Ambient Soundbath Podcast Redux

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Ambient Soundbath Podcast
Ambient Soundbath Podcast Redux

I was listening to Altus’ Sleep Theory, Volume 1 and I felt like I was floating. This isn’t an uncommon experience when listening to the best of what the drone ambient genre has to offer; when the artist has resolved to focus on artistry and experience, letting the compositions be rather than shoe-horning knob twiddling and strange incompatible dissonances into a work to just to showcase some antique synthesizer or obscure vintage noisemaker. Why did Jackson Pollack add a faint white smudge to Lavender Mist? Was he in the rapture of the muse, or felt that it needed that just to shift the focus a bit or perhaps it was just an errant paint drop left for time immemorial. Who can know why an artist does what they do? Often, we ourselves don’t know but when we run the creative gauntlet and come out the other side with a work that endures, well the heavens part and universe becomes a bit brighter than it was moments before.

I feel like this gets to the mission of the Ambient Soundbath Podcast. This thing was never meant to be a money-making endeavor, like some would-be silicon valley entrepreneur, at best or some myopic tech bro, at worst, trying to build the next big something or other. No, this was always supposed to be more like a public service, freely available for those who needed it, subsidized by a handful of generous souls who believed in it, too. I ran things as lean and as efficiently as I could to ensure availability and accessibility, but at the same time I was still an artist, working, living and being buffeted by the muse to and fro.

At the same time, when I started the Ambient Soundbath, podcasts were novel and fringe, so too was streaming as a mechanism for delivering music; two fringe areas that have now become front line earning channels for artists such as myself and Bruce Springsteen, alike, to say nothing of billion dollar pay days to podcast producers; an idea that seemed preposterous only a few years before and now was making podcasting a bit of a gold rush.

One name has come to truly dominate music streaming and podcasting – Spotify.

Ahh, Spotify and their insidious approach to being available everywhere, being dead-easy to use and having a veritable monopoly on the streaming market. Sure, there are others, just like there are alternatives to Google (wink,wink, nod, nod) but their market share is so vast that, well…why bother going anywhere else. Spotify’s availability, free or premium, on your phone, desktop, smart TV or in your car has absolutely changed listening habits, first with music and then more recently with podcasts. Things aren’t going well for them on that front, but having a monopoly gives them some latitude to play around with things, throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. 

Spotify, initially, was great for the Ambient Soundbath – It acted as an aggregator getting the podcast episodes in the Spotify app, where folks were already listening to music, but then they changed their policies and music-only podcasts started getting kicked out; that’s what happened with the Ambient Soundbath. This wasn’t great for the podcast or the listener’s on that platform, but another change that was occurring simultaneously, albeit quietly, was the glut of new Spotify-created editorial playlists for sleep, meditation, relaxation, study, reading etc. that started showing up and even being featured on non-customizable frontpage of Spotify. These thinking/being-related playlists became an immediate threat to the podcast since pods like ours had been kicked off/excluded from the platform, those users intent on sticking with the ease of Spotify just did a quick search and found some other playlist that fit the bill. To be fair, Spotify is killing it and giving folks what they want, but, and this is probably why I’m drafting this long screed. Spotify is marginalizing artists and podcasts like the Ambient Soundbath out of existence by pulling listeners in en masse, altering the service offerings and then changing things up just enough, almost imperceptibly, to keep listeners engaging with the platform. 

It’s this last bit that’s the kind of evil genius that Henry Ford, J.D. Rockefeller or Thomas Edison would have been pleased with because it wasn’t enough to marginalize and significantly undermine and under pay these artists and players, but then seeing the issue of scale they decided to create their own music that sounded like popular ambient, downtempo, jazz, you name it. Spotify then used these ‘works for hire’, a copyright term for a music composition or recording that’s purchased outright vs. licensing, which is pay per use. The producers who created this music have become colloquially known as ‘fake artists’ and Spotify uses these ‘fake artist’ created tracks to populate their big exclusive editorial playlists with these ‘wholly owned ‘works for hire’ so that they didn’t have to pay royalties for the streams. These ‘fake artist’ tracks were then just slid into a playlist (no surprise Spotify often suggests using shuffle mode) next to your favorite Moby or Brian Eno track. Even the best of us were none the wiser to this and many of these tracks are great, such is the case with the sometimes generic nature of the Ambient genre. 

Fake artists have created a lot of ethical issues, but more concerning still is the major investments Spotify has made in AI and machine learning. A time will come when a  $.0001 royalty per stream is too much and they’d like to get it closer to $.0000001, or maybe why are we even bothering with humans? We can pay zero $$$’. Spotify has worked to kick some AI-generated music off, but they’re heavily invested in AI and I believe it’s only a matter of time before they begin investing in the fledgling AI music generation industry, investing in and purchasing companies that could generate tracks to fill these exclusive editorial playlists, something I’ve heard rumors that they’re actively experimenting with and I believe, they’re close to beginning to implement. 

The philosopher in me says none of this matters and this race to the bottom will continue until user listeners get fed up or more likely move on to some other option that builds on what Spotify has created. At the same time, who could’ve imagined vinyl would make a comeback? In this period of late stage capitalism, nobody could have anticipated that so I believe Spotify and maybe even podcasts will run their course and be outmoded, that’s just the natural process. 

For me, however, I feel like there’s still something to do here. Do I act as a human arbiter and curator separating the wheat from the chaff, a lone citadel on the edge of a dying frontier being consumed by The Nothing? Perhaps. I won’t lie, I was ready to pack it in, sell the podcast off or just dump and run, but after so many thoughtful notes, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was throwing something away that didn’t make the world a little brighter, something that folks valued in their own individual ways. Maybe.

I need community, something I’ve talked about before, as working alone in a dark cellar, looking at stats and imagining somebody in Bulgaria enjoying the soothing tones of the most recent episode of the podcast isn’t nearly enough to keep me going. I need the exchange of energy that occurs in a positive interaction, hell, any critical interaction. 

At the same time: Where have all the music journalist’s gone? Why did I give up a moderately successful music journalism foothold? A question I’ve asked myself over and over. In a world with music journalists acting as way finders, ‘fake artists’ and AI-generated music doesn’t stand a chance. So, where are they? Here and there, but mostly lost in a sea of tweets, social media posts and so-called micro reviews. More and more is being said about how social media killed the Internet; this seemed an unlikely perspective, as social media is of the Internet, right? It was until stand-alone apps became exclusive channels unto themselves as apps on your phone, outside of the browser, divorced from the rest of the World Wide Web. Sadly, I think folks are right – Social media did kill the Internet. And with the death of the Internet came the death of the last stronghold of music journalism. 

Well, as a long time music journalist, it might just be time to pick up the pen again and get to work. I stopped because the ephemeral nature of my writing felt unimportant, lost to the winds of time and culture change, but anymore: What isn’t ephemeral and what doesn’t change? Hell, even much of Mark Twain’s writing has been lost to time… and cultural change. If his work can be lost to the ages then I guess I’m Ok with mine being lost too. The important thing is what we do now, in our particular place in time. So with that said, there will be more reviews and commentary popping up on the Ambient Soundbath Podcast and/or website, both the written word and audio voice posts that Spotify might even even let into their black box, but either way, as T.S. Elliott said: You are the music while the music lasts.

If the Ambient Soundbath is going to keep going, like anything, it needs to change, it needs to evolve. As artists, we’re always looking for someone or something that will showcase our work and put it in the best possible light? We want attention and we want recognition. I want those things. I don’t know an artist who doesn’t want those things, otherwise, why bother creating anything and putting it in the world. 

I’m going to stop short of saying the Ambient Soundbath is back, because every time I make such a declaration life interrupts the plan and I do something else; such is the mystery of unseen forces, what Alan Watts called the law of reversed effort, sometimes called the ‘backwards law’.. I can say, however, that I see the value in what has been built here and even if I work on it inconsistently that’s still a net positive that might make the world a little brighter. 

Thanks for reading and/or listening to all this.