With the launch of Apple Music last month it seems as if we’ve reached Peak Opinion Count™ on music streaming services. As dirty as it makes me feel, I’d like to add my own to this growing pile of musical thoughts. Because I see streaming music as changing our behavior in two significant ways, and we should probably think this through all the way before we burn all the CDs on the planet and go all-in on these services.
First, streaming services tend to fill us with some level of anxiety due to its neverending-ness (Craig Mod calls this a lack of “edges”). Picking music for road trips used to be serious business because you can only fit so many CDs in your custom leather case. Now we just start up Pandora and off we go. With this comes a tyranny of choice. If I can listen to 20 million songs, why should I listen to this one? What am I missing because I decided not to skip this particular tune? And why would I ever listen to a song more than once—that sounds like a terrible return on investment, right?
So we keep skipping, keep teaching our algorithms to play us more of what we like, and we never just sit with an album and experience it over and over—how the good and the bad often works together to tell a story, how even the bad can become good over time if we put enough effort into it. Those days are over. There’s always something new to discover. And we’re hungry for it, incapable of resisting the lure of the next great song.
Second, with the loss of ownership in favor of “renting” our music comes some side-effects we probably don’t fully comprehend yet. I’m not a Prince fan, but I’m sure Spotify users are pretty upset that he recently pulled his music from all streaming services except Tidal. What will I do if that happens to an artist I do like?
And forgive me, but let’s please not write off the joy of physical media as a hipster thing. Owning a CD or a record, poring over the liner notes, making it part of our lives… There’s something incredibly grounding about that. Something that renting a digital file just doesn’t get you. Say what you will, but I miss glancing over my CDs, observing the wear and tear of albums that have gone through so much with me. Those CD covers became more than the music they contain. They became reminders of a life well lived.
I’m not saying we should all cancel our streaming accounts and buy CD players again. But we should at least think about the consequences of an abundance of musical choice, and the rental model that enables it. Moving quickly from one song to the next will never be as satisfying as really spending time with an album, with no escape from the artist’s intentions and successes and failures. We can all do with a little bit more of that—even if it means going easy on the streaming radio functions and (gasp!) buying a few full albums for a change.