Music Options through DJ Poseur’s Prism of Moral Practicality

What’s an impecunious music lover who wants to support their favorite bands and artists to do these days? In response to PCMag’s 2018 review of streaming services (focused almost entirely on the practical end), here’s DJ Poseur’s judgments on physical media and commercial purveyors of sound, based on whether creative but obscure acts get paid and whether it’s a practical means of finding new, interesting stuff, as well as the full back catalogs of old favorite labels:

Sticking with for now: (Good ways to get music DJ Poseur encourages, and one bad way he owns as too convenient to avoid)

CDs- Nothing can ever replace the joy of finding a great but unappreciated album in the dollar bin, whether it’s something one’s heard of or a “risky” shot in the dark. The latter inevitably leads to some misses unless you can listen before buying (can you imagine living in a world where this wasn’t usually possible, only decades ago?), but the hits are what make life worth living, IMHO. In China, Thailand, and presumably many other countries, CDs may for the foreseeable future be the only way to hear indie music, as artists are unlikely to find their way onto global streaming services. A CD (or record) store in a developing country may or may not offer genuine articles—the concept of a pirated CD now seems positively quaint—but if they do, they are the rarest and most endangered of birds and should be patronized to the fullest extent financially possible! As even Amoeba Music now seems to be phasing out its CDs, I don’t know how many more years this can be my main means of musical acquisition, but I sincerely hope it’s a long, long time. I have mixed feelings about preserving brick & mortar retail, but at least with a CD or other commercial, physical media, you can be pretty sure that the artist got paid something. Burning and exchanging mix-CDs will always be cooler than giving a friend a pile of MP3s, won’t it?

College & Independent Community Radio- When DJ-ing or residing in a city with a good station, these’ll always be a good way to take a break from my personal library. I know they generally stream, too, but that’s exactly the amount of effort at which point the reward of curated hit-and-miss tunes is insufficient. Unfortunately, I’ve been out of school and without a car or other radio for several years.

eMusic - Often considered lengthy blog write-ups for this indie standby, but the way things are going (death spiral?), the end could be nigh, rendering all the research wasted. The short of it is I still want this downloading service to succeed (or now, come back) because it combined convenience, selection, and low enough prices to be able to explore new stuff while believing (falsely, in many cases, I now own) that the artists are being paid more than the streaming services pay them. Booster packs offering $200 worth of downloads for $75 are amazing (though a very bad sign about the company’s state of liquidity), if you can find anything on the site that you like. Not a problem for me, and the extra time searching for stuff is actually enjoyable, if not a very good use of time. Join now, and let’s give them another chance, won’t you? It’s not too late to turn this thing around, and I for one will stick with it until the bitter end, which I hope will never come.

Youtube-In a pinch, when I only want to hear a particular song with at least some popularity, I’ll try Youtube first for instant gratification. I know it doesn’t pay unless it gets an enormous number of views, but at this point it’s very rare that I’ll listen to music this way (maybe a few songs per month). Even with Adblock and Playlists, there’s a strong need to monitor what’s playing next, and every click is effort that takes one away from multitasking (i.e. blogging while listening to music). The selection is poor, unavailable in China, and my connection goes out way too often for this to be anything but a marginal option for songs (but probably the best for official music videos).

Music Videos- Having grown up without MTV or cable, for that matter, these have always seemed superfluous, if occasionally awesome. If possible, I listen to music almost all day, but almost always while doing something else. A medium which requires one’s full attention obviously limits the quantity of intake—if I can’t even write, do light reading, or even housework while watching a music video, what good are they, really? The portion of a day in which I am available to devote my eyes and ears to video entertainment, I’ll almost always choose a comedy/novelty video or an actual movie.

Considering: (Ways to get music which stir great ambivalence)

Bandcamp- Said to be the new champion of ethical payments to artists and downloadable files (MP3s are still acceptable to me), I’ve only ever bought one album on it, right before a concert, because the other options were corporate giants. The wealth of options (haven’t checked the selection) for downloading or even getting physical media are appreciated, and the “pay what you want” option above a certain limit is innovative as well as apparently slightly cheaper than iTunes. Slightly cheaper than iTunes, however, would absolutely break me if I want to cast a net anywhere near as wide as I can with used CDs and eMusic, though. I’m totally with the site in spirit, and maybe once I’m rich I can spend hundreds of dollars a month here and feel all warm and fuzzy about it.

Tidal- Given its support by musicians who appear to be doing just fine financially, I’m skeptical both that more obscure ones are available and that what they get paid is significantly better than other services. Audio quality is obviously nice if one’s connection is fast enough, which I think mine rarely is. If I ever go with a streaming service, this appears to be the one. A family plan might be most worth coordinating.

Napster- That this swarthy, old pirate is a viable option is one of the biggest surprises of this “research” project. Maybe the biggest: Digital Music News claims that the company is both profitable and currently pays artists the most per stream (almost a full two cents, thereby requiring “77,474 total plays” to meet the monthly minimum wage in the U.S., as of Dec. 2018). Still pretty ridiculous.

Not Considering: (Bad ways to get music)

Spotify (Deezer, etc.)- These seem to be the choice of many otherwise conscientious music lovers, due understandably to a selection greater than any single or combined music collection on physical media. And I understand you can download and cache tunes for availability when offline or with patchy internet. The countries I go to, however, don’t generally offer these services, however, and even if they did, I strongly object to the royalty system which pits all songs against each other (i.e. each million more plays a pop song gets, the less an obscure or experimental artist gets paid for the meagre number of plays they get). See Robert Frank’s “Winner Take All” Economy and my anti-streaming manifesto. The question I ask of these services is how much better it is for artists to receive monthly royalty checks for pennies, nickels, and dimes, rather than to pay them nothing at all (as eMusic has sometimes done, but I hope will one day not have to again).

There seems to be an enduring faith that, long after all the IPOs, paying membership will continue to increase and make these streaming companies profitable, at which point injustices in artist compensation will finally be addressed. That’d be great, but given growing competition from media giants below, I’m skeptical. Certainly open to details of how the payment system is slated to change.

Amazon- Admittedly, being able to tell an Echo to play any song with a verbal command is novel and makes for a great reserve of surprises for others in the room. Instantly being able to access a pick-me-up, motivating song has a lot of appeal if one only has a few minutes at hand to get jazzed up. But privacy concerns, a limited selection even under Prime membership, and most importantly not wanting to contribute to the monopolization of all media (if not all retail) are good reasons to avoid this company-to-end-all-companies altogether.

Google PlayI know my bro uses a free version, but if any company can compete with Amazon to own everything, this is it, and that would be evil.

AppleI’ll occasionally rent a 99-cent movie, buy a movie, and even have more than one album purchased from the iTunes Store in my library. DRM and limiting the # of devices media are playable on is obviously good for making sure more people have to buy things, but I don’t know how much artists actually benefitted from inconveniencing so many consumers for so long. While less of a threat to “own everything” like Amazon or Google, Apple clearly does not need our money, and I can only assume it pays artists no better than the other music streaming services (despite being able to afford to). Apple Music won’t be adding me anytime soon.

Vinyl (Records)Since my dear father sold my entire 1000-LP-strong rock collection in 2006 the month after I returned from the Peace Corps, and just weeks before I went to visit him, for a measly $50 to a local record store which almost certainly no longer exists, I’ve more or less given up trying to recoup or build my vinyl back. Moving so often, I’m actually grateful not to have to haul it across the country all the time. Let the revivalists continue to pay $20+ for a new album. I like the sound, but I’m not willing to pay for it unless I’m permanently settled somewhere.

Cassette TapesApparently there’s a segment of the population to whom tapes’ nostalgia and relatively long-playing physical media appeal. Still have a lot of tapes (if they’ve survived time and the elements) and I’m not getting any more. Mix tapes are pretty dictatorial in terms of forcing the recipient to listen in the order chosen by the DJ, but I’m not sure there’s virtue in that.

Online Radio- Slacker Radio is highly rated by the PCMag review, so I may have to check it out, but having to skip things one doesn’t like just seems like listening to an endless various artists compilation cd on the face of it. Never got into Pandora, LastFM, or any of the others that came before.

(Obviously only considering paid services here, as anyone who tolerates ads in free streaming as their primary sources of sounds must either be dead broke or not a real music lover! Similarly, if you rely on an algorithm to recommend what to listen to next, the robots have already won. To those who object that I should try each of them before ranting about each, I think we’re all entitled to valuable opinions on things we’ve never tried but have strong moral prejudices against, like, say heroin/crack, bear bile/rhino horns, and “breath play” during sex. Music streaming services are similarly dangerous and wrong, but most people clearly don’t care or are oblivious. Of course I welcome discussion, disagreement, or debate and may even be convinced to change my mind about any of the above! Give it a shot.)

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