Dance music powerhouse Ministry of Sound have commenced legal action against Spotify for breach of copyright with regards to user generated Spotify playlists replicating Ministry compilations and sometimes including Ministry labeling. The case obviously raises some important legal issues, but more significantly it raises the question of just how much is curation worth?
All of the big streaming services have been falling over themselves to state that curation is at the core of what they are and of what makes them different. Unfortunately the term curation means nothing to most consumers other than conjuring up images of fusty old librarians. But leaving that small inconvenience aside, the value of curation to the industry side of the equation is clear…or is it? The problem with 22 million songs is that the consumer is paralyzed by the tyranny of choice. There is so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all. Curation, editorial, programming, whatever you want to call it, is crucial. People are sheep, they need leading. Some need leading a little, some need leading a lot, but all of them – or at the very least the vast majority of them – need leading.
In the analogue era when media companies controlled the distribution channels most audiences relied upon professional ‘curators’ to show them what to consume. These curators were radio DJs, newspaper and magazine editors, TV show hosts etc. They were trusted voices whose influence status was validated by dint of the fact that they were paid to shape the tastes of millions. One of the founding ideologies of the internet was that these curators would be brushed aside in a groundswell of democratization of consumer choice. These curators suddenly became labeled gatekeepers and became a symbol of the old control-era. The problem is that not only have those gatekeepers been replaced by the algorithms of technology companies, but the algorithms that have replaced them inherently lack the years of human experience and expertise the old curators brought. Initiatives such as the Music Genome Project and the Echonest are standout examples of technology-driven recommendation best practice, but few would question that the human touch also plays a crucial role in curation, whether that be personal recommendations from friends or family, or playlists selected by Pitchfork. But wherever you stand on the human vs robot debate, the value of curated discovery in a boarder sense is universally recognized.
Which brings us to the Ministry of Sound situation. Ministry have spent years building the expertise of knowing how to put together a dance compilation and as a result building a brand as a trusted curator of taste. It is all too easy to dismiss the role of compilations as superficial and irrelevant in the age of the playlist, but there is a reason that some compilations, such as the ubiquitous Now series, do so well and others do not. As a former DJ I know only too well the depth of thought and preparation that goes into building a set, into identifying which songs mixes well into the next, ensuring that one track does not play out of key with another when it is pitch shifted into the next, of how build a progression of sound that ebbs and flows, that balances consistency with variation. There is a reason that Spotify users have been recreating Ministry of Sound playlists rather than creating their own dance music playlists.
As the Ministry court case progresses there will be a stern test of whether the copyright of a selection of songs holds legal water in the digital arena in the way that sound copyright does. Whether it does or not though is almost not the issue. The core question here is just how much do streaming services like Spotify truly value curation? Do they value it in terms of ‘yes it’s a nice little extra to have’ or do they view it as ‘it is a crucial part of our users’ experience and therefore of our future success and we thus value it at x’? If it is the latter it is time for them to put the money where their proverbial mouth is. If it is not then it is time for streaming services to stop talking about the value of curation.
Note: I am indebted to Eli Pariser’s ‘Filter Bubble’ TED speech for some of the ideas in this blog post