Feature :: Desperately Seeking Music

October 16th 2013



You are a shining young modern, a committed cultural consumer who loves music and stays rabidly abreast of new trends. You can call up example after example of cutting edge artists, tunes and blogs as solid evidence of a thriving culture. Why then, do you sometimes get the overwhelming feeling that music today is just shit?

These are feelings that get felt by all generations as they totter off into irrelevance, but I think in the Internet era we may all be susceptible to a bit of this cognitive dissonance (i.e. music is great! but also, terrible).

Notwithstanding the fact that there are obviously a lot of things to be celebrated about the Internet and its effect on culture, the obscene bounty it offers up may be locking us into compulsive cycles of consumption, leaching pleasure from our cultural experiences and leading us down the dank, piss-stinking alley way to musical addiction. And nothing is better at making excellent stuff seem ordinary than addiction.

I make a distinction here between addiction and fandom. While they may look similar in practice, fandom in a musical context is highly discriminate and involves intense engagement, commitment of time and a reciprocation of effort. Addiction in this context, as we’ll see, has an indiscriminate quality. Addiction relies on a steady source of new stimuli, little reciprocation, and causes adaptations in our brains that can distort and diminish our experience. As a fan, your compulsion is about depth; as an addict it is about breadth. The dynamic between music and our brains changes quickly at the whim of new technology, and the bingeing it has facilitated could well end up, literally, as addiction, with all the sensory deadening that it entails.


music on the brainTo understand music consumption in terms of addiction, we need to first get acquainted with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine can be found floating around your synapses, passing information from one neuron to the next, and has been variously linked to things like pleasure, attention, motivation and addiction. In the past, dopamine was considered to be the chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure and enjoyment, satisfying the desire for reward with warm fuzzies.

But recent research shows that dopamine neurotransmission is actually tied to seeking pleasure rather than to the pleasure itself. According to researchers Kent Berridge and Terry Robinson, repeated use of an addictive substance sensitises only those neural systems that mediate the wanting (dopamine), and not those that mediate the liking (opiod).

Put simply, sensitisation of your dopamine system makes you want more and more of a thing without directly affecting how much you like the thing, and as addiction takes hold the “dissociation between ‘wanting’ and liking’ gets progressively greater”. This model for understanding addiction is called incentive sensitisation.

For music junkies this gets real when you consider studies that show our dopamine response to music is similar to responses associated with other addictive behaviours. Daniel Levitin in his book “This Is Your Brain On Music” conducts music listening experiments that show spiking dopamine activity in the nucleus accumbens – a part of the brain susceptible to incentive sensitisation.

With music already acting like a drug as far as our brains are concerned, the Internet may as well be loitering in a Macca’s car park wearing a bumbag.

But apart from just hosting the endless supply, the Internet derives its drug baron status in large part by how artfully it presents it all to us.


According to the incentive-sensitisation model, it’s the “wanting” that gets supercharged, and this wanting is fuelled by cues associated with whatever it is you’re addicted to. A cue is the little sensory prelude to your drug of choice – it may be the clinking of a bottle to an alcoholic, or the sight of a furled up fiver to a coke addict. Contact with these cues triggers progressively more frenzied seeking behaviour.

When it comes to new music, the Internet is a cue-rich environment par excellence. As each dopamine-driven search is immediately gratified, we are presented with our cues; a smorgasbord of recommendations, advertisements and neatly tailored website experiences keeping us head-down in the feedbag. Bring up a Youtube vid of Hot Chip at Coachella and even while you watch the unskippable targeted ad that precedes it, your screen view is crowded with links to other songs from that set, previous Hot Chip shows and clips, shows from other bands at Coachella as well as links associated with your previous searches. A whole screenful of pure, uncut ear candy, baby.

snowkid dome

These cues unleash a dopamine blizzard that puts you straight back on the hunt, discouraging sustained, repeated listening and cheering on the cultural gorgefest. This cycle of seek/gratify/seek is known to Internet addiction researchers as a “dopamine loop”. Rent-boy from Trainspotting wasn’t talking about clicking through links on your news feed when he said “living like this is a full-time business” but for those stuck in dopamine loops, the sentiment holds.

Dopamine loops want more and more stimuli, but in order for the dopamine to keep flowing, the stimuli needs also to be new. By creating an environment in which the next latest thing is so readily available, the Internet has made it nearly impossible to stop long enough to establish a decent connection to any given tune or, god forbid, album. This effect has come to be known popularly as FOMO or “fear of missing out” – addiction by another name.

Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows describes it as being turned “into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment”, and with new pellets of musical nourishment being uploaded at a rate of terabytes per second, the FOMO keeps us running hard in our dopamine hamster-wheels. But it’s not just that the Internet makes the next thing so readily available – it’s also a question of what that next thing is, how it was chosen as such, and what effect this selection process is having on our relationship to music.


For the average user, negotiating the Internet’s disorienting excess can be inconvenient and inefficient – and there are no two dirtier adjectives in the tech world than these. Enter: personalisation. Just about all online enterprises worth their salt are moving towards personalising the customer experience they offer, and as they crunch more and more data and continue to refine their ability to predict our next move, the more efficient and convenient they become.

But is it as simple and benign as that?

Data on everything we look at, click on, search for, and purchase is fed into algorithms that then dictate what we see next, filtering out what they think we may not like and privileging stuff we probably will. This seems, on the face of it, to be a positive development: a relief even. However, in his book The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser argues that by directing our future preferences according to our past ones, vast tracts of the Internet are being walled off from view, and that this is having a deleterious effect on our capacity for discovery, learning and creativity.

“By definition, a world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there is nothing to learn. If personalisation is too acute, it could prevent us from coming into contact with the mind-blowing, preconception-shattering experiences and ideas that change how we think about the world and ourselves.”

But what does this mean in the context of music and addiction? It means that because personalisation knows what your brain is already wired to like, the gratification hit can be delivered even quicker. Google, Spotify, Youtube and Facebook serve up search results and recommendations based on our past preferences, and “protect” us from content that might challenge our existing neural pathways; that may require time and reflection in order to process.

By accelerating the gratification and shortening the time allowed to actually get your head around a piece of music, personalisation becomes another cog in the dopamine loop machine. It keeps our dopamine surging while shielding us from those all-important “preconception-shattering experiences” Pariser is talking about.


bubble cat mac

We now live by the logic “if you liked X, then you will like Y”. Any system based on this logic will inevitably lead to less variation, and less variation prepares the ground for another assault on our musical experience – tolerance. As has been observed with other addictions, repetitive exposure can result in adaptations in our opiod (liking) system that manifest as tolerance, effectively diminishing our pleasure response more and more with every fix. Though a song may tick all the boxes for you, with the development of tolerance, neurological barriers make it harder to connect emotionally to it.

This is the effect that most people intuitively associate with overdoing something – it feels good, you do it too much, you get over it. The next logical step in this sequence is to walk away but we can’t because our seeking is in overdrive. We find ourselves locked in a cultural faraday cage – currents of content surging powerfully all around us while we are kept restrained and unaffected inside.


Looking at modern music consumption through the prism of addiction calls into question some bedrock digital age assumptions – is unrestricted, ubiquitous access to music always better than access made less convenient by the need for some kind of reciprocation? Is immediate algorithm-driven recommendation always preferable to time-consuming independent research and discovery? Is getting ten songs from ten different acts under your belt in an hour always better than dedicating that hour to one album, one band? Is quicker necessarily better than slower? More better than less?

What we are questioning here is the efficiency doctrine. When efficiency is considered the sole measure of value, humanity which is inherently messy and inefficient, gets sidelined. Seamless efficiency is the aspiration of new technology, and this has given rise to ubiquitous smart devices, unlimited free content and personal targeting that generates huge ad revenue for the tech giants. And while companies trying to push consumer addiction is nothing new, new technology is enabling addictive cultural consumption on a scale that was impossible even a decade ago. As we’ve seen, addiction makes great stuff seem shit. It mucks with our brain chemistry and has no patience for the act of savouring. Yet it’s in the act of savouring that we arrive at a deeper appreciation, a deeper understanding and a deeper connection if there is one there to be made.

So how do we reclaim sovereignty over our own neuro-chemistry?

Well, I think a cold turkey strategy is a non-starter. The withdrawals would be too harrowing for a population that now feels entitled, and new generations of crack babies will never have known anything different. Tech-enabled musical addiction is even more robust than drug addiction. Even drug addicts in their honeymoon phase can acknowledge that addiction is not the optimal state; that a bit of agency would be nice, but there is no such acknowledgement when it comes to musical consumption.

While it may be futile to try to roll back the profligacy standardised by the Internet, one measure we can take is to stop being so breezy about new technology – at least give some thought to what each new development is doing to us before we fold it inextricably into our lives. Even if realistically you know you’re not going to stop streaming and torrenting, at least acknowledge that these delivery mechanisms might be having a qualitative effect on your experience. Acknowledge that there are psychological implications to the concept of unfettered access. Acknowledge that there are unseen interests directing what you see and hear in the wake of what you just saw and heard. Acknowledge these things and you may – in the smug parlance of Silicon Valley – “disrupt” your descent into musical addiction. Acknowledge these things because as always, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.



I wrote this piece before the launch yesterday of new music content aggregator Purifier. Here’s a grab from their press release:

“Purifier is an exciting new way to discover a world of music online and via mobile and it’s all at your fingertips 24/7. Now there’s no need for fans to waste time trawling the web looking for the latest news, videos and social media updates from their favourite artists – Purifier let’s all that great music content find you instead!”

Even aside from the slick eugenic taste that the name leaves in your mouth, this platform – in ambition at least – represents the new gold standard in keeping us static and consuming. Initially, Purifier hopes to “create a music community” (before monetising the shit out of that community), but what they may actually be doing is the opposite – deepening our isolation through more refined personalisation and an upping of the intravenous flow of safe content.

The tag line “Let The Music Find You” washes nicely with the popularised notion of “efficiency above all else”, but as I’ve said I think that’s a notion that deserves to be challenged. Purify with caution.

Related Feature: ‘Your Music Is Awful Because…’



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