Why I Don’t Listen to Every New Song
The music landscape became as open as it could, thanks to streaming. So why is our listening experience as limited as ever?
As a music journalist, you may assume that I am on top of every single release in my genres of interest. People typically believe that us writers (or, more derogatorily, “bloggers” or “critics”) rush to listen to every new single or album at midnight, and already know how to articulate it and sum it up in less than a day.
As I’ll explain, that’s far from the case for most writers. Unfortunately, that belief goes beyond just the average person’s stereotype; it’s become the standard operating expectation of the media, fan bases, and the artist themselves.
First, I should note that this goes beyond just music — at least for me, personally. I don’t typically watch movies or television (in the case of streamed-first shows) when they first release, either. I don’t go to exhibits on the very first day they’re open to the public. I don’t try to buy new products like phones or consoles while they’re fresh on the market.
Besides the fact that it’s exhausting to try to revolve one’s life around being one of the first to listen to something, it’s a ridiculous expectation. Yes, even in the era of streaming.
This point is not meant to be braggadocious. It’s not some valiant ideal worth applauding. All of these examples, including music, are meant for art or entertainment. If you open up an old newspaper or an archived version of an online website, you might find that categorized under a different name:
While, in the case of writers, we try to make a living on discussing and evaluating content, music — entertainment in general — is meant to allow for leisure, not inconvenience it. I personally don’t want to schedule my entire days, weeks, and life around getting on top of a select amount of premieres. That was easier in school, when your schedule is already preempted by people and requirements out of your control. Preparing for Saturday morning cartoons, for example, is much easier when all you really have to do is get your homework done by Friday night.
But as an adult, the last thing that could possibly help me enjoy something is having to stick it on my schedule.
More from The Renaissance: TDElay — Paul K. Barnes
This brings me to how that expectation arose. Specifically in music, artists from the earliest days of recording sound through the age of vinyl could produce records as much as they (or their record labels) pleased. Why? For most musicians, even the most successful ones, live performances was the most vital way of earning income and maintaining success. While, in theory, this remains accurate today, the main difference was the invention and widespread creation of the magnetic tape in Germany.
This version of audio recording did not come into prominence outside of Germany until the 1950s — but once it did, records became easier to produce and thus, easier to sell to consumers. Thus, musicians could now make a living on selling music records…theoretically, anyway. Even then, new music first became accessible on the radio; fans would only rush to the nearest record store as soon as it opened for a very few amount of artists. Artists who weren’t favorites of the radio or big outside of their area would have to hope for more popular records to sell out before their vinyls came off the shelf; thus came competition among music artists, then the Billboard charts, on and on…
All this to say, music wasn’t something that people would constantly rush to get as soon as it’s out, if they ‘rushed’ at all. After the implementation — and success — of the magnetic tape, music grew into a more lucrative business. International acts like The Beatles, Ray Charles and James Brown solidified the record industrial complex, and after the 1960s it became essential for an artist to be able to perform between both live and recorded mediums. Even at that time, though, nearly every artist could produce full records — singles, extended plays (EPs) and long plays (LP) — and see it on the shelf in less than a month before they began taping the next one, all while touring or in residence somewhere. Take a look at Aretha Franklin’s discography, or early music biopics such as Ray to make sense of it.
As we moved into digital methods of recording, and thus into hip-hop, it became more expensive to produce records. Thus, the competition between artists in order to survive was bought on by their labels. If labels don’t have the top acts, they can’t stay in business. To stay in business, they needed to sell the vinyls (and tapes, and discs) they were putting on shelves. Thus, the quest to control the market became their main objective.
To control the market and maximize sales, record labels began to work on a scale of saturation. If there were 3 different records from one artists on store shelves at the same time, sales are more likely to remain stagnant or worse, spiral down. So, in efforts to avoid oversaturation, artists were limited in when they could release. The days of releasing 2 or 3 albums a year in the 1950s turned into releasing maybe 2 or 3 singles a year by the 80s.
Oversaturation wasn’t the only concern. Now, there was a real case for consumer anticipation; other than radio, music listeners can only play music from one record so many times before (if they fancied it) they wanted — no, needed to buy more. So eventually, the distance between artist’s releases became less by necessity, and more by strategy. Why drop 3 albums that sell well every 3 years when you could release one every 3 years and excel?
That became the operating structure for the industry until the 2000s, when iTunes combined the roles of the middleman with the salespeople — allowing for consumers to purchase and instantly own any record they choose. From here, vinyl (and to a slower extent, tapes and discs) died because there were too many hands and ‘inconveniences’ to the process. With the increased computerization of the world, came the acceleration of the record-selling and buying process. Thus, the acceleration of the music journalism realm. If artists are operating in a lightning-round pace with releases, and their fans are racing to buy them, then the “critics” should keep up, too.
Then came… Spotify.
Spotify became the slow, Jaws shark-like predator of the music industry. Fans could get their music, on-demand, and play it anytime or anywhere, while some company essentially footed the bill. All that was needed was the Internet. What could go wrong?
Well, for those looking for leisure, everything. Soon, every artist became in tune with streaming services — with some services maintaining better relationships with artists, than the artists had with their labels. Soon came Spotify exclusive music, which blew the cap off the market. The model Spotify, and other on-demand music services (to a lesser extent) like Deezer, Soundcloud, and others had based themselves on was succeeding. Soon came WiMP, which would spin-off a new brand that we all may know as TIDAL, which is invested in by several of the music industry’s top acts, namely JAY-Z.
“These are the 1 percent of pop music in the world right now,” Pitchfork reported on the plethora of musicians that became “co-owners” of the service. “These are artists who do not answer to record labels, do not answer to corporations.”
An increasing amount of artists now belong to that “1%”, or at least are willing to carry that mentality, but it’s not just the labels and corporations left behind under this artist-led market; it’s the fans and writers, too. Although artists arguably have even more accessibility to releasing music than the days of magnetic tapes, they don’t have incentive to — artists will still make substantially more income in live acts than music. The devaluation of music through streaming means that a popular record doesn’t earn you as much as it used to.
How does that effect fans? Well, the typical music fan isn’t going to a physical, or even digital, record store anymore. Now, we’re waiting by our phones for midnight eastern standard time — if we know about the release in advance. Following Beyoncé’s surprise release of her self-titled album in 2013, it’s become more and more common for singles, albums, and even full compilations to be released without prior indication.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t find much leisure in planning around the released music of a few artists, or having to drop everything just to catch on to something around the same time as someone else. Besides the fact that many of the most successful artists of today — Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar — seem to thrive on keeping their fan bases waiting, it limits a person’s purview to only the few acts they already know. The music artists you’d see and maybe take a chance on in the record store or on iTunes are now falling through the cracks, causing an even larger disparity between the industry’s largest earners and its lowest.
So eventually, the distance between artist’s releases became less by necessity, and more by strategy.
Worse, as we’ve talked about often here, the diversity in opinion and taste that used to make up fan bases or journalism has slowly faded. Now, especially to stans and even to artists themselves, you can only either ‘love’ or ‘hate’ something, and there’s little room to express in between.
n+1 Associate Editor Richard Beck summed it up succinctly, specifically from the purview of a fellow writer, in his article this summer, “I Am Here to Demonize Spotify”:
“I stopped listening to music, or at least to new music, around 2013, and for a long time I avoided thinking about why… But really I had stopped for a few different reasons. One was personal: family shocks and traumas had followed one after another starting in 2013, and I was depressed. I couldn’t stand to listen to music — especially new music — which had always provided me with so much comfort, excitement, and stimulation, and find that whatever I listened to, I still just felt depressed.
Another had to do with criticism. In college and in my early twenties, music forums and blogs run by individual critics proliferated… These were small, insular corners of the music internet, but it was through them that I heard new music, formed my tastes, and learned how to listen. They wrote about their areas of expertise, staged debates that sometimes turned vicious, quoted appreciatively when someone else wrote something they liked. It was a kind of social media, but because each blog was its own space, individual voices retained their autonomy. And the blogs run by professional and amateur critics were surrounded by an even larger network of mp3 blogs, sites that simply made albums available for download, so that I could listen to everything I was reading about.
When people talk about the lost promise of the internet, I think about this little music blogger ecosystem. It was destroyed by Twitter. By 2013, most of the music writing I liked to read was gone, and most of what has survived since then are press releases and various kinds of ranking exercises that masquerade as criticism.
Finally, there was Spotify. I am here to demonize Spotify. Its negative impact on the lives of working musicians has been well documented, as have its homogenizing effects on music itself... But Spotify also degrades the experience of listening to music. Like the rest of the internet, it encourages impatience… In pursuit of its goal, Spotify encourages you to outsource the work of deciding what you like and dislike, and of figuring out why. In other words, it discourages listening to music as such. Listening to Spotify is like listening to a radio station run by the stupidest version of myself.”
So besides the fact that it’s exhausting to try to revolve one’s life around being one of the first to listen to something, it’s a ridiculous expectation. Yes, even in the era of streaming. Why, as the world has digitized, do we still operate in pointless binaries such as being there at the time an album drops? Half the world is asleep or out and about on midnight EST on Friday morning. For us writers, why are traditional publications so disinterested in writing on arts and entertainment that’s not as ‘fresh’ as the content in question?
These questions are rhetorical because, well, I don’t let nonsensical standards dictate my daily life. So yes, I love music. No, I don’t listen to every new song when it’s out. I approach the experience of hearing a release as I interact with any form of leisure — and if the experience has depreciated a few months from now, then I didn’t really need to listen to it anyway, now, did I?