Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I was probably a part of the last generation of music fans who felt a connection with music in its physical form. There was nothing like going to a local record store and buying a new cassette tape or CD. Holding an album on the day or week of its release felt special, and it still does, as if I’m one of the very first to snag it and gain access to what’s inside. It’s a shame that future generations will never have the experience of rummaging the racks for discs, or even renting a movie from a video store for that matter. The mystery of “what am I going to find?” is soon to be lost forever.
That’s not to say I didn’t embrace the advent of digital music. Napster hit my freshman year of high school and it seemed like everybody and their grandmothers was using the illegal, yet SUPER FUCKING AWESOME P2P filesharing service. There was still a thrill in it though. It was one of the first times the Internet gave us an unlimited heap of content at our disposal (albeit, an illegal one, but whatever) and there was the process of searching, finding, and downloading onto tortoise-speed dial-up service. Failure was common, making that find of a super rare B-Side or live track even more exciting.
Then in 2008 came Spotify* – a monthly subscription-based music service born in Sweden that streams (almost) anything your little heart, or ear, desires. Log in, search, play. It’s that simple. Playlists can be created right in the easy-to-use interface, tracks can be shared via Facebook, and you can creep on your friends and see what they’re listening to. It’s a triumphant amalgamation of social networking and music fanaticism.
And now that I have it, I’m holding on to it with a death grip.
Admittedly, I’m a late adopter to the world of streaming. At first, I wasn’t ready to abandon the a la carte shopping experience. I still buy music on CD, vinyl, and digitally, and initially, I wasn’t ready to throw that away. More importantly, storing music on an external hard drive became an obsession. Organizing by artist and album and storing albums became a newfound way to glean what I could from various ends of the universe and claim it as my own. What I didn’t like about Spotify (and still don’t) is that once you stop paying, it all goes away. It’s as if someone takes your drive, the heart and guts of your music infatuation, and football spikes it on the ground, shattering a piece of your soul into pieces. Poof. Gone. The casual listener might not give a shit, but how would that affect an avid collector? I was justifiably leery…yet still entirely wrong about my reservations.
There’s no question that we are becoming a digital, stream-on-the-fly society. Video, Netflix, and YouTube aside, Spotify’s own stats are more than proof of that. After five years of life, Spotify boasts six million paying subscribers and well over 24 million active users, globally; over one-million years’ worth of music has been streamed; and as of December 2012, Spotify dished out more than half a billion dollars to rights holders. It’s indisputable: streaming is here to stay.
Even for the savviest collectors and aficionados who have to hear it all, it’s literally impossible to purchase every single piece of music in our iPods or collections. Albums are shared among friends, CDs are burned, files are shared. Legal streaming, however, allows for more legal demand. Access to a library a million times larger (a totally scientific number!) than that of your sphere of influence is invaluable. Every song you could ever want on demand in your pocket. It’s the present and future of music consumption.
Although streaming has made my iPod almost obsolete (and managing said iPod a severe waste of time), it hasn’t taken away my love for that physical goodness. I still pre-ordered the double-LP of Janelle Monae’s Electric Lady. I didn’t hesitate for a second to buy Garbage’s latest, Not Your Kind of People, on CD and vinyl. And I always mosey over to the merch table to buy a disc of a particularly rousing opening band, no matter how drunken the stupor.
But lets face it: life is just easier with streaming. With all the new music hits the Web on a weekly and daily basis, who has the time to manage it all? Add to that the fact that CDs are becoming an endangered species and we are at a crossroads. Every SmartPhone-owning music lover – whether punk, hipster, headbanger, hell…even the Miley fans – tap in and start streaming if you aren’t already. Grooveshark, Rdio, SoundCloud, and Rhapsody are just a few of the companies offering a brand new portal to millions of songs that are just waiting to be discovered. Streaming is lining up to be the difference between staying ahead of the game, and getting left behind.
But don’t worry. You can still dust off the ol’ record player whenever a new Bad Brains or Pearl Jam album hits. In fact, I encourage it.
*I mention Spotify here with full understanding that it wasn’t the first of its kind…but it may arguably be the service that was best executed.