How can we better help our readers discover new music, in the places they listen to new music? I was recently appointed as the Guardian’s music editor, and this was one of the first things on my mind.
Increasingly, as CD and download sales wither, we listen to music on services such as Spotify, streaming high-fidelity music directly from centralised servers; in 2016 streaming jumped by 60%, while music downloads fell by 20%. Many of us are also willing to pay for these services that collate music simply and smoothly – the number of people paying for Spotify has increased from 50 million in March to more than 60 million at the time of writing.
To reflect the growing popularity of streaming, this week the Guardian launched the first in a new series of monthly playlists. Each edition of The Month’s Best Music will contain 50 songs and straddle all genres of new music. My hope is that these playlists, which can be found on Spotify, Apple Music or Amazon Music (and hopefully more services in the future), will help readers navigate the huge number of new releases every month, and discover the music that speaks to them.
Fifty songs sounds like quite a lot – and some readers told us this week they found it too many – but it is the same number included every week in one of Spotify’s most followed playlists, New Music Friday, so to feature that many a month might actually be quite a modest aim, given the voracious appetites of many streamers.
The playlist is put together by a team of people including the Guardian’s music critics and general music nuts from across our staff and freelancers. We pool the tracks that have resonated with us each month, whittling them down to 50 of the absolute best. These will be the tracks we found most melodically satisfying, lyrically affecting, musically inventive.
We have sequenced the songs so they move from one genre to another, allowing those whose tastes are more catholic to ride smoothly through the whole thing, while others can dip in and out of the styles they like. And if you want a more condensed experience, we’ve also picked a top 10 from the list, and then written about these tracks – the most culturally significant and zeitgeist-y of the month.Interactive
You might argue that streaming services obviate the need for intervention like this – why do you need Guardian journalists telling you that something is good, when you could just listen to it and decide for yourself?
For a start, there’s the issue that a lot of new music just isn’t very good. As the music theorist Mat Dryhurst said last month: “Sound and music is abundant. Purpose and vision is scarce.” While there is accounting for subjective taste, the Guardian’s role is to champion the objective good in music: authentic emotional insight, be it in a lyric or solo or piano chord. A cheesy pop song or burst of atonal noise can share these values just as much as an earnest ballad, but millions of songs don’t.
Time-poor music lovers also need a helping hand; all this endless choice invites curation. Streaming services try to do this themselves, suggesting similar music based on your listening habits, but this doesn’t take into account the caprices of human taste. As one reader told us: “I struggle to find new music and detest algorithms telling me ‘If I like that I’ll love this’”.
Spotify curates its own playlists too, of course, but we think that it’s important for the Guardian to be a voice beyond streaming services, selecting and recommending brilliant new music free from marketing influence.
Ultimately, we’ve launched these playlists because streaming is making music far more egalitarian. Musicians are rightly fretting about how royalties from the pool of subscription money are being shared across a near-infinite number of tracks, but for listeners, the innate elitism that came with owning recorded music has vanished.French Montana is also on this month’s playlist. Photograph: Startraks Photo/Rex/Shutterstock
A subscription of about £120 a year is more than many people spent in the CD and download era, but for unlimited access to pretty much all pop music ever made, it’s an incredible deal. Spotify and its peers have removed the economic barrier to musical cosmopolitanism – those who can’t afford the fee can still dive over and over again into Japanese hard-bop, the collected works of Venom, or whatever else they fancy via the free versions of these services, albeit while also having to listen to advertisements.
This freedom is changing the way music is being written — reggaeton, for example, has broken through on a global scale thanks to the network effects of streaming, with British acts such as Little Mix now folding in a South American vibe to their songs. This freedom also means that someone in a tiny countryside hamlet can school themselves in straight-edge punk, say. We want to help tee up those discoveries.
One reader wrote in response to the first playlist: “Review and promote music that suits your readership, for gods sake. Stop recommending and promoting pop.” But the Guardian’s readership is becoming ever less definable in its tastes – and with these playlists, we aim to widen their already cosmopolitan outlook.