Spotify has completely transformed the way I listen to music – and has probably changed how whole generations of people will think about music too.
These days, when I listen to music I don’t have to get up to change the CD, or flip a tape, or even download and play MP3s in Winamp: all my music is streamed from Spotify. I use it as a way to play music and organise tracks, share cool things I’ve heard and discover new music. It’s quick, and convenient, and above all it’s incredibly easy. But, sometimes, as I merrily skip from album to another with the click of a mouse, the 30+ year-old in me grumbles that maybe it shouldn’t be so easy.
In the same way that I tend to skim-read books on an iPad, I listen to music on Spotify as background noise. The act of having to get off the chair, walk over to the shelf and choose what to listen to next tends to make you concentrate on what you’re listening to more.
The fact that I can carry all my music around with me in a tiny box in my pocket is still amazing. The thought that it’s not even really in my pocket, but in the cloud, is even more mind-bending. No more boxes of records, shelves of CDs, bags of minidiscs or even folders of MP3s… almost every physical embodiment of music has disappeared, beyond an implacable block of solid state gadgetry and some headphones.
I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, of course.
If I was still DJing I’d probably have all my tracks on an SD card, rather than carrying a small selection in a 15 kilogram box of vinyl. I discover new music daily, with the click of a button, rather than through radio stations and record shops. I’ve got more albums and playlists on Spotify than I ever had CDs, although I don’t actually own any of that music, in a legal sense as well as a physical one.
There’s certainly a lot less music-related clutter in my house these days. My wife and I cleared out our stacks of CDs a while ago, and had a great time digging through all the old memories on the shelves. We both had quite a few albums that we’d bought on a recommendation, or on the strength of one track, but then found to be mostly crap. Back in the day, CDs were generally between £10 and £16 – not cheap, especially when it was an album you listened to once and then consigned to the dusty top shelf, never to be heard again.
I don’t know whether to feel happy or sad that new generations of music fans might never have the dubious pleasure of getting home to discover that your new CD is actually one great track and 40 minutes of unlistenable jazz klaxon wanking. They’ll never have to buy a whole album just to get one track. They’ll never know what it was like to not be able to get hold of a track, or an album – to scour all the music shops in a city looking for one slippery CD that mysteriously sells out five minutes before you get to the shop. Those were painful and frustrating but ultimately formative experiences.
Between Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud and other streaming services I doubt there’s anything you can’t find online to listen and download (be it legally or illegally). The concept of scarcity in music (and “scarcity” is a relative term, considering I grew up in an age of CDs, tape-copying and dozens of radio stations) simply doesn’t exist any more, and I think that must really change how people see (or rather, hear) music.
More after the break…
music and metadata
I remember mixing records in my bedroom, hunting through the vinyl to find the next track. Every sleeve in my dented metal record box told a story; every record was physically unique. The dog-eared corner of an album I lent it to a friend; beer stains and faded imagery from singles I used to play at house parties. Torn receipts, grains of dust, or tobacco, or god knows what else that gathered at the bottom of that record box from all the places I’d taken it – a little collection of memories in the detritus of a hundred good nights out.
Even the vinyl itself was unique: pits and pops on the audio, places I knew a track might skip from wear if people jumped too hard; which records were cheap, lightweight pressings that sped up too much at the lightest touch and which needed an extra push because of the extra weight they were carrying.
Some of those records were relatively rare, and I’d spent weeks, months and years scouring record shops on- and offline to lay my hands on a copy. Some were white labels and bootlegs, awesome tracks on one-sided records with nothing but a track name scribbled in marker pen. Every one of those records had a story to tell, a meaning to me beyond the music that they held. Even though I packed my decks away years ago I still can’t bring myself to sell my records, because they’re an important part of my past.
Music on Spotify has none of that. Every track is abstract, a digital blob somewhere in the cloud that you can’t touch or feel or see. I can add it to a playlist, or give it a star rating, but there’s none of that rich real-life meta data that comes with physical media. Offline MP3s have more emotional cachet despite being just as digital, maybe because there’s some feeling of ownership, or something more solid there.
I recently found a load of old MP3s gathering virtual dust on an old hard drive, and spent a happy day reminiscing my way through a load of old drum’n’bass and breakbeat. I was surprised by how many memories those digital files and folders brought back. The file format gave a lot away I found 192kbps MP3s (that I’d ripped), M4As and WMAs that someone else had given me on a CD, low-quality tracks from Kazaa or Napster, tracks with extracted metadata that I’d used with Traktor DJ. I remembered hours spent renaming files, replacing underscores with spaces, capitalising titles (I had a somewhat anal attitude to file name accuracy).
Streamed music from Spotify doesn’t have any of that, but it does have metadata of a different kind. While I’ve been writing this post, Spotify have released a 2013 Year-in-Review microsite which lets you view a summary of your year in streaming music. Here’s mine:
Number ten on my list of most-listened tracks is actually very different to the rest of the things on that list. It’s Closing by Wah! – a floaty, ommy hippy-kinda track. We play it when we’re putting our little boy to bed as a sleep cue, so obviously we’ve played it a lot. Seeing that track in my top ten tells me something about this year, and will forever remind me of this period of my life. I imagine looking back at this list in years to come and reminiscing about just how little sleep we were getting…
And I bet there’s a whole world of fascinating metadata that’s collected but not shown here. I’d love to see more data about when and where I listen to music – on mobile, or at home, for example. It’s a very different kind of metadata to a record sleeve: it’s colder, and harder, and you need something like a visualisation to help you appreciate it. But it is there.
albums and playlists
I’ve realised that I approach Spotify playlists in a distinctly old-school way: if I hear a track that I like, I’ll create a new playlist of the whole album. My playlists are essentially a virtual record collection, in alphabetised folders. But a glance at other (generally younger) people’s playlists reveals folders stuffed with individual tracks cherrypicked from hundreds of albums and singles.
Maybe albums are a generational thing that will die out in time. Certainly, many column inches have been written about the demise of the album, but it hasn’t really happened yet, despite radio, singles, digital music and streaming all apparently heralding its death to date.
I still I feel bad skipping tracks on an album – or on a album-as-playlist. It’s a hangover from when I bought albums on CD, and sometimes discovered a disc full of unexpectedly avant-garde jazz or challenging tune-free hip-hop. Although those CDs often went straight to the top the shelf and never came down again, they were still there in my collection and I did often revisit them in the hope of seeing them in a different light – partly in the hope of finding something and partly as a way of getting some value out of my £15 purchase.
Some albums are genuinely just one good single and a load of old shite, but others just don’t quite match your tastes at the time. David Axelrod by David Axelrod is one of those albums. I bought it after listening to the first track in a shop – an awesomely eerie spoken-word track with Dickensian child-snatcher lyrics – only to find that all the following tracks were jazz. Blech! But, years (and lots of tentative listens) later, I still have that CD and I love the album.
When all the music in the world is available there’s very little incentive to listen to something that you’re not sure you like. Why bother when you can put your favourite tracks on with a click, or delete the awkward tracks you don’t like from an album? Why bother keeping a playlist that you’ve created if you don’t like it (and really, why would you create a playlist you don’t like in the first place, you idiot)?
Streaming music comes and goes instantaneously, and essentially costs nothing. And that’s pretty amazing, right? But then…
making an effort
I think if there’s a theme to this post then it’s effort. It’s generally true that the more effort something requires, the more you value the output. There’s more music in my life now than there ever has been – but I wonder if in becoming so ubiquitous it’s lost some of what made it so special for me in the first place?
Fast, convenient music cuts two ways: it makes it easier to browse and listen widely but also makes it easier to skim, moving on past “difficult” music or anything that’s not immediately the new best thing ever. If I’d grown up with Spotify and not physical media, I’m sure I’d have a vastly different music collection, and probably a very different taste in music too. Maybe there’s something to be said for making music harder, rather than easier… but maybe that’s just my inner grump talking.