Music is the oil in the human machine


In announcing the free version of its music streaming service — that’s free as in ads — Google also discloses something revealing about the way it views music:

At any moment in your day, Google Play Music has whatever you need music for — from working, to working out, to working it on the dance floor — and gives you curated radio stations to make whatever you’re doing better. Our team of music experts, including the folks who created Songza, crafts each station song by song so you don’t have to.

This marks a continuation of Google’s promotion of what it terms “activity-based” music. Last year, soon after it acquired Songza, a company that specializes in “curating” playlists to suit particular moods and activities, Google rejiggered its music service to emphasize its practicality:

If you’re a Google Play Music subscriber, next time you open the app you’ll be prompted to play music for a time of day, mood or activity. Choose an activity to get options for several music stations to make whatever you’re doing even better — whether it’s a station for a morning workout, songs to relieve stress during traffic, or the right mix for cooking with friends. Each station has been handcrafted — song by song — by our team of music experts (dozens of DJs, musicians, music critics and ethnomusicologists) to give you the exact right song for the moment.

This is the democratization of the Muzak philosophy. Music becomes an input, a factor of production. Listening to music is not itself an “activity” — music isn’t an end in itself — but rather an enhancer of other activities, each of which must be clearly demarcated. (As I’ve argued before, the fuzziness of human experience is anathema to Silicon Valley. Before you can code it, you have to formalize it.)

Here’s a sampling of the discrete activities — “jobs” might be the more accurate term — that Google lets you choose from in ordering up units of music:

Being Romantic
Breaking Up
Entering Beast Mode
Falling in Love
Family Time
Getting Cosy
Getting Married
Girls Night Out
Having Friends Over
Having Fun at Work
Raising Your Kids
Waking Up
Working Out

Once you accept that music is an input, a factor of production, you’ll naturally seek to minimize the cost and effort required to acquire the input. And since music is “context” rather than “core,” to borrow Geoffrey Moore’s famous categorization of business inputs, simple economics would dictate that you outsource the supply of music rather than invest personal resources — time, money, attention, passion — in supplying it yourself. You should, as Google suggests, look to a “team of music experts” to “craft” your musical inputs, “song by song,” so “you don’t have to.” To choose your own songs, or even to develop the personal taste in music required to choose your own songs, would be wasted labor, a distraction from the series of essential jobs that give structure and value to your days.

Art is an industrial lubricant that, by reducing the friction from activities, makes for more productive lives.

Image: Marilyn Peddle.

3 thoughts on “Music is the oil in the human machine

  1. CS Clark

    I don’t know, they may have a point. Just the other day I had some friends over for a barbecue, except we also had to cook some food inside because one of them was a vegetarian who doesn’t like smoky food. We were all drinking except the couple who had brought their family and I was idly daydreaming when my wife said, romantically, ‘Don’t you think these are all discrete activities which shouldn’t be mixed together in case the computers get confused?’

    Alas, there was no playlist for Philosophical conversation so we just had to let it go.

  2. Nick Post author

    1. Bob Dylan, “Mixed-Up Confusion”
    2. Jimi Hendrix, “Love or Confusion”
    3. The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion”

    I better let the experts take it from there.

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