“Pour into our homes”: Music as Utility, Hannah Arendt, and Apple Music

“Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign. Just as we are accustomed, if not enslaved, to the various forms of energy that pour into our homes, we shall find it perfectly natural to receive the ultra-rapid variations or oscillations that our sense organs gather in and integrate to form all we know.”

This vision from 1928 by Paul Valéry is now reality. Music can pour into our homes with ease. What it shares with other services is that it functions like a utility. Access is maintained by an infrastructure similar to water, gas, and electricity. Because of this, music can spread across homes and cafes around the world.

But notice Valéry’s word choice: “if not enslaved.” Utilities remind one of necessity; bare-boned needs of shelter, warmth, etc. We are beholden to utilities as we are to our biological need of preservation.

In her book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt refers to the Greek and Roman distinction between the slavery of necessity and freedom from it: “Neither labor nor work was considered to possess sufficient dignity to constitute a bios at all, an autonomous and authentically human way of life; since they served and produced what was necessary and useful, they could not be free, independent of human needs and wants.”

It is such a distinction that Apple is making for their Apple Music. Take a recent article from Nate McAlone for Business Insider (here). Evidence is right in the title: “Apple Music wants to be more than a utility.”

With their new foray into Music, Apple is trying to distinguish themselves against their competitors: Spotify and Pandora. “So,” Apple Music exec Jimmy Iovine says, “a simple utility where, ‘here’s all the songs, here’s all the music, give me $10 and we’re cool,’ is not going to scale.”

Iovine wants something beyond the pouring of music into homes. He sees Pandora and Spotify acting like a musical utility. In Arendt’s words, that model does not provide sufficient dignity to constitute a distinct bios for Apple. Iovine wants Apple Music to rise above necessity. One way, according to McAlone, is that “Apple has signed up some of the biggest names in music, from Drake to Taylor Swift, to make Apple Music less of song database and more of an artistic meeting of the minds — where Apple is intimately involved.”

‘Song database’ plays right back into the utility argument. It is something necessary and useful for music consumption, not free like the “artistic meeting of the minds” Apple is attempting. Though all of this is coming from a general assumption – that we have mastered music as a utility like water, gas, and electricity. There is no longer a laborious process to find or procure it. Apple Music, and many ventures like it, branches from this truth.

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