I can recall with unusual clarity the day in 1976 when one of my older brothers took me (riding our bikes) to the K-Mart in Atlanta’s Broadview Plaza to buy my first LP. I had just inherited a self-contained “hi-fi” system for my room, and I was tremendously eager to have an album that was mine, purchased with my own allowance money, and not one borrowed from my brothers’ collections down the hall. The album was The Who’s Tommy, the original double LP from 1969 rather than the movie soundtrack, though the relatively recent release of the film undoubtedly fueled my interest and enthusiasm.
Like many other budding music fans and emerging consumers, I listened to that one album many times. I developed a special connection to that music primarily because I had invested my own precious cash in it. I owned that recording, which included (in my mind) the music as well as the physical, tangible objects and corresponding information: the vinyl LPs which I cared for with the delicacy required to ensure their longevity, the fold out album jacket whose artwork and credits I pored over while listening to the music almost to the point of mesmerization, the printed lyrics that reminded me this was as much a literary and dramatic work as a musical one. There were moments on that record, particular songs, that I didn’t even care for very much, but I devoted myself and my time to them anyway, for they were part of this integrated cultural-artistic product, a pop-culture rock-era Gesamtkunstwerk, that was mine. Other records began to flow gradually into my possession as my limited funds allowed (Neil Young’s Harvest was the second in my collection, launching a lifelong fascination with the work of that particular artist). I was hooked.
Last week I upgraded my Spotify account to the premium version, which, at a cost of $10 per month, gives me ready access to millions of recordings that I can enjoy ad-free, even when I am not online. On the one hand, we rabid music fans should be ecstatic that we have so much music available to us at such little cost and with such astonishing convenience (literally “at our fingertips”). On the other, even leaving aside the complicated economic questions that surround online streaming and what the medium means financially for artists and labels, I find myself somewhat saddened by the rapid growth of music streaming.
What we’ve lost—and what many young listeners, just now developing into consumers like I was thirty-eight years ago, may never know—is that sense of ownership, of investment. The influential twentieth-century avant-garde composer John Cage scoffed at the idea of “owning” music, given its ephemeral and highly contextual nature. But what I’m talking about is ownership of a recording in a physical format. Many consumers continue to purchase and own digital music files (I am deliberately steering clear of the thorny subject of piracy for the purposes of this essay), and heaven knows I have quite a few in my iTunes library, but MP3 ownership does not really offer the consumer the other, tangible pleasures of the older media (78s, 45s, 8-tracks, cassettes, and CDs). Music streaming pushes consumers even farther away from these feelings of investment, from being able to make the deeper connections we used to develop with our favorite albums.
Streaming music from a service like Spotify or Beats—even when the consumer bypasses the service’s “curation” features and makes his or her own listening choices—renders recorded music as disposable. I experience the music, and of course I can choose to experience it repeatedly, but in most cases, why would I? The combination of easy access and an incomprehensibly large catalog invites consumers to try new things continually, and the services aggressively encourage us to do this (e.g., lists of “similar” or “related” artists). We have a world of music to explore with alarming ease, but the trade-off is that fewer and fewer consumers today will form the kinds of connections that I did with those records I bought as a kid, the ones I proudly displayed to my friends when they came over, the ones I listened to so many times that I will always remember every word, every note, every sound, every nuance. With Spotify, I hear a record that I like and naturally—immediately—think to myself, “That was good. What’s next?”