Monthly Archives: March 2017

Hardcore music fans race to solve the record industry

When he’s choosing your music for you, Carl Chery, 37, is in Culver City, California, sitting at his desk in an office with no signage, trying to decide whether Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” (jumpman, jumpman, jumpman) has jumped the shark. Or sometimes he’s at home in his one-bedroom apartment on the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, walking around in his living room with new Gucci Mane blasting from a Beats Pill. Or at the gym going for a morning run on the treadmill, thinking about your gym and your treadmill, listening through headphones for changes in tempo and tone: Will this song push you through the pain? Is that one too long on the buildup?

“It’s hard to describe because it’s more of a feeling or instinct,” says Chery of his process. He’s from Queens, New York, which, despite his residence in Los Angeles for the past four years, is obvious when you hear him talk. “It kind of just happens. You sit there and you start moving and just do it.”

For a while we thought we could choose our own music. Remember that? In the wake of the last century we seized the right to take our pick from all of the songs in the world (All of the songs in the world!) and told anyone who didn’t like it exactly where they could go. And when it turned out that was too many songs after all (how many lifetimes are needed for a complete survey of Memphis soul? Or Brazilian funk?), a new category of music services appeared to ease our burden. But these services were flawed, said someone about to make a lot of money, and could only recommend music based on what we were already listening to. Did they even really know what we wanted? Do we not contain multitudes? And so now we have people like Chery.

Since he left XXL magazine to join the music-streaming service Beats Music (now Apple Music) as head of hip-hop and R&B programming in 2012, Chery and around a dozen of his colleagues, working largely behind the scenes, have embarked on a never-ending quest to organize every song in history into concise playlists that you can’t live without. (Taylor Swift used one of Chery’s when she fought her treadmill and lost.) In 2014, when Tim Cook explained Apple’s stunning $3 billion purchase of Beats by repeatedly invoking its “very rare and hard to find” team of music experts, he was talking about these guys. And their efforts since, which have pointed toward curated playlists (specifically, an industrial-scale trove of 14,000 and counting) as the format of the future, have helped turn what was once a humble labor of love for music fans into an increasingly high-stakes contest between some of the richest companies in the world.

All vampire night clubs

The first person I met in Berlin was a boar-hunting friend of a friend, who agreed to talk to me only if I didn’t print his name. He was in his early forties, six and a half feet tall, muscular, lean, and fair, with shaggy reddish-brown hair, some stubble, and a great deal of self-confidence. He had on worn jeans, biker boots, a loose faded black T-shirt, and a scarf, and yet I’ll confess I found myself picturing him trim and tidy in Heidelberg duelling garb. Preconceptions can be hard to shake when you’re fresh in town.

It was a Sunday night in the dregs of December, sleety and dark. We were at a bar in Mitte, the formerly bombed-out and abandoned East Berlin district that was reclaimed by squatters, clubbers, and artists after the Wall came down and is now agleam with fancy restaurants, galleries, and shops. Transplants often describe Berlin’s neighborhoods as analogues of New York’s, to assess where they fit along the gentrification continuum. Mitte, they say, is SoHo. Like SoHo, it is often full of tourists. But this bar, an early post-Wall pioneer, had a gruff, local air.

The boar hunter stirred an espresso at arm’s length and regarded me with martial skepticism. He was a veteran of the city’s after-hours party scene, but he seemed weary of it. “Everyone knows about this,” he said. “You should write instead about black rhinos.” He’d recently bought fifteen thousand acres in Namibia, in a rhinoceros preserve, to help support a conservation program. He said, “I once shot an elephant.”

He had moved to Berlin from Düsseldorf in 1993. He was a philosopher by training (his business card had him as a “Dr.”) but an industrialist by trade: he’d inherited a manufacturing firm from his father, and had done well enough with it to pursue a life of pleasure and ease, though without ostentation, in keeping with the ethos of Berlin. He’d recently returned from a four-week surfing trip to the Basque coast, where he and a girlfriend—two, actually: one for the first half of the trip, and one for the second—had lived out of a VW bus. There were other women in his life, among them a physician’s wife, whom he’d met online. (“He gave her fake tits—Thank you, Mister!”) He described his plans for the following weekend: a day hunting wild boar in a forest on the city’s outskirts, then a “sex party” (which should never be said without a German accent) at an acquaintance’s apartment, where he’d arrive with one woman but pair up with others (“It’s a seedy thing”), and, finally, perhaps, just before Sunday dawn, Berghain.

Berghain is a night club that opened in 2004 in an abandoned power plant in what used to be East Berlin. The name is a mashup of the last syllable of its neighborhood, Friedrichshain, and the one across the Spree, Kreuzberg, on what was once the other side of the Wall. It is the most famous techno club in the world—to Berlin what Fenway is to Boston—and yet still kind of underground and, as such, a microcosm of Berlin. The people I’d talked to who had been to Berghain—and there were many—conjured ecstatic evenings, Boschian contortions, and a dusky Arcadia that an American hockey dad like me had never even imagined wanting to experience.

Favourite music over and over again

What is music? There’s no end to the parade of philosophers who have wondered about this, but most of us feel confident saying: ‘I know it when I hear it.’ Still, judgments of musicality are notoriously malleable. That new club tune, obnoxious at first, might become toe-tappingly likeable after a few hearings. Put the most music-apathetic individual in a household where someone is rehearsing for a contemporary music recital and they will leave whistling Ligeti. The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’

Psychologists have understood that people prefer things they’ve experienced before at least since Robert Zajonc first demonstrated the ‘mere exposure effect’ in the 1960s. It doesn’t matter whether those things are triangles or pictures or melodies; people report liking them more the second or third time around, even when they aren’t aware of any previous exposure. People seem to misattribute their increased perceptual fluency – their improved ability to process the triangle or the picture or the melody – not to the prior experience, but to some quality of the object itself. Instead of thinking: ‘I’ve seen that triangle before, that’s why I know it,’ they seem to think: ‘Gee, I like that triangle. It makes me feel clever.’ This effect extends to musical listening. But evidence has been accumulating that something more than the mere exposure effect governs the special role of repetition in music.

To begin with, there’s the sheer amount of it. Cultures all over the world make repetitive music. The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl at the University of Illinois counts repetitiveness among the few musical universals known to characterise music the world over. Hit songs on American radio often feature a chorus that plays several times, and people listen to these already repetitive songs many times. The musicologist David Huron at Ohio State University estimates that, during more than 90 per cent of the time spent listening to music, people are actually hearing passages that they’ve listened to before. The play counter in iTunes reveals just how frequently we listen to our favourite tracks. And if that’s not enough, tunes that get stuck in our heads seem to loop again and again. In short, repetition is a startlingly prevalent feature of music, real and imagined.

In fact, repetition is so powerfully linked with musicality that its application can dramatically transform apparently non-musical materials into song. The psychologist Diana Deutsch, at the University of California, San Diego, discovered a particularly powerful example – the speech-to-song illusion. The illusion begins with an ordinary spoken utterance, the sentence ‘The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible.’ Next, one part of this utterance – just a few words – is looped several times. Finally, the original recording is represented in its entirety, as a spoken utterance. When the listener reaches the phrase that was looped, it seems as if the speaker has broken into song, Disney-style.