Stream Logic

Jace Clayton on Carl Stone and close listening in the Spotify era

Carl Stone and Miki Yui. Photo: Markus Luigs.

ONCE OR TWICE A YEAR, if we are lucky, the corporations that stockpile and sell data generated by our digital habits share a glimpse of it with us. For Spotify, this happens in December. “You listened to 3,436 different songs on Spotify this year,” ran the Swedish streaming company’s automatically personalized email to me (and roughly two-hundred million other users)—“but which will be your #1?” I clicked through, certain that Carl Stone’s 1986 “Shing Kee” was top of my list.

Carl Stone has been cutting music into very small pieces for a very long time. His oeuvre constitutes a powerful investigation into timescales and recorded sound fragments as compositional building blocks. It emerged in parallel with hip-hop, starting with turntables and audio tape in the ’70s, and evolved to use custom code for a laptop, as in his Baroo, released this March.  Yet Stone’s records can be hard to find—so with gratitude I’d been streaming his two reissue compilations, Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties (2016) and Electronic Music from the Eighties and Nineties (2018).

The page that Spotify generated for me had LA rapper 03 Greedo’s “Shittin’ (Lately)” as my #1 song for 2018. While I’d spent more overall time listening to “Shing Kee,” a mesmerizing track which lasts for more than a quarter of an hour, this statistic implied that I had clocked up more individual plays of the three-minute perfection of “Shittin’ (Lately)”—and that individual plays rather than overall time were how their algorithm determined my #1.

Spotify’s email promised that I would “Find out everything there is to know about how you listened in 2018.” When does ad copy become an outright lie? I was new to the service, and perhaps naive. The only thing I found out was the extent to which Spotify and I disagree about what user-generated data should be looked at to ascertain “my #1.” How much time you spend with a song is, to me, a far more telling datum than how many times you click play on a track.

I decided to listen to “Shittin’” again. Problem was, I couldn’t. The song was missing from my Spotify playlists. 03 Greedo’s entire Purple Summer (2016) album had vanished. “Why the sudden takedown?” I asked Spotify, who told me that they could not tell me why, offering only that “it’s often due to licensing charges.” Emails to 03 Greedo’s management went unanswered.

Online music copyright claims increasingly use automated removals or preventative upload blocks: A sample-sniffing algorithm thinks you have utilized copywritten sound without permission and either refuses to let you upload your content, or takes it down. The criteria are opaque. The assumption is guilt. In July 2018, Greedo began serving a twenty-year sentence for drug and gun charges. It’s safe to say that, whatever the reason for Spotify’s takedown, it would be easier to appeal if he were free.

Revisiting my Spotify “2018 Wrapped” page today, I see that all mention of “Shittin’” has been expunged. A different song now sits in the #1 slot. Spotify erased evidence of their erasure. The company rewrote my listening history so that it would not contradict their retroactive archive deletion.

Carl Stone. Photo: Tomohiro Ueshiba.

Global streaming media companies present themselves as a mix of utility service and library while actively dismantling any notion of a commons. We know this, yet the high value we place on short-term digital conveniences—especially as companies like Apple design their devices for increased user-hostility (lack of headphone jack, USB port, etc.)—makes it extraordinarily difficult to heed all the cautionary tales about putting faith in corporate archives.

A few weeks ago, news broke that MySpace had deleted all the user-uploaded music from the first twelve years of its existence. Approximately fifty million songs, several hundred years of original music, the unfathomable breadth of individual sonic expression on what was once the world’s largest social network—gone overnight. A decade prior, MySpace purchased Imeem (sixteen million users on that social network, which became a central hub for the young black club music coming out of Chicago that would come to be called Footwork) and erased it on the same day, without warning. When arsonists own libraries, stone tablets look appealing. What’s the digital equivalent of a rock and chisel?

This April, Red Bull Music Academy and Red Bull Radio announced that they were shutting down after more than two decades of sponsored content creation that focused on archiving conversations in contemporary music. I found the energy drink unpalatable even before I learned of the far-right political views held by the company’s billionaire CEO, Dietrich Mateschitz. Nevertheless, RBMA amassed an important collection of interviews and longform original essays chronicling lesser-known moments in non-mainstream music. There’s a real risk that in a few months or years, that collection will be taken offline. 

But I’d wanted to write about the music I listened to most in 2018 and how it moved me. This type of discussion about music—music as discussion—is precisely what streaming services make more and more difficult to have. DJing is a prime example of music as discussion: We take songs, blur their individuality, and put them in conversation via superimposition, cohabitation, sonic manipulation, and pure cheek. (Spotify blurs songs’ individuality by treating them as equivalent data, a very different thing). Yet it’s a form of discussion that is considerably harder to share online than was the case a decade ago. Audio hosting service SoundCloud had initially courted DJs, yet in 2010 they implemented sample fingerprint technology and the instant takedowns began. Scholar Wayne Marshall popularized the term “SoundClowned” in reference to DJs who had trusted them and gotten zapped. I’m watching my own DJ mixes become less available online.

Greedo as Guido. Image: Daniel Semper.

The artists behind my #1s from 2018 have more in common than their hometown and their inverse relationship to Spotify’s arbitrary and imperious spotlight. They share a central theme: consumption. For decades, Stone has named songs after his favorite restaurants. (Why Yelp when you can Carl?) His discography doubles as a map of sated appetites: Jitlada, Mom’s, Sun Nong Dan. Eating out remains a fundamental means of engaging difference and sampling the world, after all. And while Greedo’s namesake is the Rodian bounty hunter shot dead by a concealed-carry rightwing white libertarian icon who calls himself Han Solo, 03 Greedo the rapper exists in a state of neoliberal enlightenment/terror where money hunger (“I count that cash when I wake up,” begins “Shittin’”) cannot be distinguished from hyperproductivity (he claims to have completed no fewer than thirteen albums in the months prior to incarceration and every indulgence comes with a markup.

Consumption as theme if not methodology suggests that the best thing to do with an archive is to eat it. One must be able to metabolize and internalize it. A variety of, and in, archives is vital to any understanding of what “we” are, might, or could be. Yet the ability to access and use the materials inside any archive is the rare and endangered resource. Spotify has more than forty million individual songs (a vast database) but only a few, intentionally oversimplified ways of browsing them (a miniscule interface), and no way to do fair-use blends.

Imagine if you wanted to listen to all the songs produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, or check out recordings where harpist Alice Coltrane was a band member but not the titular artist. Spotify has access to all this data—we simply can’t browse or search using it. Reductive search interfaces contour our expectations and reinforce a small number of companies’ myopic vision of the world.

Production credits, liner notes, record labels, any artwork beyond the (now tiny) cover, this rich contextual information reflects how people come together around music, and is precisely the stuff that Spotify actively strips from the music via their interface. When Spotify discards it, they are training us to regard music as little more than a few megabytes of digital audio stored on Google-run servers. Rich archive + poor interface = doubleplusungood

One of the reasons I kept turning to Carl Stone’s “Shing Kee” was for the profound contrast it offers to all this mess. His work takes brief slivers of sound and reconfigures them into mosaiced panoramas that scramble, extend, and flout any normative sense of time. In the case of “Shing Kee,” Stone transforms a few seconds of a Japanese pop star singing a Schubert lieder in English into a fifteen-minute mediation on how love—and close listening, which may be the same thing—can urge each Heraclitian moment toward the eternal. One hears a brief snippet of audio—at first like a gasp for breath—that slowly lengthens with each near-repetition, then the audio swivels and the new sample gradually contracts with each pass. The language isn’t always easy to parse: “and words of love” comes through clearly, briefly, then melts, stretches. It is a formally generous piece of experimental music: to listen carefully is to understand its underlying construction. The impact is profound.

How many moments fit inside a second? What do we learn when the exact sound of a song remains unchanged as its cohesive self-similarity shatters to get reordered into unprecedented new shapes? How long is a memory of love? What happens when one considers rhythm not as patterns or swing or groove, but in terms of milliseconds in a digital audio buffer? “Shing Kee” suggests answers.

When I met Stone for coffee in Manhattan prior to a recent concert, he brought up the piece (before I did), referring to it as a “breakthrough moment.” To create “Shing Kee,” Stone hacked the available hardware to do what he calls “time compression and extension in real-time,” thereby becoming the first person to use a sampler to blur and extend the edges of digitized audio live. Previously such manipulations had to be rendered offline so one could not listen and adjust at the same time, as we hear on “Shing Kee.” Stone made the interplay between digitized audio, pop affect, and time perception playable, in the moment, which is the only place where we can come together in action.

Digitalization is the process whereby images, video, and sound are scanned and registered as linear sequences of zeroes and ones. Playing the sampler becomes a way to humanize one’s interaction with the resulting archive. We’ll know the sample-sniffing algorithms are getting smarter when Carl Stone’s work becomes hard to access once again. In the meantime, “Shing Kee” directs us toward ways to upend the corporatist-nihilist timeline exemplified by Spotify’s treatment of Greedo’s track—by replacing it with other tempos, other rhythms, other ways of marking time to create and preserve social space.

Carl Stone will be performing at Zebulon in Los Angeles on Tuesday, May 14.