As of Apr. 16, 2016:

Why I Dogmatically Continue to Purchase Music, Not Pirate or Stream It for “Free”, Not Pay a Streaming Subscription

This could easily turn into an endless ramble, and I don't expect moralizing to be so convincing, so let's start with pure self-interest. There'll be plenty of time for scolding later.

Second-Amendment activists who feel the need to arm themselves are obviously uncomfortable with the idea of all firearms being in the possession of public authorities. Weaponized music is less the direction I want to go in than reliance on keeping your collection only in the cloud or streaming everything. Before letting fly with accusations of technophobia, allow me to invoke the demigod.

Steve Jobs was famously skeptical about whether people would pay just to listen to but not own their music, and recent movies confirm he was an insufferable jerk but right about everything! Owning music makes it YOURS, allowing you to form a personal connection to it. That people are paying for streaming services doesn't mean Jobs was wrong, just that we're prioritizing convenience over deeper connections. Or that people really don't like ads interrupting their tunes; that'd actually be a nice conclusion, too.

Think of the first album you ever bought with your own money. Do you remember what it was, where and why you bought it, whether anything on it surprised you? Did you play it a lot, or did your tastes evolve and give way to another favorite that you could listen to from start to finish without skipping a single song? Today's youth may never have the same experience or connection to a piece of physical media, may never bother to read the production notes and acknowledgments for even their most personally meaningful recordings. Sure, they'll still have favorite songs and be able to remember the first time they heard them, but never having held them in their hands or stored them in their bedrooms--in digital music libraries is a pale substitute--they are unlikely to feel the same personal connection of ownership. Owning stuff enables an imagined attachment to the PERSON who made something--for music albums, it's easy to imagine that your favorites weren't mass produced but custom-crafted with care, just for you. Your favorite musician is actually a magician who knows what you want to hear before you do yourself, and they could regularly send you a personal gift in the form of a new album quite unlike an "I-don't-know-you-well-enough-but-at-least-I-know-gifting-cash-is-tacky" gift card. Others may have the same album, but they don't have the copy with your initials written on it, with the rounded corners, cracked case, or the water-damaged liner notes from when you left the cd in the car and forgot to roll up the windows in the rain.

Getting your music streamed to you might give you a personal connection to, or even affection for, the all-powerful online PROVIDER, but it will never conjure triumphant memories of digging in crates or scanning physical shelves and finding what later became your favorite album. If listeners want to form an attachment to an aggregator, let it be one or more of the kindly and caring record labels, not a monolithic streaming service that reserves less bandwidth and promotional space for your most revered favorites than crap you'd never be caught dead listening to. Young people and the majority who shelter their ears by caring only for “hits” may find this hard to imagine, but it was once and could very often be exceedingly difficult to find a piece of music you heard and wanted to own. Where you bought something, how you found it, and what you paid are all intimate pieces of your story of how you first connected to your favorite music, and streaming services by definition streamline that process to be very easy, something to be taken for granted. Hardly anyone can spin a good yarn about how they scrolled through a series of menus and double-clicked, because we've replaced personalized stories of passionate pursuit with routinized convenience. (Though I could easily imagine older generations struggling with the technology so much that finally succeeding to hear music might be a similar triumph...if old people listened to new music, which they hardly do. I talk tough, but I've also failed to make ringtones on my iPhone.) It used to be that shopping for music was more like fishing—usually unsuccessful and so a small victory if achieved, subject to elaborate embellishment of the hunt, and even room for entertaining fictions and non-fictions about “the one that got away.”

All this will make for an increasingly wide gap between collectors who want something because it's rare and therefore valuable and those who actually want to use something for its intended purpose, much like the quaint novelties of antique collecting. In the past, this always happened to the previous, outdated medium. With streaming, the “quaintification” is happening to the very notion of owning music, arguably to the music itself if it's not available on a particular or any streaming service, and that's something I find at least as bad as music's commodification (which is by no means new). The very meaning and purpose of a “music collection” is in perilous flux, and the possibility of highly meaningful possessions becoming merely collectible or worthless can be traced to such fundamental changes in the processes of buying & collecting, forming something personal and effectively permanent that represents one's individuality, or just mindlessly consuming music. Undoubtedly, much music is created precisely to be commodified and mindlessly consumed, but that's what plenty of folks such as myself like to judge as "bad" music. Besides, it's a lot easier to judge someone by what's in their their (massive) music collection (or far worse, their entire lack thereof) than to snoop on their phone or computer for what they've streamed in the past ten-to-twenty years. And I MUST JUDGE!

In short, we tend to appreciate more what we worked harder to obtain! The art (product) is not as separable from the medium as we are led to believe—witness the resurgence of vinyl, that most-annoying-to-lug format. (Confession: since Dad sold my quite large record collection I'd traveled to the ends of the earth to amass, moved from house to dorm to apartment in WI to OH to NYC and back to IN, I have not purchased vinyl again and appreciate cds all the more.) Getting the fruit, the nut, or the seed without the rind or the shell often doesn't feel or taste quite the same. That is to say the product of sheer convenience is often lazy, inauthentic, or simply less gratifying. When musicians eventually stop bothering to make albums, the venerable medium of album art, including variously artistic ways to package LPs & CDs, will wither and die, reducing furthermore the opportunities for VISUAL artists to make a buck. With time, the pleasure of clicking on a new song may approach that of opening a new cd, but in my mind it will always be less. The gesture of a screenswipe or a mouseclick is too fast to let the anticipation build, associated with so many other things as to be indistinguishable from paying your bills online. Opening a new CD and wondering what it will sound like as you lovingly insert it into your player will never feel like the annoyance of waiting for the stream to buffer already!!! These are the downsides of “convenience” in music accessibility.

And they are just a few reasons why I'm an old-fashioned anti-streamer and fervent supporter of record/cd stores in all their forms. The day non-instrument music stores become solely a bastion for classic-rock memorabilia collectors rather than a gathering place for music lovers of all styles will be a sad one, and the mass closures of this endangered species point directly in that direction. This has meant that all remaining independent, brick & mortar stores (though there are hardly any examples of national/corporate record stores anymore) have turned to high-priced memorabilia to stay afloat. Anybody wanna go hang out and listen to a concert poster or a novelty lunchbox?

If music ceases to be something we “shop for” and buy, instead becoming merely a universal thermostat switch of “on or off,” set to be within a “comfortable range” of widely appealing hits available anywhere, any time, we lose something of our human diversity. The first to go are the really colorful but commercially hopeless dreamers and outsiders at the margins, but as the profit motive inevitably creeps back in as the bottom line, who is to say streaming services won't trend toward truncation rather than expansiveness of selection?

A personal example: Walking around Beijing in 2001, almost every block had a cd store, and even smaller cities like where I was posted in the far West could be counted on to have at least one store with an interesting selection as late as the late-2000s, making exploration of EVERY city worthwhile because EVERY store had something different. Streaming and piracy (though, admittedly more a result of cracking down on piracy in China!) have, in the past ten years, killed off an even vaster majority of cd stores in China, making cities that weren't very architecturally interesting to me in the first place now barren wastelands hardly worth exploring on foot for hours on end:-( CDs and stores that sell them have become mere cookie-cutter accessories to enhance the experience of being in a car—there are entire albums and STORES purporting to purvey something called “car music”. T'would be the greatest pity indeed if the same fate befell American metropolises!

Getting back to the NRA comparison, though, what would happen if there were an insurrection or other tragic revolution which disconnected everyone from the internet? Sounds unlikely, I hope, and obviously more so for the guns (which I don't have) than for the music (which I may well have in excess). Anyway, as long as we still have electricity, I'd still have my music; streamers wouldn't. If that sounds like paranoia, I wish it could be as easily dismissed for the NRA as for audiophiles.

More likely, though, for the younger generation to which I cling fleetingly, is the possibility that sometimes we will be in places or situations without an internet connection, be in dire financial straits and unable to afford the luxury of a paid streaming service, or unable to afford internet at home at all. I'll throw a bone to audiophilic purists, too, and say that streaming audio quality just isn't up to snuff (not going to open the can of worms about which medium provides the highest fidelity) and seems unlikely to make a quantum leap soon or without major personal and general technology-improving investment. Insecure accessibility matters because people's lives stagnate without new music. Sometimes in a hard or lonely period it's all we have to pull us through, and I know that hard emotional times and hard financial times often coincide. I don't want access to the exact kinds of audiotherapy I need to depend on the thickness of my wallet in a given month. Ads can totally kill a mood, and $10 a month can really add up when one's between jobs and/or homes.

Ah, but the anti-materialists chime in: beyond a certain point, having stuff becomes more of a burden than a source of happiness, satisfaction, or for maximizing economists, utility. Most would say that by having music media stored in no less than four locations while I'm in China, I'm spreading myself thin and becoming one of those craaaaazy hoarders. I could admit to that for other material possessions, but not for music. I may not be as excited for every new album as I was in high school, and my listens-per-album is down to an average of two or three from dozens, but the thrill is absolutely still there! Also, it sure beats crack!

While I may seem quixotic on my high horse of resistance to streaming's transformative quest to turn all proud music collectors into hoarders, I'll admit I'm no puritan. I should disclose that I'm a downloader, not a physical media die hard, but given the choice I'd absolutely prefer a CD with flippable pages of liner notes and artwork to an inert jpg in my iTunes. This is still perfectly socially acceptable in bookworms' aversions to eReaders, even as the number of unstreamed, obscure albums approaches or exceeds parity with that of books that will be forever unKindleable. I've been an eMusic subscriber since 2008 both because it's cheapish and convenient. Having established my basic tastes through far-flung world travels in search of my favorite music, I'm ready to settle down with some convenient consumption for when I'm not in CA, NYC, or another place with great music stores. Bandcamp might yet pick up the slack and be an online savior. And I still hold onto considerable moral compunctions against “free” music online, to be discussed forthwith...

With the advent of “free” streaming services like Spotify, Youtube for the really young ones (egad!), and a growing selection of others, neither self-interest nor the old moral/legal argument for paying to own music really applies anymore. The self-interested pop listener might've complained that even Top40 radio didn't play exactly the songs they wanted, exactly when they wanted them (though the very idea of having insufficient repetition of 40 or so songs seems ludicrous to me). If I can stream precisely what radio couldn't quite do and without paying anything,why shouldn't I? On-demand, free TV and “radio” (i.e. on-demand streaming music services) must surely be the future, because no one wants to schedule their lives around any non-self-centered institution even for a few minutes. It also supposedly revives a moribund industry devastated by illegal file-sharing, with revenues trickling down once more to the artists who created the goods in the first place. Ad-supported or subscription-supported music gives musicians a viable income and expands the number of listeners without the truly evil practice of piracy (If you download shared files and are not in dire poverty, you are a bad, bad person! I'll spare the reader an anti-piracy rant for another entry.), right?

For the time being, unless you are in the top 1% of artists (for whom I've previously expressed contempt), the difference between piracy and revenue from streaming services is literally pennies. At least buying CDs and mp3s sends a significant portion of the purchase to the artist. Certainly not as much as they'd like, maybe not actually enough, but significant. I've heard from a friend that Band Camp gives among the highest proportion of the sale to the artist, but I admit I may never be rich enough to spend $10 on an album again. I'm a freakin' Conehead who needs to “consume mass quantities” of music. But I'll be darned if I ever support an online emporium that deals only or mainly (slippery slope!) in individual songs.

Just saying “album” seems likely to be antiquated unless buying more than one song on record, cd, mp3, or other medium remains an economically viable practice. The Tower Records documentary makes a big deal about how their avoidance of singles in favor of more profitable (i.e. higher priced) albums played a part in dooming their business. If all the young care about are single songs, however, it'll be like losing an entire art form, much like the fact that very few people today read prose (or its once myriad forms have been condensed greatly into short stories, novels, and novellas which sell best). Just as some bands and artists specialize in music that doesn't fit the 2-to-5-minute verse-chorus-verse structure that still dominates commercial radio (another endangered medium) at all, some songs taken out of the context of an album lose their oomph completely. Remixing might help in some cases but be impossible in many others. And surely a “perfect” album of 30-80 minutes is a more substantial achievement—if not necessarily more difficult to achieve--than a single “perfect” (i.e. catchy, innovative, technically brilliant, or commercially viable) song. At the very least, it's a more enduring EXPERIENCE, unless you're one of those people who likes to loop the same song over and over again for an hour (Yikes!). It is within the expansive margins of albums that new styles are born and new aesthetics for study and critique are necessitated.


Furthermore, perfecting the 3-minute, radio-ready song has been done many times in most genres, and it is conceiveable that one day the ways to do so will be exhausted. There are myriad but ultimately only so many ways to paint a door; behind doors, however, are walls which invite a near-infinity of murals. By means of upscaling, this could describe equally well the entryway through a single album into an entire musical style, but note that letting individual songs do this rather than a full album, by limitation of length, will effectively limit what a style of music is and is not, or what can or cannot be done within its confines. A “good” song should indeed be a gateway to the walls beyond (and indeed, you can hang many individually interesting paintings on walls—just have to extend the clunky metaphor this one more time as a jab at people who complain about albums not gelling together), but it needn't be the only way in. It would be a shame if the more flexible, forward-thinking sectional divisions were demolished, leaving only portals to emptiness (or just a line of doors stacked like dominoes).

Why will streaming kill albums? That's a topic for another post, but the short answer is that it's based on how youngsters access and listen to music differently than every previous generation since the LP became the standard. While people might always listen to “The White Album” (but eventually, as listening habits change generationally away from albums toward individual songs, they won't listen to that either), they won't listen to new albums by new artists, not least because new artists, denied entirely the possibility of a hit or otherwise financially profitable album, will stop making LPs and focus on getting a million views or streams for one song (because that's the only way music will ever pay the rent). Bands and artists that don't use that highly rational strategy will be gradually marginalized and finally completely ignored, because nothing represents artistic quality better than marketability.

Spotify's current royalty distribution system is particularly insidious for the future of moderately popular old artists and would-be popular new ones. It essentially makes songs compete against each other and pays out as a proportion of total streams for the whole service, further incentivizing the need for a hit single. Every actually streamed song on a popular album that isn't yours effectively reduces your slice of the total streams. As the service gets more popular, your songs have to keep pace or face declining revenue from the same number of monthly streams while also competing with an ever-increasing inventory of songs that will always be far more popular than yours. Let it simply be concluded here that curated collections of songs—or in terms a DJ might prefer, single-artist mixes within a tight chronological window--are an art form unto themselves worth preserving!

But let's return to the injustice of paying perfectly important, aesthetically interesting but insufficiently popular musicians mere chump change for their blood, sweat, and tears. Tidal is apparently one way some musicians are taking back the proceeds, but its generally negative reception hasn't won me over to the format. If records, tapes, cds, and purchased mp3s might at least have privided bands with a meagre but livable income to justify and supplement touring, streaming revenue so far cannot support a single member of a musical group except in very rare cases. As someone who prefers chamber pop to stripped-down garage rock duos, billing the bassoonist as an occasional guest contributor rather than a full member, not letting the tuba player tour with the band, or simply being unable to pay the string section any royalties is wholly unacceptable.

To a lesser extent in art pursued more for passion than financial gain but eventually as in any trade or craft, if people can't support themselves doing something, they will cease to do it professionally. And this is different from losing whittlers, manual tailors/seamstresses, and even hand-drawn animators who've been obviated or boutique-ified by technology. Unlike these examples, music is a near-universally appreciated art form, and technology itself will never produce something of comparable quality without the aid of an artist. (Artificial intelligence is a growing reality, but artificial creativity is a fantasy, and a questionably motivated, probably undesirable one at that. Logarithms are getting VERY good at predicting what you WOULD like based on what you DO like, but that obviously assumes a pre-existing and growing selection of art created by humans. For example, based on your favorite Prince song or David Bowie album, your magical robot friend can suggest unlimited other songs and albums you're extremely likely to enjoy, but technology is unlikely ever to resurrect either of them to make another piece or collection of music bearing their names. Imitators and robo-composers might well assemble elements of each artist's style--and that goes especially for those who defied or dabbled in multiple styles--but without the authority of the living artist to say "I made this", there'll never be another! I do believe, however, that pop can and will be automated before The Singularity.)

Said artist will only have produced the best art when able devote enough resources to FOCUS on the art—not inordinately on paying rent or feeding the kids. Said artist will also likely produce even better art when s/he is able to collaborate with other artists who have time and resources to pursue collaboration. See also the connection between the rise of gangsta rap and turntablism, sometimes derided by elites as unsavory, with the defunding of musical instrument provision for inner-city schools (which may have given us jazz—for some the comparison is a lose-lose, but I hope more enlightened readers can appreciate both new art forms while lamenting the loss of a CHOICE of which to pursue).

So to those who bemoan the decline of virtuosity in music or the lack of variety on the radio, please support the exceptions as best you can. We are in danger of losing them. No one will ever stream an experimental or new classical piece that drones, clangs, or explodes noisily for an hour enough times for the composer to see a dime from it. For generations to come, a music distribution model consisting entirely of streaming will almost certainly doom up-and-coming artists to the poorhouse and out of existence unless something like Canada's grant system can be universally duplicated. The streamers claim to be supporting the creation of "great new music," but their claims bring to mind oil companies investing in green technologies or just working to improve the refinery process--it's only in their interest to give rise to cash cows that become so popular that they are new sources of proprietary income. For artists whose maximum appeal may be a small niche of extremely enthusiastic fans (i.e. MOST musicians!), streaming revenues drip insults in pennies like a leaky faucet. It is in every music lover's self interest for musicians to see a step-by-step process towards financial viability, one that isn't a pipe dream for the vast majority, lest we cede the entire thing to hobbyists and moonlighters fit for an open-mic night but never Carnegie Hall. In fact, not even live music is save in this digitizing age, as longstanding traditions like the CMJ Marathon in NYC appear to be in tragic death throes. The industry nearly took one of my favorites, Rob Crow, who by most measures would be considered extremely successful. It'll come for yours too, or those of your children.

To sum up, I pay to own music for more personal connection, greater appreciation as a result of greater effort, to have a story to tell about how I found it, to avoid ads that interrupt the listening, to weather lean financial times, to sustain the album as an art form, to keep SOME significant income flowing into musicians' pockets, perhaps even to allow some multi-member bands to be full-time musicians making the best music they can, to avoid having to re-purchase what I've heard and enjoy, and to survive an internet-but-not-electricity-ending apocalypse. Won't you be a stalwart too?

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