Nobody can argue that there is more music available to us now than ever before. As avid music fan and musician I thought I would take a look at how I’ve consumed music over the past few years.
I guess we should start here. Sure I would prefer to have the best quality audio but it is not a deal breaker for me. In the 1950’s kids were still able to enjoy Elvis on transistor radios at low volumes through waves of static under their bedsheets. Neil Young is touting PONO as the answer but I do not see it taking off. People do not want to manage files and love the convenience of streaming; there is a reason Apple killed the iPod with the iPhone. Until we can stream audio at CD quality or greater, I do not see any changes to better sound quality for consumers.
I rarely listen to the radio for music anymore. College and independent stations are the only ones playing unique music and supporting their communities. Clear Channel stations run the same 50 songs into the ground day after day. Most days NPR is more engaging than hearing the same old thing for the millionth time. However, radio can still be magic. Your iPod is never going to surprise you. Independently owned Lightning 100 recently introduced the McCrary Sisters’ unbelievable version of “Blowin’ In The Wind”.
In high school my brother and I would buy vinyl records 3 for $1 to check out artists unknown to us; these days I do the same thing with used CDs. The last record I bought was Dr. John’s locked down and it is now hanging on my wall; I do not even own a working record player anymore! I would be willing to bet that the resurgence of vinyl records does not hinge on the analog sound or nostalgic romance. It has more to do with giving your attention back to music. Vinyl comes from an era where a record was enough to entertain and challenge. Records will undoubtedly always be around as an undercurrent format.
This is one format that nobody is missing. Indie bands are releasing albums on cassettes for novelty reasons and today’s high schoolers have no idea what they are. Gone are the days of taping songs of the radio and mix tapes.
If an album is good and it is an artist I really like I’ll buy the CD; most times they are actually cheaper than MP3s and have better quality audio. As with a number of formats, listening to a CD can focus your attention on the music. ADD digital music listening on a computer or wifi device really kills the enjoyment of listening. Just putting on an album and letting it ride passively really lets your soak in the details and stop worrying about what is queued up next. Sometimes limitations can help you appreciate what you do have in ways you could not if you did have more options.
I still buy digital music files but only when I cannot get them anywhere else; as was the case when I recently bought St. Paul & The Broken Bones soul masterwork on Bandcamp. One major plus to digital music files is that they have brought us back to a singles market and liberated the consumer from purchasing disappointing albums just for one track. I used to rip all my new CDs to an external hard drive. Being able to sort through my iTunes library was awesome but a pain to stay on top of. When my hard drive failed I decided that there had to be a better way; Spotify?
I remember the first time I thought “Why buy the CD if I can listen to it whenever I want on Spotify?” As a musician I nearly slapped myself! I now use Spotify to see if an album is worth purchasing. If it is good I support my favorite artists. Aside from that moral dilemma, how can you not love being able to sift through the history of recorded music? Like Netflix, Spotify works out deals with copyright holders. Just because it is there now doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow. There are definitely holes in their music catalog, but if you cannot find something new to listen to it truly is your own fault. As more and more people make the shift to streaming hopefully the royalty rates will get better for artists and thus increase the amount of content available to stream.
We’ve come a long way from when Steely Dan sang “Turn up The Eagles, the neighbors are listening.” Last.fm was one of the first to get online social listening down but Spotify has taken it to a whole notha level. On the plus side, it is easier than ever to share songs and check out what like minded music fans are diggin’ on. On the other side sometimes music is best observed alone. I once curiously listened to Busta Rhymes and Justin Bieber duet of “Little Drummer Boy” only to have it was posted shamefully on my facebook wall.
From out of print records to archival recordings and performances YouTube may be the largest steaming music archive. After hearing Cat Power’s cover of “Aretha, Sing One For Me” I tried to track down the original by George Jackson. It is no longer in print or available digitally, but thankfully, somebody uploaded it to YouTube!
A better streaming experience is certainly the future however that does not mean that older formats do not still have a place within modern listener’s musical diet.