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Uneasy Listening: My Year of Surrendering to the Strange, Soothing Power of the YouTube Algorithm

One bleary late night this summer, a friend played me The Ghost Trade, the lone 1986 album by Camberwell Now, a short-lived band formed from the ashes of seminal British art-punks This Heat. I immediately fell for its hurtling rhythms and uncanny glow, but quickly found that it wasn’t available on my streaming service of choice, or in any of the local shops I visited. I began listening obsessively on YouTube, where plenty of minor masterpieces and historical curiosities like The Ghost Trade live among chintzy royalty-free rap beats and acoustic Jake Paul covers. Many of this music is otherwise unavailable to stream, uploaded on presumably questionable copyright grounds, and liable to disappear at any moment.

When The Ghost Trade finished playing, the site’s algorithm for recommending related videos would often launch automatically into the latest release by a very different group: Dwarfs of East Agouza, a trio of free improvisers that formed in Cairo in 2012. It was a surprising shift, but the two acts shared a similarly exploratory sensibility, and YouTube astutely figured that a fan of one might enjoy the other. I kept listening as one recommendation begat another: free jazz, minimalist organ music, French funk ensembles, Korean soul singers.

YouTube understandably keeps the specific mechanics of its automated recommendations pretty close to the chest, at least in part because revealing them would make attempts to game the system even more widespread and blatant than they already are. The broad strokes we do know about the algorithm, as laid out in a 2016 research paper by several Google developers, are not particularly surprising, though they can be unnerving to think about for too long. YouTube generates a pool of candidate videos based on data points including the videos you’ve watched in the past, the time you’ve spent watching them, whether you clicked like or dislike, the terms you’ve searched for, and whatever demographic information it has amassed about you. Eventually, it winnows that pool down into the set of videos it believes will keep you watching—and absorbing preroll clips from the advertisers that are its true customers—for the longest possible time.

Despite whatever reservations I may have about that process, my initial encounter with The Ghost Trade changed my listening habits drastically this year. I had begun by using YouTube deliberately to fill a gap in Spotify’s collection, but the site’s eerily insightful recommendations soon took over, thrusting me toward music I may never have encountered without them. These days, I’ll get to the office and cue up a fan-compiled collection of Aphex Twin rarities, or a krautrock classic that’s lost to the streaming era, to listen while I work. No matter what I play, it’s likely the algorithm will then select Green, an understated 1986 album by a relatively obscure conceptual-artist-turned-electronic-musician named Hiroshi Yoshimura, as the following course. After that, I might get Yoshimura’s Soundscape 1: Surround, also from ‘86, or 1993’s Wet Land. Another video might lead me to 1984’s Air in Resort, my favorite Yoshimura record so far, whose impressionistic keyboard lines are augmented with field recordings of running water and chirping birds. Now, I listen to Yoshimura’s music almost every day, both because I find it tremendously moving and because YouTube won’t stop playing it.

A Japanese composer who worked most fruitfully in the ‘80s and died in 2003, Yoshimura is largely unknown to mainstream American audiences today. His placid instrumental miniatures seem to envision a utopian future and ache with the knowledge that it will never arrive. For Western ears, the easiest reference point is Brian Eno’s ambient music, which was apparently influential to Yoshimura at the time. Like Eno’s ambient albums, Yoshimura’s are slow, quiet, spare, and beatless, revealing emotional resonance with focused listening, but also fading easily to the background if your attention drifts elsewhere. And there was an earthy plaintiveness to Yoshimura that affected me on an emotional level, more so than Eno ever had.

At some point, something led YouTube’s software to guess that I would have this sort of reaction to Yoshimura’s work. Then I listened to him and reinforced that suspicion, increasing the likelihood that YouTube would send me back there next time I listened to something else vaguely similar, and so on, creating a kind of algorithmic feedback loop. If the music weren’t so good, it might feel like a trap. Instead, the Yoshimura videos are more like an oasis, their luminous synth melodies providing temporary respite from the overbearing bad vibes of the internet at large. Other listeners have detected the same idyllic energy. “thank you all the hiroshi lovers out there,” reads the top comment on Wet Land, from one Vlad Chernushchenko. “i feel kind of unity with so much people on this planet.”

For fans of outré sounds, YouTube’s recommendations algorithm seems especially preoccupied with music like Yoshimura’s. Watering a Flower, a 1984 ambient collection by Haruomi Hosono of the legendary Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra, was initially composed as background music for the first Muji store, in Tokyo. This music has also enjoyed a recent renaissance driven partially by its popularity on YouTube, appearing on listening guides and inspiring lengthy essays despite its inauspicious origins, and the fact that it is nearly impossible to find outside of the video streaming site. Midori Takada’s Through the Looking Glass, a similarly minimal Japanese album from 1983, shot from obscurity to become a critical lodestar after some quirk of the algorithm began funneling curious listeners toward its peaceful polyrhythms, racking up over two million views before the original upload was pulled down for a copyright violation. Last year, Through the Looking Glass became the second-best-selling item on Discogs, the online secondhand vinyl marketplace. Though uploads of Yoshimura’s albums generally remain in the hundreds of thousands of plays, his music may be approaching a similar level of demand: an original vinyl copy of Green is currently going for $1,500 on Discogs, and a cassette version sold last year for $300.

The surge of listeners to Through the Looking Glass led to a popular vinyl reissue of the album on the Swiss label WRWTFWW in 2017, and a bona fide second act for Takada herself, who earlier this year toured the U.S. for the first time at age 66. Yoshimura’s debut album Music for Nine Postcards was similarly reissued not long after Takada’s. And as the visual artist and album cover designer Robert Beatty recently pointed out in a tweet, a 1990 album called Musica Para el Fin de los Cantos by Ukranian-Spanish ambient musician Iury Lech was also reissued in 2017 after regularly turning up in the recommended column. “What records get reissued is becoming predictable based on the YouTube recommended algorithm,” Beatty wrote at the time. “It’s all good music, but a strange phenomenon.”

Despite this creepy inhuman quality, and YouTube’s status as a subsidiary of a dystopian tech monopoly, the messy alternating mix of free-association and prolonged fixation that characterizes music discovery on the site strikes me as more relatable than Spotify’s comparatively laser-guided recommendations—more like the experience of stumbling across and growing to love real records in a real world populated by enthusiastic fans. YouTube’s idiosyncratic obsessions, served to such a broad range of listeners, suggest that the algorithm is perhaps not as all-powerful as we fear. (Surely, Yoshimura and Takada do not represent the platonic ideal of music for every single crate-digger on the internet?) Lately, labels large and small have churned out oceans of stylish and inoffensive ‘80s-nostalgic midtempo melodic pop songs that could have been reverse-engineered to match the “vibes” of Spotify’s popular official playlists. The perceptible effects of YouTube’s algorithm—new audiences, touring opportunities, and carefully considered reissues for underappreciated older musicians—seem more benign.

Still, my descent into YouTube led me to think about the spread of fringe right-wing conspiracy theory content on the platform, as documented by investigations by Buzzfeed, the Wall Street Journal, and the nonprofit research institute Data & Society. (This month, a Democratic congressman confronted Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the dissemination of a conspiracy theory, largely via YouTube, about a video that supposedly shows Hillary Clinton ripping off a child’s face and wearing it as a mask.) The Journal story showed how a mainstream news clip about a topic like 9/11 could lead a viewer to a sequence of recommended videos with an increasingly tenuous relationship to verifiable fact, so that “even…users [who] haven’t shown interest” in conspiracy theories might eventually be served conspiracy videos. For me, the content is very different, but the trajectory quite similar, and the algorithm is the same. It was a personalized (and altogether less harmful) version of how it might feel to be sucked into the InfoWars rabbithole. I came looking for British post-punk, and at some point along the way I was radicalized as a fan of Japanese ambient music.

My Yoshimura listening, which happens mostly at work, also reminds me of corners of the music internet that I find alienating: YouTube streams like the massively followed lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to, or the profusion of Muzak-ish pseudonymous stock music on Spotify’s ambient playlists. These channels peddle music as an endless stream of pure mood, decontextualized from any substance, like Eno or Yoshimura with the heart removed and the blood sucked out. They reduce music to bare function, designed not to move you but simply to fill space, a soundtrack for performing the disembodied labor of the internet-era economy. (Or, as hinted in the YouTube stream’s title, to help you pass the college exams that will grant you access to such employment later on.) On the opening track of The Ghost Trade, the album that started my YouTube explorations in the first place, Charles Haywood of Camberwell Now sings repetitively about “curtains drawn while the sun shines” and “wheels of industry turning around,” while the music barrels away behind him. It may have been a more apposite introduction to this journey than I realized at the time.

Lo-fi house, a newish electronic music subgenre built on misty chord progressions and softly shuffling drums, typified by artists like DJ Boring and Ross From Friends, also found popularity in part via the YouTube algorithm. It strikes me as non-coincidental that the best of this music, much like Yoshimura’s, is unobtrusive and utilitarian on the surface, with ineffable but unmistakable melancholy just beneath. In a depressing but understandable reaction to the way we live our lives today, this house music is not made for communal jubilation, like virtually all house music before it, but for sitting alone, with earbuds. It channels both the visionary promise of online life and the acute loneliness that all those mediating screens actually bring about for so many of us.

Sometimes, the mediation threatens to eclipse the music itself—music that, in Yoshimura’s case, was recorded years before the launch of the World Wide Web anyway, and decades before YouTube. When I emailed a musician who has worked on reissues for artists like Yoshimura to ask if he was interested in being interviewed for this piece, he responded with frustration. “I strongly believe YouTube is not the reason this work has resonance, rather it is the quality and universality of the work itself—to focus on the vessel it was delivered to you in and not the wide and deep artistic practice that created it is to me very tragic,” he wrote in part.

He’s right, to a point. Yoshimura’s music, and Midori Takada’s, were just as beautiful before they somehow found themselves the idées fixes of a very influential piece of software running on an industrial-cooled server somewhere near San Francisco. But there is a poignant circularity about Yoshimura’s revival on this platform in particular. For Yoshimura, the environment in which his music would be played was nearly as important as the music itself. “l will be happy if, when you enjoy this album, the surrounding scenery can be seen in a slightly different light,” he wrote in a brief liner note to the original 1982 pressing of his debut full-length Music for Nine Post Cards, which he’d originally composed as an auditory complement to the modernist architecture of Tokyo’s Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. Others albums were meant specifically for playing at fashion shows, on train platforms, and inside model homes. Like his contemporary Haruomi Hosono, Yoshimura was apparently not shy about extending this philosophy to the corporate world: My beloved Air in Resort, originally packaged in a scented vinyl sleeve, was meant to promote a new fragrance from the Shiseido cosmetics corporation.

YouTube is obviously not the space in which Yoshimura intended any of his music to be played. But for me and plenty of other people, that is nonetheless where it lives today. Rather than see these shifting circumstances as a perversion of Yoshimura’s work, I prefer to think of the cascading tabs of my web browser like hallways echoing with his chords, the scroll bars like staircases whose surfaces reflect every note. I think about Vlad Chernushchenko, the YouTube commenter, rhapsodizing about the cosmic unity he feels with fellow Yoshimura listeners, and I wonder what else he’s doing while the music plays. Studying? Idly surfing the feeds? Writing an essay? For me, all of these situations and spaces become richer when Green or Wet Land is accompanying them. Fifteen years after his death, Yoshimura’s work has found its way to another ideal environment to enliven and enchant: the internet itself.

Find more from Spin’s 2018 Year in Review here.