Perfect pissing contest: the perils of playlist profusion

August 26, 2013
by Jasper Willems

 

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Ever since its launch late March, the Dutch music community has embraced open sourced streaming platform Perfects.nl. While we at Luifabriek can appreciate its alluring design, lofty ambitions and fundamental perks, its apparent outline provoked a lot of questions.

Act 1: Perfects.nl and its apparent outline

A year ago I felt like I was way in over my head as far as modern day music consumption goes. The sheer amount of music directly available at your fingertips via streaming sites such as Spotify, Deezer, SoundCloud and MixCloud felt like being stuck inside a cash cube. You frantically flail your arms all over the place, hoping to catch something that’ll keep the eager ear enticed for a significant amount of time. Thankfully, there are a lot of knowledgeable pundits who can help filter ‘quality’ from ‘quantity’, right?

Enter Perfects.nl, a guide that allows today’s connoisseurs of the music bizz – journalists, artists, hobbyists and entrepeneurs alike – to concoct playlists that serve as beacons within the dark, vast ocean that is music streaming. These compilations are either categorized by artist (for instance, Perfect Muse), genre (Perfect Britpop) or theme (Perfect Cowbell). Eventually, as more playlists get published, Perfects.nl expands as a database that suits your musical proclivity whenever called upon.

Sounds too good to be true, right? Actually, for most users it is: while in the midst of a busy day job, cosy family life or a case of sheer boredom and apathy, exploring the unrelenting flurry of new promising releases can be a painstaking thing. It’s a relief to have people around whose expertise you trust enough to process and filter music into a tantalizing brew that’s easy to guzzle down. After all, not everyone’s cuckoo enough to rummage knee deep through the musical wastelands. Perfects.nl beguiles the more casual fans with an adorned overview of delicious samples.

Indeed, this stratagem by Niels Aalberts, Luuk Kloosterboer, Wilbert Leering and Norbert Pek has caught on quickly, with many well-respected Dutch music aficionado’s, namely Atze de Vrieze, Paul “DJ St. Paul” Nederveen, Kees de Koning, Saul van Stapele, Gijsbert Kamer and Leo Blokhuis, hopping on the Perfects-bandwagon in short order. Perfects.nl gives the listener a nice small pond to fish in: if you can catch the smaller fish, you can use it as bait to throw the line into the music streaming server of your choice. It provides a fantastic entry point for those who wish to discover music at their own desired pace.

Still though, with all its palatable perks, there’s something that keeps buggin’ me about this Perfects.nl. The critique is not necessarily aimed at its apparent good intentions, but more towards its overall outline. ‘Perfect’ – maybe the word itself just rubs me the wrong way. It kinda feels like high school all over again: the cool kids establish a trend, and those not succumbing to peer pressure are the misguided freaks. One of my nicknames in ’95 was “Oasis” simply because I wore a friggin’ denim blouse (…waitaminute! that STILL stings a bit…darn you, repressed memory!).

Anyway, I digressed for a sec there. Sorry ’bout that. Where were we…oh right! Not succumbing to peer pressure! The -perfect- playlist: is there really such a thing? Initially, it reminded me of that creepy car salesman with the painted smile who tries to fix you up with a state-of-the-art Kia, with more arbitrary features than Xzibit’s Pimp My Ride-crew can count. When someone claims to have made the Perfect (with a capital P no less!) playlist, my reaction, naturally, is to question this completely. It’s the same kind of cynicism that made half the country question and reject John Ewbank’s ‘Koningslied’ as official theme for King Willem Alexander’s crowning.

The difference is, obviously, that a lot of these playlists are assembled by people whose opinion I truly value and above all, take very seriously. But for some reason it awakens the oddball outcast I was regarded as back in high school. I wore my Nirvana and Sepultura shirts with pride and refused to give in to the gabber-subculture that was all the rage back then. On a site like Perfects.nl, musical taste seems more like a fashion statement as opposed to something personal to pass on from one individual to another. It feels like a pissing contest between curators to gain a superficial and smug sense of entitlement, where the rest of the pack has to fall in line with an unwavering, all abiding acumen. But in all likelihood, this isn’t Perfects.nl’s true intention.

Intentions aside: let’s analyse whether these ‘perfect’ playlists can augment the listening experience in any significant way. One question to keep in mind: why should we care for Perfects.nl any more than the plethora of nonessential (mwahaha) compilations released by record companies to suck up more revenue? To put it more bluntly: what’s in it for us? It seems more like Perfects.nl gives anyone the opportunity to soapbox their own personal listening experience. But even by those standards, the word ‘perfect’ feels quite cumbersome. To me, personally, listening to music is like this boisterous journey: you undertake its peaks and valleys, its occasional pitfalls, its soaring, blissful takeoffs, its tantalizing complexions.

From my own experience, nearly every great album has at least one terrible song on it. For instance The Flaming Lips’s The Soft Bulletin – one of my favorite records of all time – contains the song What Is The Light?? Terrible song, in my opinion. But it’s an essential part of the album’s trajectory, because of its confluence with the magnificent intermezzo The Observer. Point is, a great album is usually better than the sum of its parts, something all pop critics can safely agree on, whatever our predilections may be. Otherwise we’d be bashing Abbey Road simply because of Octopus’s Garden. That wouldn’t make sense now, would it?

I have no problem with the opportunities Spotify or Deezer present for anyone remotely into music. On the contrary, the ability to share seemingly unlimited amounts of music and playlists with anyone around the world might actually enrich us in the long run, even though it feels like being stuck inside that cash cube. Because of the sheer magnitude of it all, it’s easy to forget that time when your endearing Uncle Goober gave you that hodgepodge cassette mix of seventies rock classics. We’ve come to accept that we’ll never hear all the music that’s ever going to be made. But in my opinion, the beauty of music isn’t something that needs confinement within an antithesis such as ‘perfection’ like some preserved prehistoric fossil. Its ability to make an impact and surmount during any era under any circumstance needs to be celebrated on equal footing instead of lavishly holding it up on display.

That’s exactly why I find it somewhat credulous to expect a ‘perfect’ playlist to live up to that merit. It feels like a quick fix prescription to advocate something that’s supposed to be a very personal thing. It’s like nurse Ratched force-feeding you happy pills before driving circles on the parking lot with your head sticking out of the car window like a drooling Dogue de Bordeaux. I’m definitely not trying to throw a tantrum: I recognise the value Perfects.nl can potentially have for anyone who’s remotely into music – listener and curator alike – no matter the means in which you intend to share or discover it. But its stuck-up predisposition compels me to continue rummaging on my own and hear the I-told-you-so’s later.

Act 2: The ensuing discussion

Perhaps I am looking too far into this – that’s simply because I haven’t quite figured out what Perfect.nl’s true purpose is. I’m trying, dammit. But it’s overall outline has left me with an abundance of questions that could only be answered with the ensuing discussion this article would’ve sparked. A discussion that started prematurely on July 8th 2013, when Incubate-programmer and promoter Peter Meeuwsen openly questioned Perfects.nl on Twitter, after arguing the selections of one particular playlist, Perfect Glasgow. “No Arab Strap, no Vaselines…not to be taken seriously!”, he quipped. He subsequently tweeted: “Perfect is a strange thing to call it: this list is only perfect according to one person. The rest of the world might have slightly different preferences.”

Meeuwsen argued that the term ‘perfect’ is too objective to quantify music with. Journalists Erwin Blom, Theo Ploeg and Perfects co-founder Niels Aalberts quickly debunked this concern. Ploeg: “Perfect is as subjective as can be, and that’s a good thing. The perfect playlist according to its maker.” Aalberts: “You summarized it well – ‘according to its maker’. Which is a nice counterbalance with the word ‘Perfect.” It was at that precise moment that I could no longer withhold my absence in this discussion, having already written the first act of this particular article. Aalberts’s statement just seemed totally random to me: why would anyone name this platform ‘Perfects.nl’ unless you want to provoke serious discussion?

So there I went, firing away some of the critical points I assessed in Act 1: why does Perfects.nl’s’ public profile seem so smug by putting their playlists so opulently on display, even using them to promote festivals and whatnot? Aalberts, Wilbert Leering and Norbert Pek quickly congregated to parry the barrage of questions headed their way. Pek simply considers Perfects.nl a humble platform where music fanatics can geek around, discover and tell personal stories about the music they listen to. Blom states that arguing selections – like Meeuwsen did – is actually part of the fun (which is true, I guess). And Leering believes that the word ‘perfect’ attributes to creating an open dialogue for music fans, because it has such a disparate meaning by itself.

A personal hobby that got a little out of hand, as Aalberts puts it. He explains that Perfects.nl is by no means harvested by an inner circle: anyone is free to submit their own ‘Perfect’-playlists. Aalberts: “ During the first two weeks after the site launch we received over 120 contributions. That’s a lot for the internet. Apparently our hobby fulfills a need. But it’s a hobby, no more, no less.” Nonetheless, a hobby that compelled Aalberts to send a press release to everyone remotely active within the music media carousel. Clearly, the stakes are higher than just allowing music fans to “fulfill a need”. If its purpose was to simply share music within a community, Aalberts could’ve easily promoted it from his own backyard. He is one of the most prolific and shrewd entrepeneurs in the business. People will hang onto his word, most evidently via his most insightful blogosphere Eerste Hulp Bij Plaatopnamen, from which he’s sadly withdrawing.

If creating a sense of community is part of Perfect.nl’s ideals, I have little to argue against. Ten years ago, I discovered nearly all my favorite music by (over)zealously posting at various message boards – so I have absolutely no quips with sharing music within a community. In fact, the power of community is something I find nothing short of enriching, especially when its members are as knowledgeable as they are outspoken. Back in the day for instance, a collective of highly opinionated, prolific music junkies called De Subjectivisten shook the upper crust of Dutch music journalism, drawing inspiration from a more personal brand of writing practiced by pioneers such as Hunter S. Thompson and Lester Bangs. Many of these writers are still ubiquitous figures within today’s music industry: Pek, Ploeg, Incubate-egghead and activist Joost Heijthuijsen, KindaMuzik-editor Martijn ter Haar and renowned francophillian Guuz Hoogaerts, to name a few.

Pek playfully prods into my bellyache: “You have the right to be critical. But I’m actually kind of glad you never experienced the early Subjectivisten-era. You would’ve had three heart attacks already.” Perhaps he’s right…or perhaps – in all modesty – my criticism would’ve been widely advocated. If there is one thing De Subjectivisten personified, it’s calling out the establishment and not being shy about it. One of the exact reasons why I eagerly chose to participate with Luifabriek – to heed some of the ideals De Subjectivisten left out to dry. And despite Perfect.nl’s humble, reasonable intent – in my opinion – its actions still somewhat contradict its disposition as an open sourced music platform.

For instance, how can you claim to be open sourced when only a handful of these ‘hundreds of individuals’ have submitted their playlists? If these playlists are constructed from a personal angle – fulfilling his “need” to contribute to the website should conform to anyone instead of simply the more cultivated individuals. Aalberts states here that not giving in to the limitless wisdom of the crowd isn’t the same as being smug, which of course, is perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, this notion also creates a tenuous disparity between Perfects.nl’s function as a guide and as a platform for fans to submit playlists.

Which brings me – ultimately – to the heart of the matter: is it healthy to give music sharing a platform to begin with? Why make a playlist something of a commodity instead of simply an efficient expedient to share music? Long before the days of music streaming, mixtapes became a cultural phenomenon, popularized by the uprise of hiphop during the eighties. Able to spread and customize compilations and mixes was out of necessity, because previously there was no sound carrier that enabled anyone to record music themselves with just a simple button press. Its physical nature – even as artists started producing mixtapes for promotional use – always ensures you obtain some kind of exotic rarity, one like no other. Because of that, there was no need to question its canon. You could either flip it into the tape deck or let it collect dust.

Because music streaming allows you to assemble playlists on a whim, Perfects.nl’s MO makes it difficult for the listener to engage without devising their own didactic alternative. Therefore making the idea of experiencing the music itself somewhat superfluous. Metaphorically speaking, watching exotic wildlife in a zoo isn’t nearly as enthralling as going on a safari trip to a vast, unknown environment. There’s nothing more thrilling than the feeling you get when you discover music on your own terms (which has nothing to do with not being receptive to other peoples’ recommendations, on the contrary actually). Even though Perfects.nl’s magnanimous goal is to enrich, engage and inspire, its contrived, insubstantial format doesn’t quite tally up to these lofty promises.

“I keep looking forward to the day when music is a liquid they pour into your head.” – Wayne Coyne

 

 

 

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