Real Life Rock and Roll

My Spotify Year, Part Two: Mid-Year Assessment

Thanks to Spotify, the music here at WMCW plays non-stop, even if yours truly happens to be the only one who tunes in to this particular frequency on my own radio station of the mind. Since I began my premium subscription at the start of 2015, I have found no shortage of music to listen to, and I have encountered few bands or albums that Spotify doesn’t have. This would be, on the surface at least, any music lover’s dream. Indeed, I’ve been wishing for this state of unfettered access since the internet has hinted it might be possible. But after more than half a year as a Spotify subscriber, the streaming service has made me more intensely aware of a disconcerting change that has been taking place in my relationship to music for some time.

For starters, Spotify has radically altered the way I “possess” music. Before Spotify, I possessed by way of collecting. In the pre-internet days, this meant purchasing a physical copy of the music, starting with 45 singles at 50 cents a pop from the local music store (music, even then, was a loss leader to lure customers into the store and get them to buy more expensive items like instruments and sheet music), then graduating to vinyl albums in middle and high school, and transitioning from college onwards to cds. All this time I was amassing a collection that filled up unit after unit of shelves. Ah, yes, any time I wanted I could run my eyes over the various titles, like a king letting gold coins cascade through his fingers, tuning in to snippets of their greatest moments from within my memory-static as though turning a dial on the radio, or pulling any of them from the shelf for a closer look at the artwork or liner notes. Even digital downloads, once they became the coin of the realm, quickly amassed on a hard drive, available to me at a keystroke.

Since subscribing to Spotify I have had very little need to purchase music. These days I find that if I purchase anything it is usually either to obtain a permanent copy of a state-of-the-art remastering of a favorite or essential album (such as the recent reissues of the Stones’ Sticky Fingers and the entire Led Zeppelin catalog) or to download a critically-lauded or buzzed-about album from Bandcamp or iTunes that is not currently available on Spotify. The latter is becoming increasingly rare and yet may become more and more the case with the heightened competition among other digital music streaming services such as Tidal and Apple Music, which have attempted to leverage exclusive offerings from established artists (Taylor Swift, Prince, etc.) to lure subscribers. Since it is unlikely for any content provider to have a lock on all desired artists and musicians, most likely a future music fan’s content will be made up of subscriptions to a hodge-podge of services. So far, I haven’t seen the need to venture beyond Spotify (and Prince’s exclusive new album for Tidal, according to most reviews, is, regrettably, a piece of shit).

Collecting physical objects such as vinyl albums and cds is a folly for a multitude of reasons. Foremost among these is the music collector’s paradox that posits you can neither have enough of the object you collect nor collect all instances of that object. In other words, your collection will never reach the holy grail of completeness, which in and of itself provides reason enough for some to persist in collecting. There’s also the physical problem of eventually running out of room to store all your acquisitions, at which point the collector is likely confronted with another dilemma: his collection eventually outpaces his ability to familiarize himself with or fully appreciate all the objects in the collection. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard the strain of a song that really grabs my attention as if I’m hearing it for the first time, only to find out, sometimes after already purchasing it, that I’ve had it in my collection for years.

Possessing music, or, in economic terms, purchasing an instance of that music, whether on vinyl, cd or digital form, is just as important now as it ever was, perhaps even more so since unfettered access has had the unintended effect of depriving many musical artists of a vital revenue stream that enables them to continue creating music in the first place. Those trying to make a living from music will be the first to tell you that since the creation and recording of music is not free, neither should the access of it be. I really couldn’t agree more, but I often find myself on shaky ground in terms of putting my money where my mouth is. Of all the music I have purchased over the years, I honestly have no idea how much of that money ended up in the artist’s pockets. The name of the game for an avid collector like me is accessing as much music as time and money will allow. In order to purchase more music for less money, I would often find desired albums by sifting through the racks of used and/or advance copies of cds and records, and I know the artist never got a dime from these sales. And that’s not counting the copies of albums I might get from friends and fellow music lovers on cassette or cd-r. The form of the music I acquired was never as important as having the opportunity to listen to an album I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I suppose I tried to pay this access forward to some extent by serving as an ambassador and turning others on to this music, but I’m under no delusion that ever came close to replacing the revenue I took away from them by buying on the underground market.

I must admit that my lack of compunction over this habit has, in turn, mollified any guilt I might feel at buying next to no music now that I subscribe to Spotify (I’ve read enough feedback from musicians to know that the $10 I pay a month barely trickles down to them, despite the fact that Spotify claims to pay out 70% of its revenue in royalties, most of which is retained by the labels). In the beginning my intentions resembled that of a metal blogger I read recently. Both of us intended to use Spotify as a filter through which to identify for later purchase the needles of truly great albums inside the haystack of crap. This way, we’d only need to spend our money on music that had been vetted – except that neither of us anticipated how having the music available whenever we wanted (or at least whenever we had an internet connection) virtually eliminated the need to buy it. It’s this perpetual reinforcement of the consumer’s immediate gratification that leaves the artist, unfortunately, out of the transactional loop. Through the purchase of a Spotify or internet account, we have confused the price we pay to access information with free and perpetual ownership of all that access makes available to us. So far label, artist and consumer have yet to settle on the terms for establishing value for something that, once accessed, is freely available. In the meantime, can the consumer be blamed for taking drinks from a free-flowing spigot?

Given this technological quandary, I tend to agree with the writer of this blog post that the burden of determining value for music that consumers will be willing to pay rests predominantly on the shoulders of the music industry and artists. Given my healthy respect for the struggling artist and realistic view of the labels’ insatiable greed, I’ll put it even more bluntly: it is incumbent upon artists and bands to come up with a way to force the redistribution of a fair amount of the wealth unfairly earned by the labels, who, don’t kid yourself, will not give up that income on their own volition. From the beginning of recorded music, these two parties have existed like oil and water, and the game has always been rigged in the labels’ favor due to the fact that they controlled the technology. Technological advances and cheaper availability have brought about a shift in power that puts the artist (or worker) in charge, only the patriarchs of the music industry, no different than the patriarchs of any other industry, have been agonizingly slow to concede this. The economy in this information age is driven by human capital, or rather, the skills and talents that individual workers can bring to their company that, in turn, add value to the products they put on the market. This is especially true of the entertainment industry, which is all about creating unique content that will attract paying audiences. The only party capable of creating this content is the artist, who can never be reduced to a machine or widget that the patriarchal music label boss can neither mass produce at will nor control. One would think that the equalization provided by the internet would have also levelled the playing field between labels and artists. After all, how hard can it be to track the number of plays an artist receives on Spotify and then pay them an agreed amount per play? But sadly, rather than take this opportunity to create a new paradigm, the industry, in collusion with the streaming services, is only able to create a business model that uses antiquated contractual terms that continue to funnel the majority of revenue to the labels and very little to the artists, which translates to Spotify’s paltry $0.001128 per play to the artist after the label’s share (Spotify actually claims to pay out between .006 and .008).

One outcome brought about by new technology has been the availability of cheaper tools for musicians to create their music. Rather than having to rely on expensive studios, producers and label A&R staff, musicians can create studio-quality tracks in their own bedrooms. The internet even makes possible the distribution of their music without record labels, that is, if they have the marketing prowess to tap into or reach their particular market of fans. However, in spite of these recent advances, the labels still maintain the upper hand and control. The ease of accessing tools, creating and distributing music ends up being a double-edged sword for the musician as well. The ease of creation has reached the point where more often than not the music is now often offered for free or as a loss leader to entice fans to spend money on other items, such as concert tickets and merchandise, that generate more revenue for them.

All this describes a rather complicated problem that, as a consumer, I have very little power to change or do anything about. Entertainment consumers may have become quite savvy about the inside baseball talk of contracts, how many copies a certain album sells and how much certain artists make, but what does any of this have to do with enjoying the art? Fortunately the tunes I jam on my lowly WMCW frequency do not contain any of this static about contracts and artists getting the shaft.  As a music lover, my only concern is getting my hands on a certain album that sounds right up my alley. It makes no difference to me if I access this music by a computer keystroke or hours spent combing through shelves of cds. One might argue that the value of music increases according to how difficult it is to access, but I think that still misses the point, as it’s ultimately a private matter between the music fan and his passion. I find myself throwing up my hands along with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker who said recently, “For me, it just shows that it’s not about how much you pay for it or even whether or not it’s physical – it can still have the same effect on you.” Implicit in Parker’s statement is the pragmatic view that it is a rare and altruistic consumer (even rarer) who will pay for something when he or she doesn’t have to.

The point is that we all now share this brave new world of inexhaustible access, and so how is it possible for all parties – labels, artists and consumers – to enjoy this space and the benefits therein equally? One answer might be this prescription, courtesy of David Byrne, in which he calls for the music industry labels to come out from behind their non-disclosure agreements with the streaming services and be more transparent in its accounting of artist’s royalties. What a novel concept! Maybe after we’ve done this with the music industry, we can do the same thing with healthcare, energy, finance or any other industry that employs zombie accounting to keep the customer in the dark as to how the company really makes its profits and how much. This power to equalize is the true promise of technology, which the Powers That Be are too greedy and chickenshit to allow and will do everything in their power to prevent.

I have had to adapt my music collecting habits over the years due to certain lifestyle changes that have nothing to do with technology, namely marriage and children. Each of these have cut into the free time I have available to listen to albums, and I choose (mostly) not to be a self-centered asshole who insists on isolating himself in his routine regardless of life circumstances. You know who I’m talking about, the guy (or gal, though we’re mostly talking about guys, since collecting tends to be about mastery and control) who takes over his family’s home to store all his Star Wars collectibles, which his kids are never allowed to touch or take out of their boxes, then rents a storage facility whenever he runs out of room. I recognize that while music immeasurably enhances my quality of life, it has never defined it. This is all to say that I’ve been re-evaluating what it means to “possess” music for much longer than Spotify has been around. The days are long gone when I was able to purchase an album, take it home and listen to it repeatedly while poring over the artwork, lyrics and liner notes. I no longer have the spare time to investigate the lives and influences of every member of my favorite bands, by way of vicariously living the rock and roll life through them. Nor do I make the effort to see bands live as often as I used to. These days I pretty much have to squeeze in a listen whenever I can, which typically means listening to an album while in my car, when I take my run or have an hour or so to spare to listen on headphones. While I refuse to believe it’s become the equivalent of background music, it’s pretty darn close. I find myself trying to cling to my cognoscenti status by telling myself that at least I’m not one of those stuck-in-time music fans who listen to the same music that soundtracked a particularly vibrant time in their lives, usually following a period of intense bonding such as rushing a fraternity or sorority.

I still pursue new music, perhaps more consistently than I pursue other artistic passions such as literature, movies and television. Every morning, along with a scan of the news, it is my habit to scour a few review sites to see if anything of interest pops up. When I come across an album that piques my interest, I will then check its availability on Spotify. If Spotify has it, I save the album for later listening. Once I have listened to the album a time or two, I then delete it from my saved music to make room for others. Even after starting my subscription, it was difficult to shake the habit of my collector’s mindset. I thought the way to “collect” on a service like Spotify was to create or build a library. It took me a while before I finally realized that this was silly. As a Spotify subscriber, their entire collection is, in essence, my library. All I really needed was a way to identify and capture the albums I wanted to hear. By loosening my attachment to the thing of a collection – a beast that, once set loose, is insatiable – I’ve become more comfortable listening to an album and then releasing it again to its vaults in cyberspace, where I am able to call it up again whenever I want (unless the artist follows Taylor Swift’s example and pulls their music from the service). I accept that by this method the album may never cross my mind again, even if it’s the best thing I’ve heard in ages or makes an indelible impression on me. I’m also okay with the fact that if a particular album is not available on Spotify, I may never pursue it through other channels. It’s like an amazing sentence you compose in your mind one moment that vanishes in the next before you can commit it to print. The way I look at it now, great music, like great sentences, comes and goes, and if a cool-sounding album slips from my grasp, there’s plenty more on Spotify to make up for it. I quite like how Spotify effectively narrows my music-listening and -seeking habits to the experience of listening itself.

This, in turn, seems more in keeping with my life at the moment, where I have precious little time not only to stay on top of the latest trends and bands but also just as little patience for dealing with the fruitless, first world anxiety of being culturally out of touch. After all, it is impossible for my life to be diminished in any way by something I haven’t experienced. And yet every stage of detachment from my collector mindset, from arranging platters and discs on shelves to creating virtual libraries on hard drives, serves as a reminder of the increasingly relegated role that music plays in my life, thereby prompting the process of letting go of its hold on me. Ordinarily this would suggest that the scope of my life has expanded to encompass more important matters, according to the “When I became a man, I put away childish things” formula, but in my case I’m not so sure. Music was always one of those intellectual and artistic activities, albeit an intoxicatingly addictive one, that evoked a more exciting life than the one I was currently living. The feeling roused in me (and very few things – not even sex and drugs – can quicken the blood like a great rock and roll song) hinted at exciting possibilities, and in the best of circumstances, it fueled the pursuit of this more desirable life. Like so many people, I spent my share of time playing air guitar or drums in front of the mirror in my room and fantasizing about playing in a rock and roll band, imagining myself travelling in cramped and smelly vans across the country and sleeping on couches and floors of fans. I even spent a couple of frustrating years attempting to manage a young, immature and ultimately unmanageable band in Athens, Georgia. Giving up “childish” things like rock and roll fantasies, as well as the attainment and mastery of musical knowledge that is a delusional by-product of collecting, has precipitated a peculiar kind of mourning in which music now evokes echoes of dreams I no longer have nor can realistically pursue, except vicariously, at this settled and domesticated stage of my life.

So it appears that I have come full circle back to those days when all I had was the radio. Spotify, however, is certainly a more evolved form of the medium, where instead of being at the mercy of some insipid deejay or corporate programming director for what I hear, I control my own programming, even if I no longer have or control the ownership of it. Nowadays, I no longer have to endure hours of commercials and crap music to hear the few bands and songs I liked. Nope, all I have to do is call up the Spotify app, and I’m instantly tuning in to WMCW, where I can count on the fact that it’s going to be nothing but stupendous music all the live long day. My philosophy is that life’s too short to listen to shitty music.

At this juncture of my Spotify year, I have found few faults with my rather limited use of the service and see only positive reasons to continue using it. Now that technology and the aforementioned lifestyle changes have unmoored me from the place music has held in my life and the way I consume it, I do still hold out hope that, once again, I will be able to find new ways to deepen my relationship with it. This relationship-based connection to music is the reason I have always appreciated albums over singles, starting with a connection, through their sound and world view, to the artist or band. Albums, not unlike novels, represent a snapshot of an artist’s feelings and experiences at that point in time, and you can then hold up those feelings and experiences as a mirror to your own. Following an artist through subsequent albums is like travelling with friends on their life journey, or, vice versa, them accompanying, supporting and encouraging you on yours. It would be great if Spotify could add more information in addition to the music files for each album that would serve as an accompanying document of the artist’s experiences while recording it. Spotify has already integrated a lyrics feature, through Musixmatch, on its desktop platform. This is huge for me since without lyrics I feel I am enjoying only a partial experience of the song, an experience akin to enjoying a movie without visuals. I’m hoping next will come the addition of artwork, photographs, credits and liner notes. Since these are easily converted to digital formats, this shouldn’t be hard or expensive to do. The album commentary feature Spotify has with certain artists is a step in the right direction. And lastly, because I’m not willing to give up completely on my desire to “possess” music, even as just a mental exercise (I have a mind for trivia and track music details like a sports fan does player stats), I would like to have a way to generate reports of my listening history so that I can see my patterns over time, as well as more easily identify an artist responsible for the earworm I can’t get out of my head (at least until they come up with a way to Shazam brain waves!). I would pay more for such added features in a heartbeat, especially if I knew the artist was getting paid more royalties in the bargain.

As a consumer, I see nothing but upside in having so much music available at my fingertips. The view might not be so rosy from the artist’s perspective, but the fact is we’ve yet to find the new normal in the economy of this information age. The same freedom I have to circumvent the labels and radio stations to access the artist directly will one day soon be available to the artist as well, enabling them to engage in more of a two-way dialogue with their fans without label interference. Spotify is a tool that makes this direct connection possible now, and it should grow stronger as the service, along with its competitors, gains in popularity and forces the industry to change its practices in conjunction with and response to the introduction of new technology and innovations. But for all this Spotify is still just that, a tool, one that makes possible the outcome of listening to and enjoying music. Tools may have the power to change behavior, but we must take care that we don’t allow them to corrupt the nature or quality of our experiences.  As Kevin Parker stated, the experience of encountering a new band’s sound that shakes you to your very core remains pretty much the same, regardless of the technology used to access it. That experience, and that experience alone, is the reason I keep chasing new sounds and always will, whether Spotify exists or not. For the time being, Spotify’s tool fills a critical need and offers an insurmountable abundance of new sonic experiences that will be filling my earphones for the foreseeable future.