The personal price of streaming: is it changing our relationship with music?
Buying music from an actual shop is one of my most favourite past times. Probably my most favourite. It was like a continual rite of passage, ear-marking moments of my life with musical memories to match. I was basically curating my own soundtrack.
The film itself is more slow-burning B-grade-dramedy than blockbuster, but the soundtrack is absolute fire.
Music shops were key to me exploring the sounds and discovering the artists that made the cut. Just like an actual soundtrack there were bigger names and sounds alongside low key up-and-comers and nostalgic late-to-the-party finds.
Sure, sometimes a purchase didn’t make the final cut but it’s important to have standards.
But because you invested time and forked over your hard earned paper for those discs, you made sure you gave it a good bloody shot. When it paid off, especially if the album was a slow burn, the reward and pride was incomparable.
Thanks to streaming, buying music in a shop is all but a past time.
For me, it was a gradual progression. I resisted even paid downloads for the longest time, opting for CDs long after they were ‘a thing’. I caught a bus on my lunch break to buy Florence and the Machine’s second album, Ceremonials, the day it came out. One of my friends commented it was ‘cute’ that I still bought CDs.
Then Kanye West’s Yeezus came out a week earlier on iTunes than in physical form and I was basically bullied into it. I can’t lie, it felt pretty good.
As fate would have it, HMV went into receivership around that same time (I blame the employee who once asked me ‘how do you spell Kanye?’) so physical music simply became more difficult to support.
The initial excitement of downloading soon went away. It was hardly an experience. I mean, it’s just pressing a button and forking out 10 quid/20 bucks.
Most importantly, the experience didn’t differentiate itself enough from streaming. It felt pretty much the same, aside from the extra cash you splashed for the privilege of intangible ownership. Of course, I had no idea back then all the ways it is different.
Like everyone else, after dabbling a little, I eventually moved mostly to streaming as my primary source for music listening. I still sometimes pay to download albums by artists I want to support or music that I want for keepsakes, even if only as a digital square on my phone.
Because of this, my relationship with music has changed.
I still regard my relationship with music as one of the most primal and important ones I have.
It’s not like I don’t treasure music anymore. It means just as much and I can still get lost in an album and play it repeatedly and laugh/cry/goosebump like I always have.
One of the big changes for me is that although streaming gives an opportunity to listen to a wider range of music, I don’t give that music as much of a chance. Don’t like it on first listen or two? Enter my alter ego the song nazi – “no stream for you, NEXT!”
It made certain music more disposable. That is, the music that doesn’t win me over straight away by artists I am not already invested in or committed to. What do I care, I’m paying my monthly fee anyway and a WHOLE world of music that ‘might be the one’ awaits. Yes, that same music I mentioned earlier that came with the greatest reward in the past. I’m sure there’s a Tinder analogy in there somewhere.
When I used to go into a music store, I’d really try to burst my musical bubble, buying music that might have been outside my knowledge or comfort zone. Admittedly, sometimes I’d even wedge an album that had more street cred in amongst my pure pop purchases to avoid any judgement from the hipsters at JB Hi Fi.
If nothing else I learned something from the CD sleeve, aka yesteryear’s version of Wikipedia.
Why don’t we get a digital album sleeve complete with credits, lyrics and thank-yous with a download or stream? That’s an app I would pay a premium to subscribe to.
I feel the absence of physical music. Not just in the buying of it but also the storing too. CDs were literally a music library. You could organise them as rough or as tidy as you wanted. Me? I had them neatly arranged side by side on a few shelves. Any CD was just a rotating-glance away from being spotted and played. My newer CDs would be kept on a separate little pile placed front and centre. They were me now. The others are what brought me to me now.
While I like Apple Music’s interface the best – it also has all of my iTunes purchases stored along with those I have saved to stream – the irony is that all of my music is at my fingertips at anytime, yet it doesn’t all feel easily accessible. I have to scroll through cover art that is too large and that I can only sort by album or artist takes away the random romanticism of your eye catching something you had forgotten about or something just perfect for the mood you are in.
Let’s forget about me for a minute, or yourself if you are of an age where you once bought music and didn’t grow up assuming it was a right, like water out of a tap.
Without wanting to get all Reverend Lovejoy’s wife on this Sunday, won’t somebody think of the children?!
Will the generations born into the streaming era grow to have the same respect and appreciation of music? Will it be a deeply sentimental personal journey to find one’s self and ultimately become an individual expression of who they are? Will they care about music – not the songs but ‘music’ as an art form and the process that goes into it from creation to consumption?
Where we would pick albums to suit a mood, there are now curated playlists labelled by mood. Playlists created by others/algorithms.
I sound cynical, maybe even bitter. I’m open to being told I’m wrong and that my concerns are unfounded … even that I’m out of touch (ouch, that one will hurt). So please, let me know.
Perhaps one of the silver linings of streaming is that vinyl has seen a resurgence. In the US alone, vinyl sales have increased 1000% over the last ten years.
To substitute CDs, I too have started to buy records in recent years. My first was at a dodgy second hand market in Lisbon, which probably isn’t the wisest place, but what it did is reignite my relationship with the tactile memorabilia aspect of physical music. Now I’ve joined a record club where they send me a new album every month. I also ‘treat’ myself occasionally and buy an album of significance. I treasure them a lot, but vinyl also feels a little less practical to store and search. Call me a basic bitch but loved the all-round convenience and value of CDs. They weren’t pretentious or grand but on balance ticked the most boxes.
Still, this rise of vinyl is nothing compared to the rise of streaming. Yes, paid subscriptions are well and truly on the rise too, which is a positive sign. But maybe, just maybe, vinyl can help bridge that divide between music as a right and music as a privilege. Because that’s what it is.
Over the next few posts/weeks/months, I’m going to take a peek beyond how streaming has changed our behaviour and relationship with music and into how the money/lack thereof gets distributed/doesn’t, how it’s changed the sound of music itself and how it’s represented on the charts.
It’s really the biggest thing to hit the music world, perhaps ever. And it’s symptomatic of the changes we are seeing in how we interact with one another and consume things in the modern day.
Streaming is here to stay and I have become ok with that. But I want to know how we can minimise any negative impact on ourselves, artists and the music so that it works better for everyone. I hope you do too.