Stream of (Music) Consciousness

The 'Marshall McLuhan' message borne by the MP3 revolution is clear: music is endlessly plentiful and entirely disposable. So what's the message of streaming?

It’s a tasty little irony that the music biz has fallen prey to: Once upon a time it could make oodles of cash by introducing new and supposedly better listening formats, thus getting us to shell out big shekels to replicate our music collections on each new format. But now the biz is getting steamrolled by new formats themselves, ones it can’t control because it didn’t come up with them.

It’s a little bit sad and a little bit funny to watch, especially if you remember all the ballyhoo and struggle of the CDs vs. LPs debate of the ’90s. I had friends in bands back then who refused to put out CDs until well into the new millennium, because they didn’t want to be tools of the record industry. Now it’s moot because we’re all tools of the tech industry.

I like LPs because they remind me of a time when music was important enough to be stamped on huge, petroleum-derived discs with elaborate gatefold sleeves and big lyric sheets you could plaster your walls with.

The debate over CDs replacing vinyl seems quaint now, but 20 years ago, people cared about stuff like that. For one, if the bands you liked stopped releasing vinyl records, you had to buy a new component or a new stereo to play their latest CD, and initially it wasn’t cheap. Now that everyone listens to music on computers and phones, the transition between technologies has become essentially unnoticeable. If streaming becomes the dominant model for musical delivery, (which seems likely at this point) I doubt you’ll have consumers up in arms over the fact that their Ipods are obsolete.

Indeed, many people seem to like obsolescence now—they buy the newest thing so they can show off how modern and hip they are. Of course, not everyone is like that. Some of us are weary of all this change-for-change’s-sake, thus the hipster backlash that brought vinyl back from the verge of extinction, and even somehow managed to bring back a format that I for one, was glad to see disappear: the cassette tape.

I have boxes of old cassettes that I’m too lazy to even sort through, but for nostalgia’s sake, I can’t get rid of them. I realize I’m becoming one of those old guys from my childhood with crates of 8-track cassettes in his garage and nothing to play them on. Don’t even get me started on 8-tracks—those things were the worst!

I used to have a thrift store stereo that played them and friends would bring over tapes they found—Tijuana Brass, Joni Mitchell and freebies like Cadillac’s greatest hits of 1974 featuring ABBA and Jim Croce and a bunch of other crap that didn’t make sense together. You’d get to the middle of a song and it would go, “Ka-chunk! Vrrrr… Ka-dunk!” and then resume playing like nothing ever happened. The only reason 8-tracks caught on at all was because you could play them in your car, hence all the badly curated Cadillac comps.

Then we got cassettes, which were smaller, held more music, and let people record whatever they wanted. This was what started the original debate over whether it was OK to copy and share music. A lot of people thought tapes would kill the music industry, and it’s true that there were some abuses beyond teenagers making mix tapes for girls they liked.

I would go to my friends’ houses with stacks of C-90s and spend all night taping the choicest cuts from their record collections. Once I even recorded all the Ramones songs from a late night TV showing of Rock and Roll High School, using the memo function on my old answering machine. But the industry ended up with the last laugh on that one because I got sick of hearing all the movie dialogue over the songs and when I finally got my record player working again I promptly went out and bought the actual movie soundtrack on actual LP.

All this is to say that I’ve been through a few music formats in my day, and while my favorite is still the LP, I can now admit that my preference for it has nothing to do with sound quality or dynamic frequencies or any of the junk we used to argue about in the ‘90s. I like LPs because they remind me of a time when music was important enough to be stamped on huge, petroleum-derived discs with elaborate gatefold sleeves and big lyric sheets you could plaster your walls with.

And yet, every time I buy an LP nowadays, I feel a hint of sad resignation mixed up in my warm and fuzzy nostalgia. Every time I buy a record lately I think, is this the one? Is the last record I will ever buy?

If I try to think about it rationally, I begin to see records as ridiculous artifacts of the petroleum age, an age that is passing and for the planet’s sake, can’t pass soon enough. The amount of gas and oil that went into maintaining the golden age of the LP is staggering—not just the resources that go into pressing the vinyl itself, but distributing it globally in trains and trucks, selling those records by putting bands on tour in jets and buses, with all their fans driving hundreds of miles to massive arenas lit with millions of megawatts of burning coal. It’s downright shameful from an environmental perspective, or at the very least, unsustainable.

LPs and cassettes coexisted happily for a while, but then we had to go with CDs, which to a lot of people seemed impersonal and flimsy and just… lame. The industry flirted with Mini-Discs for a second or two, but then some digital-age smarty figured out we could just skip the whole disc thing entirely and send music directly to those big, boxy computers we all had in our homes by then. We went straight to MP3s, which was where the music industry started to really lose it.

It’s only been 15 years since a little startup called Napster sent the entire recording industry into a panicked death spiral over lost revenues and declining market share. Those years brought a lot of confusion and recriminations to the record biz, and while there are still millions to be made in music, there are about a million fewer of those millions. The current music industry is a pale and defensive shadow of its former self.

Meanwhile, the breathless promises made in the ‘90s by Internet music gurus have mostly turned out to be bullshit. The idea that every musician would have equal access to a new, worldwide audience hungry to discover the next Elvis or Kurt or Jay-Z turned out to have some important caveats. The first and worst of those caveats is that this new worldwide audience has been conditioned to view music as something it has a right to enjoy for free. Buying music seems like a ridiculous idea to a majority of young people, who have grown up with a vast library of free music at their fingertips.

I want to think of free music as a good thing, but unfortunately, there are economic principles involved. The idea that music is worth less than it was 20 years ago isn’t just a Millennial perception—It’s a sad, solid fact based on the laws of supply and demand. Not only do we have almost unlimited access to every song ever recorded, the music being made these days is much easier to produce and distribute. You don’t need to book expensive time in a studio to make a hit anymore, or press records or tour or even buy instruments—if you’ve got the knack, you can just swipe at your iPad, cough some ambiguous phrase into the mic and upload the results.

Sure, it’s not all good music. In fact, most of it sounds like crap to me, but that’s subjective, isn’t it? With more musicians cranking out more tunes than at any time in history, and with all the music ever recorded just sitting there for the taking, there’s now a glut in the musical market. If Marshall McLuhan was right that the medium is the message, then the message borne by the MP3 revolution is clear: music is endlessly plentiful and entirely disposable.

But it seems now that even MP3s are on their way out, in favor of streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio and Beats, which offer up tunes in exchange for subjecting the listener to ads or by charging listeners a monthly fee. While these services have been around aeons in Internet time (Pandora debuted in 2000), they are just now becoming viable. With hundreds of millions of users and hundreds of millions of songs collectively, it’s looking like streaming is how we’ll receive (and per McLuhan, perceive) music for at least the next couple of decades.

The industry is reluctantly getting on board, because they simply have no choice at this point. Neither do artists. Recent laments by musicians from the old guard like David Byrne and David Lowery have rightly pointed out that the rates paid to artists and songwriters by music streaming services are ridiculously low, and I agree—musicians should be fairly paid for their labor just like any other working person. But the thing is, they’re selling a devalued product. Now that music has been divorced from its physical containers, it isn’t thought of as something you can really even own anymore.

Music used to require some sense of commitment. The listener was obligated firstly to spend money on it, and secondly to decide if that investment was worth it. One had to choose whether one agreed with the performer aesthetically, politically and culturally, and then challenged to find ways to express that agreement or disagreement in one’s own life. Music spawned subcultures and social movements because it expressed identity and affiliation, it gave like-minded people bridges to cross and citadels to defend. A song was valuable because of the work each listener put into interpreting and absorbing it, because of the time and money it took to seek out and enjoy, because of the effort it took to explain to someone who hadn’t heard it or didn’t get it.

Who has time for all that now? Music has become a cheap accessory to a mood or a lifestyle or an outfit—a steady noise in the background of our lives. We don’t have to like that or even completely go along with it, but it has to be recognized.

What’s more, streaming can actually be a great way to experience music, especially if you go with a subscription service—that way, you don’t get ads and you don’t have to feel guilty about ripping off musicians. I went with a $100 a year subscription to a service that shall go unnamed (one that is better known for convincing suckers to buy $15 headphones for $300, ahem) but which has tons of music, awesome curated mixes, and works on my phone so I can get it almost anywhere.

Suddenly I’m listening to more music than I have in years, and not just comfort music either—I’m hearing all kinds of new stuff I definitely wouldn’t have otherwise bought and probably wouldn’t have taken the effort to seek out, either. And while I doubt that the royalties paid to artists are all that much, at least they’re getting something, which is more than can be said for old-style radio, or for most of the stuff on YouTube, or even for the hundreds of used LPs in my closet.

My experience with streaming has convinced me that it’s here to stay, and for the first time since CDs came out, I’m OK with changing formats. I’ll probably still buy records once in a while simply because I love them and I don’t want to live in a world without them, but I doubt I’ll buy a digital album or a CD ever again.

The only real question left is who will end up dominating this new music market, and whether we’ll all have to switch to that service once it happens. I’ve been reading a lot of hype about Google’s new Music Key app that’s supposed to be out soon, and content distribution deals among the various services are closing faster than I can keep up. I’m hoping the music industry and the tech industry can play nice and figure out a way to compensate artists while keeping the music flowing at a decent price, but somehow that seems unlikely.

Take Google, which owns YouTube, the most popular free music platform around. I’ll admit, it’s a great format for discovering new music. But Google is a perfect example of a Silicon Valley ethos that shows little regard for artists, their products and their right to make a living. In Google’s view, it’s all just content—it doesn’t care what it is or who posts it, as long as it can sell ads alongside the music. They’ve made billions redistributing copyright-protected works without permission, and they’ve only recently and begrudgingly begun to change that.

Now Google will have its own streaming service, and I’m wondering if it will get to use all the content its already got on YouTube, and who, besides Google, will get paid for that. As a semi-pro musician myself, I don’t mind if people listen to my stuff or free, I just don’t like when others make money off it without me getting a cut.

This is the problem with Spotify and Pandora. If you have your songs on their subscription services, you get paid a tiny bit for every play. But you don’t get anything for getting played on their much more popular free sites, even though they are getting ad revenue from it. It doesn’t seem fair or sustainable, which is why I wonder if those two companies will be around in five or ten years. By then, I’m predicting they will either die a slow death by a thousand lawyers, or get bought out by the big gorillas in the ring—Google and Apple (which recently spent $3 billion to buy Beats).

Not only will the big guys not want the extra competition, they can afford to stay in the game longer because they actually make a profit. Neither Spotify nor Pandora has been able to do that yet, and once the legal bills start piling up, they may realize they’re holding a losing hand and look to liquefy. What will happen then is anyone’s guess, but either way, it doesn’t look good for either musicians or record companies.

I used to get all wrapped in whether or not each new format was good for the listener or good for society or fostered musical innovation and all that, but not so much anymore. With cheap access to more music in more genres than I can ever possibly listen to in my lifetime, I’m pretty content with my musical options. So can we just stop changing formats for a while?

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Above image: Abstract colorful rays from Shutterstock.com.