jar” is a song from Tristen’s album Sneaker Waves, which was released in July. The MP3 is via KEXP. Tristen was previously featured here on Fingertips way back in 2010, for the irresistible song “Baby Drugs.” And if you’re in the holiday mood, here’s a bonus stream, from 2011: Tristen doing a lovely, Spector-esque cover of “Frosty the Snowman.”

Perhaps the least cool band that can possibly be imagined to 2017 ears, the British outfit Renaissance had its moment in the ’70s, with a distinctive, quasi-Baroque approach to the progressive rock that ruled the pre-punk day. Once musical fashions changed, rather abruptly I might add, Renaissance, like prog-rock compatriots Yes and Genesis, attempted to re-jigger their approach towards trimmer, catchier exercises. Because the underlying musicianship was so strong for most of these bands, some of this actually worked, and to me, few better than “Northern Lights.” The melodies here are so unfaltering as to seem pre-existing—verse leading unstoppably to chorus, chorus resplendent beyond reason. It became a top-10 hit in the U.K., and got a certain amount of play on the album-rock stations that ruled the American airwaves in those years, but lord knows if any but the band’s stalwart fans remember it. Such treasures await anyone willing to dig through the past 60 years of popular and semi-popular music. Spotify just can’t find them all for you.

What else this month? I guess it’s all over the place, as usual, from a solo jazz pianist to a one-hit wonder, from the Monkees to Lene Lovich, from the sublime Laura Marling to the recently departed, sadly neglected Fats Domino (a weirdly effective segue, I might add). But it’s not all over the place, not really, because the music absorbs it, the music supports it, and the idea that your ears are too tender to find coherence in a playlist that doesn’t stick to one genre or one era, well, that’s a stupid idea fostered by misguided entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists who feed them, and reinforced by cultural forces that even at this late date resist the manifest truth that diversity is our natural state. Enjoy the adventure, and see you for maybe a bit of a holiday thing in a few weeks.


Full playlist below the widget.

“Lullaby of the Leaves” – Art Tatum (Solos, 1940)
“The Mermaid” – Kate Rusby (Life in a Paper Boat, 2016)
“Ride Captain Ride” – Blues Image (Open, 1970)
“There Goes The Fear” – Doves (The Last Broadcast, 2002)
“Northern Lights” – Renaissance (A Song For All Seasons, 1978)
“Grace” – Jeff Buckley (Grace, 1994)
“I Want Something to Remember You By” – Marvin Smith (single, 1967)
“So Here We Are” – Gordi (Clever Disguise EP, 2016)
“Swamp Thing” – Chameleons UK (Strange Times, 1986)
“Stillsane” – Carolyne Mas (Carolyne Mas, 1979)
“The Girl I Knew Somewhere” – The Monkees (b-side, 1967)
“What Can I Say” – Brandi Carlile (Brandi Carlile, 2005)
“New Toy” – Lene Lovich (New Toy EP, 1981)
“Vapour Trail” – Ride (Nowhere, 1990)
“No Sugar Tonight” – The Shirelles (Happy and In Love, 1971)
“Ta Douleur” – Camille (Le Fil, 2005)
“I Believe” – Tim Booth & Angelo Badalamenti (Booth and the Bad Angel, 1996)
“Someone Up There” – Joe Jackson Band (Beat Crazy, 1980)
“Soothing” – Laura Marling (Semper Femina, 2017)
“Let The Four Winds Blow” – Fats Domino (Let The Four Winds Blow, 1961)