Music rarely exists in a vacuum. From classical concert programs and 12-track albums to DIY mixtapes and personal record shelves, we imbue songs with new meaning by connecting them to each other, by treating them as elements of a wider, self-constructed narrative.
We are music collectors by design and by necessity—an identity threatened by the rise of streaming.
In previous decades, physical formats like CDs, vinyl, cassettes and 8-tracks required us to limit our music consumption, if only to keep our wallets in shape. We didn’t just throw money and time at music left and right, but rather invested more wisely in a handful of albums and artists, with whom we developed intimate relationships through repeated listens and colorful liner notes. Filling our binders and shelves with these records also facilitated a more positive, aspirational side of our aesthetic identities: we set tangible, attainable goals for our collections, and could show off these works in progress to our friends and family whenever they visited for dinner.
The three recent stages of digital disruption in music — which can be bookmarked by Napster, iTunes and Spotify — have made our collections more public, more granular and more abstract, respectively. Napster is known not only for making recorded music available at no monetary cost, but also for motivating users to share their musical tastes with each other (it’s called file-sharing for a reason). iTunes unbundled the standard album into its individual tracks, enabling users to handpick their favorite songs and assemble a wider-reaching collection with a higher concentration of artists over the same amount of [virtual] surface area. Spotify not only has made musical shelf space infinite, but has also made the term “shelf space” irrelevant: its users own nothing. Instead, they pay for access, shelling out the rough cost equivalent of 12 CDs per year ($9.99 a month) to peruse millions of songs at their fingertips.
More significantly, to an extent, streaming services do all of our tedious music collecting work for us. With playlists as our framework, we can think of each streaming service as a unique “collection of collections,” using a distinct philosophy of curation to unpack an otherwise noisy music catalog. Spotify, for instance, touts its algorithmic prowess, pushing fresh, tailored and automated collections like Discover Weekly and Release Radar to its users on a weekly basis. Apple Music prefers to market its “human” curational talent, frequently recruiting celebrity guests like Alexander Wang and Clare Waight Keller to fashion [no pun intended] their own playlists for clout-hungry listeners. Tidal takes pride in its limited reach, snagging exclusive distribution deals with masterpieces like Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo.
Any effort on our part to seize control of our music collecting habits away from these streaming services ultimately feels burdensome and futile. Exclusivity clauses à la Tidal make it difficult to consolidate one’s entire online music collection into a single platform without paying for multiple streaming accounts (back in 2009, Eliot Van Buskirk suggested that the music industry build a global, universal, public database of songs to ease this friction between services, a vision that has since fallen through the cracks). The constant push for “discovery” — for maximizing the explorative opportunities enabled by data science — leads more and more streaming users to consume music like the average internet user consumes news: as brief sound bites that barely have time to breathe before being engulfed by new content.
All of these factors lead to a new type of digital music fan and collector: one who prioritizes breadth over depth, who sees collecting as performative rather than inquisitive, and who defines their tastes more by the how (the streaming services) than by the what (the songs). This profile presents a challenge for the music business in drawing attention away from music creators, the very lifeblood of the industry. Indeed, while streaming makes it easier for artists to reach potential new fans, it also makes it even more difficult to retain a group of loyal listeners.
After all, it is important to realize that we mourn music not when a song falls off the charts, nor when a streaming service fails to break even, but when we lose an artist. In 2016 alone, we said some of our most painful goodbyes as a collective music community to prominent figures like George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Prince and David Bowie. Unfortunately, deaths are the only opportunity many listeners have to dive deep into an artist’s background and life story. In contrast, artist profiles on streaming services remain sparse, providing no context or biographical information aside from their discography and a list of related artists. While music streaming is better for the consumer from the perspective of time- and geography-based access, convenience should not erode connection.
Like the Medium community itself, my thoughts are a work in progress. Please expand or contest this story in the comment section below. If you are a music collector, has technology affected your collecting habits, for better or for worse? Why or why not? Is there a part of the story I blatantly overlooked?