I can’t remember when I first read or heard the term, but the term ‘lean back listening’ is probably one of the biggest crises facing the world of music right now. That might sound ludicrously melodramatic but if you have ever in the past few years listened to one of Spotify’s many, many mood playlists, you’ve innocently contributed to the crisis. Most of these playlists have the world ‘chill’ in the title, so they’re pretty easy to spot. A lot of traditional forms of music are dwindling in popularity and it appears even more modern forms may be at risk.
The dilemma of a music enthusiast
Streaming services, such as Spotify and Apple Music, like to present themselves as groundbreaking innovations for the music industry. However, the truth isn’t as positive or as simple as that. I’m not saying that music streaming services are a bad thing, in fact for people who listen to more music (as in variety, not quantity) than the average person, streaming services are really helpful.
Instead of spending hundreds of dollars buying dozens of albums every month, I could spend a flat $10 to listen to almost every current album from a wide array of musical groups. For all of my posturing, I admit that I’m being exposed to a much greater variety of music than ever before thanks to these streaming services. I’ve become a fan of several different musicians that I would’ve probably passed on in the past and I’m far from being alone in this regard.
The internet was meant to facilitate access to everything and streaming services are just a natural extension of that philosophy. The problem arises when you consider that people like me, the kind that actively seek new music to listen to and use streaming services to willingly explore new sounds, are actually in the minority. It turns out that ‘lean back listening’ is how the streaming services are used by the majority and like almost everything in life, the majority is what sets the standard for the industry.
The rise of lean-back listening
‘Lean-back’ listening is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of making the effort to seek new music, people are content on letting streaming algorithms dictate the music that comes to them. In itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you have very specialised choices. Taken to the extreme, however, ‘lean-back listening’ ask users to give up any critical thought and just be content with streams of easy, disposable and anonymous music served up by an algorithm.
The most obvious example of this trend is the emergence of mood-based playlists on Spotify, which blatantly drops all pretenses of finding authentic, new music of one’s own volition. Right now, streaming services are on a mission to turn as much of their playlists as possible into Muzak. Muzak is a brand of anonymous, background sounds you might’ve heard playing in the elevator and other commercial spaces. It sounds like music, but it really isn’t; hence the similar sounding term.
The problem with this is that it turns everything into anonymity. When music is played in the background and used to serve as nothing else but to enhance certain moods or feelings, the one actually performing the music doesn’t matter as long as the music fits their purpose. All users have to do is pick a playlist and simply let it play for however long they want it. For all they know, the names listed on the songs or the song title itself could be written in gibberish and they probably wouldn’t care.
The death of the artists
With the rise of mood-based playlists and the idea of music as emotional wallpaper, where does the artist fit in? How can intellectually or emotionally challenging music exist if music is less about the artist and more about the purpose? Could a thematically and musically significant album like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly exist in an industry that is now aiming to render all music vanilla? I get that actual music enthusiasts will always keep the dream alive but any industry will always be beholden to the whims of the majority and that once things start to become financially untenable, things will start getting phased out.
The Canadian rapper Drake, probably the biggest name in contemporary popular music, described his 2017 release More Life as a playlist. Not an album, not a mixtape but “a collection of songs that become the soundtrack to your life.” This isn’t a coincidence. Listening to a thematically consistent album requires effort and commitment but why do that when you can just open up Spotify, pick from a dozens of sonically pleasing playlists of emotional wallpaper available there and just chill?