Exploration Versus Programming


Google Play Music All Access: search giant launches rival to Spotify (guardian.co.uk)

I’ve had three “Internet radio stations” since I launched the .org back in 2000. The first was from a very primitive service that I could never program right; no matter what I did, it just kept churning out classical music all the time, so I hardly ever used it. The second was programmed through Launchcast when it was still a part of Yahoo!, and that worked a lot better for me, even introducing me to some good artists I hadn’t heard before. When Launchcast’s customized radio service was discontinued, I found myself going to last.fm and using my own CD collection (yes, I still buy CDs) to seed my current radio station. Unfortunately this has led to me listening to my own music almost exclusively to create the best blend of music I can for the station, so I hardly ever listen to the station and get its recommendations for other artists I might like.

Since I first set up my last.fm station, though, there’s been a huge rise in streaming music services. I’ve only tinkered with a couple of them, mostly on my tablet when I’m between classes, and none of the ones that let you listen to the song of your choosing when you want to listen to it. When Google updated their music app on my tablet for their new service and offered a free month of their new All Access service, I went ahead and signed up for it because I think I have use for it. In the days since I’ve signed up for All Access, though, I haven’t used it even once, mainly because of a conundrum I find myself facing when it comes to how these services work.

I should explain here that my main purpose in subscribing to a “music library” is to catch up on the past fifteen years or so of popular music. The mid-nineties was the one time in my life when there was a large amount of what I considered good music played in heavy rotation on MTV and the radio, thanks to the rise of grunge and a new wave of folk-rock artists. Eventually, though, the music companies went back to their usual dreck of style-over-substance groups and divas, starting with the Spice Girls and then expanding to include Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, then the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync. Add in the rise of Limp Bizkit and other similar acts, and it’s no wonder I ducked out of the whole “pop music” thing in the late nineties, getting into the new wave of electronic-based dance music before that also got watered down by corporate music labels. When I went back to college and had lots of homework to do, I found myself listening mostly to the new age albums I’d collected since my pre-teen years (I was a weird kid, I know) for appropriate music to have playing while I taxed my brain, and that’s still primarily what I listen to these days as I read and write and do all that fun stuff.

The thing is, having some knowledge of popular culture is kind of a necessity as a teacher. I’m not one of those teachers who tries to cram unnecessary pop culture references into my classes in an attempt to look cool (I am not, have never been, nor will I ever be “cool”), but when an opportunity presents itself to use something from popular culture to illustrative a point or a concept — like using the Derpy Hooves controversy from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic to introduce students to the concept of linguistic relativity — students will often retain that information for much longer because I’m tying it in to something that they care about, as opposed to presenting something as a vague academic concept that has no “real life” applications, or at least any applications in their own lives. This is why I’ve wanted a “music library” subscription for a while, so I can catch up on the most popular albums of the past fifteen years — with special focus on what’s topping the charts now — and see if there’s anything from pop music that I can use in my teaching work.

This is where the difficulty comes in, though, because in addition to being a music library, Google Play Music also, like last.fm, creates custom radio stations for you based on your preferences. What this means is that if I start listening to all these pop albums on Google Play Music, Google is probably going to think that that’s the kind of music that I like to listen to, which I’m guessing will not be the case. I feel stuck between choosing either to use my All Access account to access those CDs I need to listen to, and basically give up on the service ever providing accurate recommendations to me, or else using the service to listen only to the kind of music I like listening to and seeing if it provides recommendations of good artists to me.

The whole science of digital recommendations is still imperfect, to say the least; earlier this week Facebook delivered an ad “target to my interests” for tequila, even though one of the listed interests on my Facebook is teetotalism. Still, my old Launchcast station gave me a lot of good recommendations. I think that was due to the fact that Launchcast let you rate not just songs, but artists and albums and genres as well, and do so on a five-star scale, which provided the service with a lot of data to use when it made its recommendations. Google Play Music only lets you give a thumbs up or thumbs down to individual songs, and I find it hard to believe that Google will be able to come up with very accurate recommendations based on such a simplified system.

Ideally, users should be able to “switch off” the recommendation system of any of these services — music, video, or what have you — when they just want to explore media without making a commitment as to how they feel about it. A couple of weeks ago I went to YouTube because I felt like listening to Jesse Ventura’s cover of Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” and now my YouTube recommendations are full of professional wrestling videos I have zero interest in, even though I never rated the Ventura video. You can, if you want:

The only solution I see is for me to create a second Google account just for exploration of music through All Access (and YouTube videos as well), but that seems like a whole lot of work to do — especially because I need immediate access to my main Google account on my tablet several times a day — when it would be a lot simpler for Google to just include some switch somewhere that you could turn off when you just want to listen to something, or watch something, without having those listens or views factored into their calculations for their recommendation engine. Is a small switch like that too much to ask for?

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