The Playlist is the Thing:  Digital Responses to Corporate Music

 

 

Jennifer C. Waits

waitsj@yahoo.com

 

 

Presented September 19, 2003

 

International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) Conference

“Broadening the Playlists:  Popular Musics in Dialogue”

held at University of California, Los Angeles

http://www.iaspm-us.net/conferences/index.html

 

 

 

I.       Introduction

In the late 1990s a number of online music ventures were established, placing music more in control of consumers.  Internet radio stations were programmed by kids in their bedrooms, Napster users swapped their favorite corporate releases and bootlegs online, and music lovers even redefined the personal and poetic mix tape in a new digital format.

 

Uplister (whose motto was “organized music anarchy”) established an online playlist sharing community in 2000.  The concept was that serious music fans were the best folks to recommend music to others.  Users, known as playmakers, wrote deeply personal narrative playlists and shared them with others using Uplister’s software application.

 

The notion of the “popular” became turned around in this community.  Playmakers wrote their own playlists, containing tracks, commentary, images, and music clips.  Community members then decided upon the popularity of playmakers and playlists, by adding people to their list of favorites and by just clicking on a playlist.  Because of this, the most popular people and playlists were decided in personal, whimsical ways.  A catchy title, a hilarious list, or a painfully personal break-up story could all end up “charting” on Uplister.  In this respect, the playlist became a vehicle for personal expression.  Interestingly for an online music community, many Uplister playlists contained NO music.  At most, lists might have 30-second song clips.

 

This presentation will examine the Uplister playlist sharing community as an example of how independent-minded music fans took the playlist back into their own hands.  As the corporate radio world underwent increasing consolidation and homogenization in the late 1990s, consumers turned to online sources for discovering and discussing new and revolutionary sounds.

 

Taking the theme of this conference to heart “Broadening the Playlists:  Popular Musics in Dialogue,” I’d like to today present some thoughts about the online reinterpretation or reappropriation of the term “playlist” and how one company—Uplister—attempted to design an entire business and community around consumer-generated playlists.

 

II.    History of the Playlist, State of Music Distribution/Radio Today

When one hears the word “playlist,” the first thought that probably comes to mind is the radio playlist.  This playlist is usually interpreted as a short list of songs in a narrow genre of music played repeatedly on commercial radio and mandated by station management.  This interpretation explains the conference title:  “Broadening the Playlists…,” because the assumption is that playlists are not broad to begin with.  A recent study by the Future of Music Coalition (http://www.futureofmusic.org/ ) points out that commercial radio playlists are short and that since the 1996 Telecommunications Act, radio has seen a reduction in the number of station owners and a decrease in programming diversity.  This study also noted that, “Commercial radio playlists tend to keep about 40 to 60 songs in rotation at a time.” (see page 76 in the full report at http://www.futureofmusic.org/images/FMCradiostudy.pdf )

 

The current short commercial radio playlist is largely programmed by radio executives based upon market research.  As Simon Frith explains in Sound Effects, “Playlist  broadcasting originated in the States in the 1950s when television took over as the basic medium of home entertainment.  Radio stations, in order to attract the disappearing advertisers, began to research their audiences in detail and to aim their programs at the specific markets they discovered.” (Frith, p118 Sound Effects).  The 1960s saw the development of Top 40 radio, Top 30 radio, and even stations with playlists as short as 18 tracks according to Frith.  This focus on playing the top hits is a way to reinforce what is popular.  “Behind the development of the tight playlist was the research finding that teenagers switched stations the moment they heard a record they didn’t like,” (120 Frith) argues Frith.  So, to keep listeners glued to the radio, radio stations continue to play popular and favorite songs.

 

A survey by the Future of Music Coalition last year would seem to contradict this argument and found that radio listeners actually want more diversity and broader radio playlists—a seemingly contrary finding to what radio station market research claims. 

78% of respondents in the Future of Music Coalition Survey conducted in May 2002 said that they prefer a long radio playlist to a short radio playlist.  However, radio programmers still deny this.  In this same Future of Music Coalition report, they quote from a Clear Channel radio programmer’s letter to Entertainment Weekly in which he disparages the diverse playlist on college radio, saying,   “Give them a good listen.  I guarantee you that after 30 minutes of pure hell, you will switch back to a Clear Channel Radio station, because we play the hits.” (p78 http://www.futureofmusic.org/images/FMCradiostudy.pdf )

 

III. Broadening of the Playlist

So how does one go about broadening the traditional radio playlist?  Consumers have found their own ways to do this for years.  One can be a home DJ, managing your own playlist featuring multiple genres, unpopular music, and independent artists.  Massive CD jukeboxes, MP3 players and iPods allow users to load up nearly an entire collection of music to play back on one’s own terms.  College radio, pirate radio, genre-focused satellite radio, and Internet radio also offer longer, more diverse playlists.  MP3s and sites like Live365 where users can create their own radio stations offer the opportunity to customize one’s own listening experience even further.

 

IV.  Digital Music History/Landscape

During the most recent technology boom in the mid-1990s, creative business ideas emerged around the area of fusing the Internet with innovations in audio technology.  Music sites like IUMA (Internet Underground Music Archive http://www.iuma.com/ )

began in the early 1990s and by 1999 a full-fledged trend of new digital music businesses had hit in the San Francisco Bay Area. The term “Audio Alley” came into use to describe the growing number of digital music companies sprouting up initially in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood and eventually spreading all over the Bay Area.  Companies like www.EMusic.com , www.Epitonic.com , www.Echo.com , Riffage, www.Garageband.com , SonicNet, www.Spinner.com , www.Listen.com ,

www.Live365.com , and www.Napster.com  were working on concepts related to Internet radio and MP3 downloads.  San Francisco Chronicle music writer Joel Selvin wrote in August 1999, “MP3 may well turn out to be the spark that starts a music revolution.” (http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1999/08/08/PK11920.DTL ) This revolution was happening among entrepreneurs, college students, struggling musicians, yet was looked on with skepticism and, increasingly, fear by record labels.

 

Even before the advent of MP3, record companies were reluctant to embrace new technology and formats.  Simon Frith points out that “record companies’ perceived villain of the 1980s [was the] the cheap cassette tape” (Frith, 152 Sound Effects).  Today the illegal sharing of MP3 songs online and the recent swarm of lawsuits against file sharers is the latest evidence of this fear of new technology.

 

In an article from earlier this year in Salon.com called “Embrace File-sharing or die,” John Snyder and Ben Snyder write that consumers are “creating their own MP3 playlists, and if the labels were smart, they’d be doing everything in their power to be on those playlists, just like they do everything in their power to be on the playlists of radio stations.  Instead they scream copyright infringement and call their lawyers.” (“Embrace file-sharing or die” in Salon.com, 2/1/03 by John Snyder and Ben Snyder http://archive.salon.com/tech/feature/2003/02/01/file_trading_manifesto/index.html ).  In this same Salon article, a Forrester research study is cited that indicated that one reason for declining CD sales is “the shorter playlists on radio that leads to fewer musicians becoming well known.” 

 

V.     History of Uplister

In early 2000 a company called Uplister was founded in San Francisco to facilitate the creation of individualized playlists of music.  Uplister released the first version of their playlist creation software in Fall 2000.  Using a downloadable software application, users could create lists of music tracks that were similar to online mix tapes.  In these playlists, they could include their own commentary on the tracks, add images, include HTML and insert links to other websites or resources.  On Uplister users could search through other members’ playlists, view charts of the most popular lists and listmakers (known as playmakers), and read celebrity interviews and playlists.  One of the tenets of Uplister was that the playlist was going to become the “next unit of global music consumption.” 

 

By beginning with a community of music enthusiasts, DJs, and early-adopter-types; Uplister was hoping to build a selection of stellar playlists that could eventually be sold to music consumers via a subscription service.  The notion was that the smart, music-addicted Uplister community members were akin to record store clerks, who know the best music and who consumers often turn to for advice when buying new music.  By perusing the lists of these “Playmakers,” users might get turned on to music that is new to them.  (As Simon Frith writes in an essay about trips to the record shop in Music for Pleasure, “The pleasure of hanging out in the store is that what is played and judged isn’t determined by programmers and promoters, by press and publicity, but by me.  And I can listen too to other people’s tastes, hear them being worked out, watch sense being made of music by the listeners themselves.” Page 183).  For example, using the search function on Uplister, one could search for all lists containing a favorite musician—like Johnny Cash.  By surfing through these lists, one might discover new artists on the playlists of other Johnny Cash fans.

 

As Brad King wrote in a Wired News piece in July 2001, “Uplister attracts music fans who are less interested in listening to commercial radio and more interested in finding new music.” (Wired News, 7/23/01, http://www.wired.com/news/mp3/0,1285,45378,00.html )

 

VI.  How the Uplister community “broadened the playlist”

Uplister broadened the playlist in a number of ways.  First of all, users were given free reign to create playlists of varying types.  Most lists published in the community could not be pegged as falling into one particular genre—they tended to include tracks representing a number of different music styles.  Since a high percentage of the most active playmakers were also college radio DJs, a number of playlists were actual playlists from their radio shows.  In that sense, Uplister worked as an archive for college radio playlists and as a way to share one’s taste and radio show selections with college radio DJs from all over the world.  It also served as a promotional tool for one’s radio show, especially since many college stations had web feeds that could be heard outside of their normal listening range. 

 

Another popular style of playlist on Uplister was the “confessional” playlist, which mainly served as a cathartic activity after suffering an emotional upheaval.  For a community of music fans, music served many purposes—and in particular, it stirred up powerful emotions and associations.  Writing a playlist on Uplister could work to heal wounds and help one get through heartache.  When a playmaker published their “break-up” list after ending a relationship, members of the community offered condolences and song recommendations to help get through the crisis.

 

“Confessional” lists weren’t always dour, sometimes users would write lists about someone they had a crush on.  The music fanatic’s traditional first move of proffering a homemade mix tape to the object of one’s affection found a perfect place on Uplister.  The company even created Valentine and Prom-themed Pink Playlists as part of a promotion that they did with the website eCrush to help facilitate these romantic gestures.  This also brings up the point that like many community sites, Uplister allowed users to create their own profiles, including pictures, a motto, and dating status.  Exceptional Playmakers found that they often received fan email from other users and there were tales of love connections in the community as well.

 

One of the most common types of lists was the critical list, where a playmaker discussed some aspect of music in the playlist narrative.  These lists created a critical community on Uplister, where playmakers discussed and argued about their favorite bands, their most hated bands, their most-loved tracks by a particular artist, and the key tracks encompassing one genre or another.  Fans of certain musicians got to know and bond with other fans in the community through these lists.  Lists served as vessels for album reviews, band reviews, show reviews, and festival reviews.  As one can send a letter to the editor when one disagrees with a record review, on Uplister users could post their reviews directly on a playlist.  In this respect, each playlist could become its own message board, full of praise, criticism, debate, or random discussion, depending upon the playlist.  Playlists were dynamic and always on display for others to interact with.  Each new playlist appeared on the front of the website on a “just added” list; so some playmakers kept creating playlists or re-publishing playlists just for that instant fame and attention.

 

Playlists on Uplister also held something in common with online journals or blogs.  Frustrated writers could weave tales about their life using a list of songs as the structure for the story.  Topics of lists ranged from Music Heard in Commercials, to songs played at one’s wedding, to tracks by bands that appeared on Beverly Hills, 90210, to songs about one’s favorite city, to great songs featuring the cowbell.  For many this became an addictive medium and the challenge was to get increasingly clever with each playlist published.  The most prolific users created over 100 playlists!

 

A variety of playmakers existed in the Uplister community, including college DJs, club DJs, celebrity musicians (from The Donnas to Green Day to Ted Nugent), authors (including Nick Hornby, the author of the list-obsessed High Fidelity), and high school kids.  Community was the focus of Uplister and music was the cultural glue.  People bonded over favorite bands, debated about merits of certain musicians, and even forged romantic connections with other like-minded community members.  List-makers were the stars of the community.  Every week a new Playmaker was featured and interviewed—and placed on equal footing with the weekly celebrity interviews and playlists.

 

One idea that came from this community was the Collective Playlist, featuring tracks selected by many members of Uplister.  Using a common log-in name and password, various users could go in to a playlist and add tracks that related to the theme of the list.  One of the most notable lists of this type was “What Was Your First Concert?” in which users shared their stories about the first concert that they ever attended.

 

What all these types of playlists had in common was context.  Celebrated Playmakers on Uplister wrote something or provided graphical representations in their playlists.  The narrative could be personal, educational, historical, or nonsensical.  In fact, lengthy playlists that were published on Uplister with no written narrative were universally criticized in the community.  These naked playlists were hard to interpret and were often assumed to be a lazy way of archiving one’s MP3 collection, while neglecting the expectations of context in the Uplister community.  This focus on narrative and context works in contrast to what happens in commercial radio.  As Simon Frith writes, “…commercial radio stations never really have been in the business of musical education, they’ve always shifted their music out of context…” (Frith 126)

 

Uplister was so much about the context of music that users seemed to forget, or at least ignore the fact that there really wasn’t much actual “music” on Uplister.  Most playlists shared in the community contained no music.  Uplister offered 30 second Liquid Audio song clips for songs that it had in its database, but many obscure, independent songs on playmakers’ lists were not in the database, so they didn’t even have a 30 second clip.  Playlists were more about discussing and discovering new music from music fanatics than about listening to actual lists of music.

 

You still see the ghost of Uplister in music-less “top track” lists in magazines.  One of the most recent manifestations is the question: “what’s playing in your iPod right now” asked of celebrities in interviews or the Entertainment Weekly feature “The Mix is In,” in which a recent playlist called “Noise of Summer” featured the author’s favorite summer songs along with commentary.  Members of online dating communities list off their favorite bands and search for like-minded potential love interests by looking for musical compatibility.  Music works to forge emotional connections between people and the thousands of playlists on Uplister back in 2001 are one example of how music consumers create their own context for the music that they love.