For music lovers like me, who,similar to Alice and the rabbit hole, fervently follow the credits on an album’s liner notes into worlds of new and exciting sounds, streaming music services are a dream come true. My Spotify subscription is a ticket to a sonic buffet that offers easy access to more music than Dong Ngo can fit on all of the CNET Lab’s hard drives combined. It also helps me continue a personal lifelong pastime of exploring music that’s new to me, by using whatever tech I can get my hands on.
Right now, that’s streaming music, the get-it-anywhere, take-it-anywhere method for hearing almost any musical style you want, on the spot.
After my parents upgraded to a DSL connection and purchased our family’s first computer, a Compaq Presario 5000 (the one with the colorful interchangeable faceplates that my frugal father refused to splurge on,) just as Drake once said, nothing was the same. It wasn’t just because I could gawk at an endless stream of my favorite boy bands’ photos (in retrospect, very creepy,) but because my musical consumption was no longer limited to those same bands (I still love you, Backstreet Boys.)
Being fed popular music via MTV, VH1 and contemporary radio was great for a sheltered Christian kid like me, who lived in a strict household where the only acceptable music was humdrum hymns, and everything else was considered “worldly” and “of the devil”. But, once I could easily download The Clash’s discography and the new 112 record, getting my music from TV became inane and passé. The Internet won my heart forever.
It’s important to note that my obsession with music didn’t start with Napster or the MP3; I’m a born music excavator. As a five year old with conservative parents, the only way I got to listen to music was if I stayed up past their bedtime and used our toy-like pink and green boombox to scour the radio waves for whatever caught my ear. Mostly, old school RB and soul music, like The Supremes and Otis Redding, would sing me to sleep.
I started falling in love with music during those late nights as a defiant child. My rebellion wasn’t so that I could feel like a badass, or pull one over on my parents; I just really liked “secular music.” Initially, I simply loved that sounds could be beautiful. I connected on an auditory, visceral level, but paying attention to the lyrics made me realize that this so-called “devil music” wasn’t that at all; it was about love, loss, and life.
Music is an expansive and metamorphic art form that’s as universal as it is personal. I love that it can move you to smile, cry, dance or think. I vividly remember listening to “Have You Seen Her” by The Chi-Lites and, genuinely concerned for all parties involved, I actually speculated about this unknown woman’s whereabouts, and if she knew there was an amazing song written about her. Music helps me empathize, understand and enjoy the world around me, even if it’s just during those few moments before bed.
Eventually, I got my very first portable music player, a Walkman. For cassettes. (Well, technically I commandeered it from my mother, but still, it was mine.) A possible precursor to my impending boy band phase, the only tape I had was an old New Kids on the Block album that my cousin abandoned at our house years before. It wasn’t long before I learned how to make mix tapes by recording songs off the radio using a kiddie-sized karaoke machine.
Years later, came the personal CD player. I carried it with me everywhere, in a denim-clad FUBU purse — made especially for portable CD players — that had a compartment for storing up to ten discs. Once I started burning CDs (shoutout to Napster, Kazaa and Shazaam,) I often crammed up to twenty discs at a time inside that bag.
Finally, freshman year of high school, I got my first MP3 player. It was a hand-me-down Apple iPod from a family friend — the awkward-looking third-generation model with the unbecoming buttons placed above the scroll wheel. It eventually broke and I got another iPod (one with video) but the next gadget that would turn my world upside down was a different Apple device — the iPhone.
No longer did I have to carry around my phone and MP3 player. Now I could text my best friend funny quips and listen to all those Death Cab For Cutie albums I downloaded from iTunes all on the same device. The iPhone probably singlehandedly cured whatever faux emo phase I was going through at the time.
Several Justin Timberlake albums and a happy transition to Android later, my MP3 collection now sits on a hard drive in my bedroom, collecting dust. Sometime between my first iPhone and now, I started investing in a blossoming vinyl collection, so when Spotify hit the States, the switch to streaming music made sense, because it made use of the gadgets I already owned.
A means to a musical end
Today, I seamlessly stream whatever the heck my heart and ears desire from my phone or laptop, thanks to my duteous Spotify subscription. As part of the package, I also get to check out new music in its entirety without having to download any files. My days of daringly taking a chance on a record just because the album art looked cool, spending all of my birthday money on CDs, or worse, feeling like a guilt-ridden, nefarious music pirate, are all far behind me.
Just like a hopeful contestant on a dating show, I’ve given a fair chance to most of the competition out there. I’m too picky and controlling about what I’m listening to for radio services like Pandora and Rdio, and I’ve tried other on-demand streaming services like Apple Music, Rhapsody, Google Play Music and Tidal. Using these, I encountered issues ranging from a lackluster music catalog to pitiful mobile app performance, and none lived up to the standard set by Spotify.
Like every music-listening-method before it, Spotify isn’t without its faults. Performance issues happen more than I’d like, and the desktop app almost rivals iTunes in the “Software with the most frequent and seemingly indiscernible updates” category. It’s still better than using up all of my phone’s internal storage on Janet Jackson’s discography, and the opportunity to listen to almost anything I want, at any given moment, heavily outweighs the cons.
As I look forward, I expect streaming music to stick around for awhile; however, improvements are necessary. I hope (like Neil Young) that high-quality streaming becomes the norm and that artists start to get properly compensated for their work — my biggest dilemma about using Spotify and its ilk. Short-changing artists is biting the hand that feeds because, without them, these services wouldn’t even exist.
Tidal, a rival, Jay Z-backed streaming service, attempts to address these issues and, as a consumer who grapples with balancing personal convenience and financial obligation to the artist, I was initially excited to give the service a try. I wound up crawling back to Spotify a month later due to consistent performance problems. I don’t have solutions for the complex issue of streaming royalties, but a quality service with a healthy compromise of affordability for the consumer and financial viability for musicians shouldn’t appear utopian; a midpoint must occur.
Maybe Spotify should reconsider its “music should be free” ethos.I did. From my early years of recording Bad Boy Records-centric mixtapes off the radio, to regularly binging every Spike Jonze music video on YouTube, I admit, I’ve been complicit in consuming music for free. Up until my first job as a teen, I didn’t have the means to pay for music, but now, as an adult with a more disposable income, I can and I do.
I can’t buy happiness, but I can afford a $10-a month subscription for a music service that, with a few simple swipes and taps, allows me to go from listening to Odd Future to Fugazi — and that freedom, for right now, is close enough for me.