February 21, 2014

The Internet has really screwed up the music business. And I’m not talking about Kim Dotcom, Napster, or Justin Bieber.

I’m talking about the MUSIC in your BUSINESS. If you work in an office you probably have arguments over music in the office from time to time.

Some basic facts about human behaviour:

  1. Most people prefer not to work in a deathly quiet office.
  2. They like to have some background noise, preferably music.
  3. They like to listen to songs that they like.
  4. They usually prefer to listen to songs that they have heard before.
  5. When adults reach a certain age and stage, they tend to get quite set in their ways with their taste in music. In our office, for example, Chris loves 70s prog rock – think Yes, Genesis (Gabriel, not Collins), and Pink Floyd. George likes modern alternative rock (Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, Kings of Leon), and Andy likes all sorts including jazz, bluegrass, and classics like Dylan, the Grateful Dead, the Stones, and the Who. Then there are the designers with dubstep, chill trap, and world music.

It’s disruptive when bad or inappropriate music comes on and someone has to change the tune, so how can we possibly play music that caters to all these tastes in a way that is not disruptive?

There are a few solutions:

a. Everyone wears headphones and listens to their own private music privately.
Pros: everyone gets to listen to music they like.
Cons: unfortunately this kills a lot of the social enjoyment you get from work, and you lose the opportunity to ‘think out loud’ with your colleagues and do the informal brainstorming that is so essential to problem solving, innovation, and building team culture.

b. We play music out loud on the stereo but each day we play someone’s personal playlist.
Pros: at least one person in the office is loving the music, and we are all exposed to different types of music we might never have listened to before
Cons: This sucks because it means at least half of the people in the office are going to be unhappy with others’ choices, e.g. “Is this jazz? It’s terrible”.

c. We play an online radio station like I Heart Radio or Spotify or last.fm.

But these tend to start off playing music that you like but soon end up playing music that you don’t like and haven’t heard before.

d. We create a playlist that includes everybody’s music tastes and see how that goes.

We’ve been trying to set up a collective playlist but it doesn’t really flow. You just can’t have the stereo jumping from bluegrass to hip-hop to country without it grating on everybody’s nerves (you can try our Spotify playlist here: https://play.spotify.com/user/1242514116/playlist/5GBQIdLQM7mvX092i0voOg)

So we’ve gone back to playing a mainstream radio station (Radio Hauraki, if you must know). This is the solution that most offices end up with. After all, most radio stations do a pretty good job of hitting their target demographic. Their tunes are scientifically picked by statistical algorithms designed to offend the least number of people.

Of course the downside to mainstream radio stations is that they tend to ram a load of overcaffeinated Facebook-addicted breakfast DJs and drive-time prank callers to keep you interested between the relentless jingles of inane ads with voiceovers done by down-on-their-luck ex-celebrities.

So the march of technology rolls on. Sometimes it changes your behaviour, sometimes it doesn’t. In many ways, the Internet seems to create just as many problems as it solves. In this case, it gives you too much choice.

Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal reports that mainstream stations are responding to the threat posed by Spotify by restricting their playlists and playing the same songs over and over. They reckon that their listeners will be less likely to move to online playlists if they play a small set of familiar music.

So we’ve got all this choice and mainstream media responds by giving us less… I think this is a pattern repeated in other entertainment media. Reality TV anyone? or Hollywood sequels?