From Music to Movies: How Digital Platforms Influence Our Cultural Consumption
ART BY BY UNMANI TEWARI
Yesterday, I witnessed the advent of another new Spotify campaign: “put your friends on to Hotline TNT through a collaborative playlist,” it suggested (an “indie shoegaze” band I, admittedly, like a lot). While collaborative playlists aren’t new to the platform, Spotify’s most recent effort encourages you to create collaborative playlists with the intent of “putting your friends onto culture,” placing each individual into a hierarchy of cultural knowledge and the artist within a hierarchy of cultural value. “It’s hard to have an insular and individual experience,” fourth-year dual-degree student Adrian Wong said. This is a shockingly plain expression of the structures that I seek to examine in this article. This newfound focus on individual consumption as a site of cultural creation is achieved through identity formation, in which the individual seeks to embody a commodified personhood. The encouragement of aestheticized relations with cultural output by platforms like Spotify, Letterboxd, and Goodreads has prompted the commodification of that culture.
With artistic production now all but reliant on internet pathways to “exist” within a cultural canon, the platforms through which cultural products are spread influence the perceived merit and value of that art. This commodification of culture is propagated by socially oriented sites that focus on a single art form like Letterboxd and Goodreads as well as those offering both consumption and social engagement, namely Spotify. These sites of cultural-artistic identification are particularly prevalent in collegiate environments like Tufts, and, as Wong stated, they have “become platforms that build social cohesion.” They have reconstructed our collective cultural landscape in a way that reproduces bias, affirms hierarchies of cultural value, forms cycles of exclusion, and pushes art toward monoculture.
Platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr offer a point of entry through which people can broadly engage with cultural interests in the digital company of friends and familiars. Another appeal is the ease with which they allow users to make connections. This is the consequence of suggested content, user algorithms, and forum-like comment sections that unite individuals through a shared appreciation of content. The content mediation that occurs on these platforms provides an initial value determination of all of the cultural output that passes through their doors. Furthermore, posting acts as a declaration of visibility—a proclamation of limits, which establishes what is allowable to us within a creative form, whether that be music, film, or literature—and in turn is essential to the processes of commodification and promoting monoculture.
Let us begin by examining two “socialized database” platforms, Letterboxd and Goodreads. These platforms tend to be popular among the arts-oriented crowd at Tufts due to what senior Mariana Janer-Agrelot described as, “an appeal to the brand of not being mainstream.” While each caters to a particular niche, Letterboxd intended for enjoyers of the silver screen and Goodreads meant for bookworms, each functions on a similar premise. These platforms amass an expansive archive of works (titles of movies and books in this case), creating an extensive database for users to access. The art within their collections is inevitably commodified by the platform-curator and then positioned within a cultural hierarchy of value. Letterboxd and Goodreads may not allow users to directly consume the content they focus on, but they streamline its critical assessment and cultural placement through their curation efforts, and as Wong said “you’re constantly inundated with what other people think.” This takes many forms, including themed lists, promoted reviews, or suggested films and books on Letterboxd and Goodreads. A prime example of the “consumption panopticon” is the presentation of a user’s top four picks on Goodreads, which senior River Smith described as being, “a deliberate process because I knew it was going to be the first thing everyone saw.”
This digital environment homogenizes cultural discussion and critique by promoting hierarchies of value and credibility, as well as a path toward uniformity, encouraged by the centrality of ratings and reviews on these websites. As Wong said, ratings and reviews on these platforms provide “an open field for people to compare taste and to see who’s doing a good job of building their repertoire of knowledge.” A platform that allows users to view which works and user-critics are highlighted will always be swimming toward a monoculture because it profits from singularity—it is easier to promote oneness than complexity and vibrancy. This is exemplified by the marketing campaigns featured on these platforms, notably Letterboxd, which spotlights certain users or films both within the database itself and on other social media platforms. One example is the hegemonic presence of Karsten Runquist on Letterboxd, whose reviews consistently receive more attention than anyone else on the site. His YouTube channel is sponsored by the platform, and he operates in a “supposed central role” to Letterboxd’s dynamics, according to Wong. In the end, the celebrity of Karsten Runquist (and similar phenomena) demonstrates a tendency of companies to leverage cultural hierarchies in a way that, in effect, limits cultural consumption.
Take Spotify—the monopoly the platform aims to have over the curation and consumption of music is indicative of its desired role in cultural commodification. Spotify produces an environment in which artists and their music lose all agency, with artists’ survival dependent on their cooperation with what Spotify deems worth promoting, such as marketable “subcultures” or trends. This is only exacerbated by the fact that, as Smith stated, “To exist as an account on a website like Letterboxd or Spotify means that you are creating content for that website, whether you’re aware or not.” I would add, you’re also contributing to its power; user engagement with Spotify’s version of cultural subgroups is essential to feeding its process. While the platform lacks total control over music curation and consumption, it has become essential to the music world. As a consequence, no matter what musicians create, they must cede to the labels and commodities that Spotify wants to offer its customers. This is because art consumption, especially with music, has been shifted heavily to streaming and Spotify’s model compensates artists at a completely unlivable rate of $0.003 to $0.005 cents per stream. Currently, their payouts in no way provide anything resembling a living wage for artists, but finding success on the platform can lead to sold-out shows or merch success, which are far more profitable artist ventures. Furthermore, in a digital world that has placed the impetus on artists to self-promote to create awareness around their work, Spotify acts as a necessary evil which entrenches the struggles of non-confirming and innovative output. As a consequence, experimental and marginalized scenes are consistently pushed to the bottom rung of the platform’s hierarchies of value, unless they offer Spotify the opportunity to engage in a performative undertaking for “the good of the culture,” something my interviewees categorically indicated they did not care about.
The same dynamics are replicated in other sites of cultural consumption; for instance, film studios market their new releases with Letterboxd ratings in mind, and videos of directors or actors reacting to reviews are commonplace. As Janer-Agrelot told me, she is “always thinking about how many stars to give a movie” when she watches one, so the tactics are certainly working. Cultural output has become a marketable commodity, and creatives are increasingly dependent on connecting their work with a commodified identity by way of these platforms.
A positionality is being created which falsely propagates the idea that anyone can become part of the canon’s outlets of criticism, or that there is a meaningful awareness of the relation between the artist, their work, and those who engage with that work. But the reality is that the new critics are the industries that capitalize on that art: record labels, film studios, publishing houses, and the platforms themselves. As with Spotify’s recent rollout of opportunities to advantage certain artists through paid promotion on the platform, the industry has recognized the potential that lies in how the ultra-curated nature of these databases have and will continue to transform the landscape of culture. Now more than ever, our connection with artistic-cultural output is being degraded into buying a commodified identity-product. Now, listening to Loveless and Souvlaki is a stand-in for real involvement in an independent music scene, watching A24 films serves a cultural demarcation of being part of a group with “true” cinema fans (which often carries with it misogynistic intentions), and having read the entire works of Kafka as a signifier of advanced socio-cultural knowledge. What we choose to do in response to this flattening of cultural consumption into a product is what matters most. Buy your favorite artist’s records, go to the movies, ask a professor their favorite books—break free from the limits of these hegemonies and biases, break free from the patterns of monoculture, and find a new path forward that pursues the groundbreaking, the marginalized, the challenging, and all the possibilities they hold.