Nathan Barley, Apple, and the Fall of Music 2005–2015

Nathan Barley

On a recent flight, I rewatched the entire six-episode run of the Chris Morris hipster satire Nathan Barley. The show occupies a certain place in my heart, and as it turns out I can still recite huge chunks of its appalling dialogue.

Nathan Barley originally aired in 2005 on the UK’s Channel 4. The show’s eponymous character lives in a gentrifying east London neighbourhood and runs a web company that produces Vice-like “urban culture dispatches” aimed at hedonistic twentysomethings. Like many people I remember meeting during this era, Barley simultaneously dabbles in web design, DJing, and the worlds of art and photography, although only in service of getting invited to better parties. Barley is also an awful, grasping nitwit, and his vacuity—contrasted by his dour, jaded magazine columnist foil Dan Ashcroft—is the cringey comedic lynchpin of the series.

Barley has largely aged well, barring a few themes that would likely be handled with more sensitivity today. What’s amazing is how central music is to the show’s premise, and by extension to the premise of 2005-era hipsterism. Music is everywhere in Nathan Barley. Barley carries a proto-smartphone with built-in DJ decks. Characters attend music video launch parties, club nights, or simply make batshit electro at home like the Ashcrofts’ roommate Jones. Ten years ago the only hipsters were music hipsters, but nowadays there are fermentation hipsters, boardgame hipsters, knitting hipsters, and anything else you could imagine. The rise of social media and affordable services like Squarespace have made it unecessary to dabble in tech and other media simply to further some primary ambition, but is music really as central to being cool as it used to be?

I’m going out on a limb here to say that music in and of itself is less important today than it was in 2005, but there is also the possibility that it simply occupies a less dominant narrative position than it did. Perhaps recorded music was a kind of trojan horse, cracking open the youth market via the iPod before moving on to other things. (Single-mechanic free-to-play iPhone games? Game of Thrones? I have no idea what young people are interested in.)

Apple Music

WWDC 2015

At WWDC a couple of weeks ago, Apple launched its sprawling, multi-layered Apple Music offering. The idea here seems to have been a comprehensive response to Spotify (and to a lesser extent other streaming services) which Apple have so far failed to deal with in any meaningful way. Apple’s monetization of music, downloading a song or album for a flat price, seems painfully outdated and has remained unchanged for a decade, barring extensions like iTunes Match and outright missteps like Ping, all of which sought to add value to the music files you bought and downloaded.

People I’ve talked to about the Music portion of the WWDC keynote itself have had mixed reactions. The presentation felt meandering and overly long, with the obligatory celebrity tie-ins neither suitable for the audience nor useful in explaining the service Apple is offering. Personally, I find the premise of “human-curated” music spectacularly weak. I don’t buy the assertion that Apple really believe that algorithms simply aren’t sufficient to offer a pleasing music discovery experience, but I also wouldn’t belive you if you told me they had invested in an algorithm either. Curation is just not an experience Apple have ever succeeded at and not an experience I think they really care that much about. I think music discovery in 2015 occurs everywhere, and often through social networks Apple doesn’t own. I also think that for the tiny minority of (mostly young, urban) hipsters who are deeply, deeply invested in discovering new music, Apple’s offering will be cumbersome, out-of-date, and deeply uncool.

As one slightly bewildered commentator put it, “Did Apple… just… put radio on the internet?” From a leader in the music space ten years ago to a deeply uncool dadrock discovery engine. What is this all about? Are Apple really that bad at anticipating the needs of its music consumers, or is it that music itself simply doesn’t mean what it once did?

Exit Music

In one way, Music seems to have been battlefield on which almost every technological advancement in consumer entertainment is initially fought. From the radio age to the Ed Sullivan Show’s live Beatles broadcast to MTV’s music-as-advertisement-for-itself. Onwards to file sharing, better compression, more bandwidth, and finally the iPod, which provided a gold standard for an in-pocket device that prefigured the iPhone in more ways than the actual cellular phone did.

Is it that, ten years ago, being a hipster simply meant being into music and technology? Is it just that everyone’s either a hipster of some kind or else simply into technology in ways that weren’t possible in 2005?

Or, is it that music is now so deeply integrated into every other entertainment format that it’s absolutely everywhere and yet nowhere to be found at the centre of anything? It’s the halftime show and background fodder on YouTube, but perhaps music itself is simply no longer the centre of our cultural lives.