Streaming Music Has Left Me Adrift
October 22, 2014
This article was originally posted to the New York Times.
A version of this article appears in print on October 19, 2014, on page MM17 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: My Problem With Music.
Streaming Music Has Left Me Adrift
It’s hard to imagine now, but there once was a time when you could not play any song ever recorded, instantly, from your phone. I call this period adolescence. It lasted approximately 30 years, and it was galvanized by conflict.
At that time, music had to be melted onto plastic discs and shipped across the country in trucks. In order to keep this system running smoothly, a handful of major labels coordinated with broadcasters and retailers to encourage everyone to like the same thing, e.g. Third Eye Blind. This approach divided music into two broad categories: “popular” and what I liked.
Lest history remember industry versus indie as a distinction without difference, I should point out that mainstream rock was genuinely awful in the two decades before Napster. Classic rock gave way to glam metal, which was vanquished by Nirvana and grunge, whose promise quickly curdled into the cynical marketing strategy known as “alternative.” From Journey to Smash Mouth, the major-label system peddled an enormous quantity of objectively hideous music in its waning years.
In a now-famous 1993 essay for The Baffler, the musician and recording engineer Steve Albini described how this system pauperized bands to enrich a series of middlemen. The structure of most contracts meant that artists paid back almost all their royalties in managers’ and recording fees. The occasional hits profited the artists far less than they did the labels, whose marketing departments ignored most of their catalogs to focus on the hits. For a majority of bands, signing with a major label was the first step toward going out of business. Albini called it “the problem with music”: the major-label system acted as an anticurator by making good music harder to find. For me, adopting an indie-snob identity (subset punk) didn’t just solve this problem and provide me with a lifetime of sound-as-art, it also gave me something to talk about with other pointy-haired youngsters I ran across.
Then a different subset of nerds invented MP3 encoding, and everything changed. The good news is that digital distribution neatly solved Albini’s problem with music: Now that nearly every piece of recorded sound is as easy to find as any other, everyone can finally listen to what we snobs wanted them to hear all along. (Also on the plus side, labels have joined bands in not making any money.) The bad news is that we have lost what was once a robust system for identifying kindred spirits. Now that we all share the same record collection, music snobs have no means to recognize one another. We cannot flip through a binder of CDs and see a new friend, a potential date. By making it perfectly easy to find new music, we’ve made it a little more difficult to find new people.
Before Spotify solved the problem with music forever, esoteric taste was a measure of commitment. When every band was more or less difficult to hear by virtue of its distance from a major label, what you liked was a rough indicator of the resources you had invested in music. If you liked the New York City squat-punk band Choking Victim, it was a sign you had flipped through enough records and endured enough party conversations to hear about Choking Victim. The bands you listened to conveyed not just the particular elements of culture you liked but also how much you cared about culture itself.
Like blasted pecs or a little rhinestone flag pin, esoteric taste in music is an indicator of values. Under the heel of the major-label system in the early ’90s, indie taste meant more than liking weird bands. To care about obscure bands was to reject the perceived conformity of popular culture, to demand a more nuanced reading of the human experience than Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby” and therefore to assert a certain kind of life. That assertion was central to my identity as a young adult, and I found that people who shared it were more likely to agree with me on seemingly unrelated issues. Like all aesthetics, taste in music is a worldview.
But music is not just an aesthetic pursuit; it’s also intensely social. You listen to music at parties, around the house with your college roommates, in the car on the way to high school — anywhere meaningful interpersonal connections are made or, importantly, not. If you prefer to put on the radio, you have something in common with most people, and therefore nobody. But if you put on the Brian Jonestown Massacre, you will quickly identify who else in the room is a bit like you.
The translation of musical taste to social acceptance was in many ways terrifyingly complex and arbitrary. I once attended a party at the home of a poetry professor who, in her meticulous preparations, happened to leave out one CD: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. It was a gutless choice, the act of a person who reads music magazines. Any other album would have revealed her taste, but instead she had only shown that she understood what our kind liked.
Her transparency scandalized me, because at that time I understood musical taste as a central element of personality. In college, I was horrified to learn that a smart and culturally sophisticated woman I had been dating owned just six CDs. I couldn’t comprehend how such a sensitive — and, given the circumstances, evidently charitable — person could not be interested in music. I felt like a sommelier walking into A.A. At a level of understanding since replaced by OkCupid match percentage, I knew I was taking a long shot. Years later, when my friends and I discussed the powerful and surely arbitrary forces that had kept us single, we toyed with the idea that “into music” was a deal-breaker quality in a mate.
The application of such reasoning over two decades of romantic entanglements, night-life chums and road-trip mixes makes it safe to say that musical taste has plotted the course of my life. Since age 14, it has determined my leisure hours and then my career, and by extension, my friends and lovers. We embraced art and rejected a major-label system that cared only about selling records. Oddly, we expressed our position by buying records. The problem with my life as an anticorporate bohemian was that it was predicated on a consumer behavior.
Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter explore this contradiction in their 2004 book, “Nation of Rebels: How Counterculture Became Consumer Culture.” They argue that contemporary consumer culture is driven not by a desire to keep up with the Joneses but by the opposite impulse: to individuate. We believe our purchases distinguish us from a perceived mainstream of numb consumers, so we cannot stop buying things.
Certainly, this reasoning lay at the core of my indie identity. But when nerds figured out how to play music over the Internet, it rendered indie culture inert. The shift away from physical albums destroyed that mechanism of consumer individuation. When getting into a band became as easy as typing its name into a search box, particular musical tastes lost their function as signifiers of commitment. What you listened to ceased to be a measure of how much you cared and became a mere list of what you liked.
Worse, this list was no more ethically righteous than anyone else’s. You didn’t have to support local businesses or hang with freaky beatniks to hear Choking Victim anymore, so liking them became no better (or worse) than liking Pearl Jam.
Last spring, I befriended a charming stranger on the basis of our mutual interest in the Slits. If you haven’t heard them, statistics suggest that you will enjoy their cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and nothing else. When she started talking about the import version of “The Peel Sessions,” I knew I had met somebody special. We went back to her apartment and played each other songs on Spotify for three hours. Thanks to the Internet, we both had all the same albums.
Such connections are still possible, even in this new world of abundant content. But have they become too possible — so possible, in the universal digital distribution of Slits records, that they have lost meaning? What is a Slits fan like now that her habits differ from those of a Kesha fan only in the letters she types into a box? If I passed her in a store aisle, would she notice that we used to hate the same media conglomerates? I worry she would not. Now that the tyranny of the majors has been overthrown, the members of the resistance don’t recognize one another anymore.
The digital age has given everyone in America a better music collection than the one I put together over the last 20 years, and in so doing it has leveled us. James Murphy describes this problem in the LCD Soundsystem song “Losing My Edge”:
I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody:
Every great song by the Beach Boys, all the underground hits, all the Modern Lovers tracks.
I heard you have a vinyl of every Niagara record on German import.
I heard that you have a white label of every seminal Detroit techno hit: 1985, ’86, ’87.
I heard that you have a CD compilation of every good ’60s cut and another box set from the ’70s.
In a swoop, the Internet devalued the consumer capital that Murphy amassed through years of collecting records as a D.J. But at least he was married before it happened.
As generational problems go, this one is pretty mild. My grandfather, for example, had to stop Hitler from overrunning Europe. But in the same way that he came back from France saying beaucoup a lot, these seismic changes alter us in ways we don’t perceive. Consuming music, an act central to my being for as long as I can remember, has changed forever. Who knows how that will change me?
My record collection is no longer a lifestyle, a biography, a status. The identities that I and a generation of fellow aesthetes spent our lives fashioning are suddenly obsolete. They turned out to be mere patterns of consumption, no more resilient than the patterns of production that provoked them. Not content to ruin music for the first three decades of my life, the major labels have collapsed and ruined dating too. I will probably never forgive them, if I ever get around to forgiving myself.
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