Driving south from Seattle, the quality of radio programming drops about 15 minutes past Olympia. On a recent trip down to Portland, as soon as I hit this patch of poor airspace I asked my girlfriend to put on some music. She flipped to the music section of my brand new iPhone, only to find that I had not yet loaded a single song. We spent the rest of the drive suffering static-y, intermittent bursts of Top 40 radio.
Complaining about not having a hand-picked indie playlist to soundtrack a weekend in Portlandia may sound like fodder for White Whine. But I’d like to think it reveals a deeper fact: because this was the year my music library moved to the cloud, my listening habits — and my relationship to music — have changed in ways more unexpected and significant than any time since the arrival of Napster.
Up until this year, the latest paradigm of music ownership and consumption was based largely on iTunes. On a macro level, the program’s infrastructure for selling songs (both in album form and à la carte) had been gaining steam, with iTunes commanding the single largest market share of music sales in the US, at over 26%. On a micro level, it had become so pervasive that its users developed idiosyncratic listening habits and quirky relationships with their playlists, song counts, and genre categories. These facts suggest iTunes users feel a sense of ownership over their music libraries. Even if mp3s are less concrete than a tape or CD, each one is still roughly tangible — three- or four-megabyte clumps of data acting as little plots of real estate, forming an entire world of music, personally built and tended to represent each individual library owner.
But with the advent of streaming content, listening habits and the relationships to music they imply are changing. Streaming “radio” sites like Pandora popularized the practice of listening to semi-random streams of music without actually downloading any files. The extremely popular use of YouTube as a repository of singles saw a dovetailing of people’s wish to listen to songs individually, and to have them for free. Now platforms like Spotify and Rdio are trying to find money in these trends, by competing for users who will pay for subscriptions that allow streaming access to vast online libraries. (So far, Spotify is winning handily).
Until 2011, I was largely detached from these trends. An OCD approach to managing my iTunes song counts, years of easy access to albums in my college radio station’s music library, and an idealistic allegiance to the idea thats albums should be experienced as complete works of art all meant that I rarely bought single songs during the 99 cent-per-song era. Yet I acquired a sense of authorship over the music collection I had crafted and maintained.
But ever since getting a subscription to Rdio, things have changed in some interesting ways. First, now that I don’t feel compelled to own the music I like, I also don’t feel compelled to steal it. There is no temptation to download an album on Megaupload if it can be just as easily found (with a friendlier interface, better file quality, and accompanying cover art) on Rdio. While there has been criticism of the streaming platforms for the small amount artists actually get paid per song played, I’m in the camp that believes that for artists, limited exposure for cheap must be more beneficial than total exposure for nothing.
The other major implication of my switch to streaming is that listening to music has become a far more social experience. Even with just four friends in my Rdio network, the sense of shared discovery and enjoyment has been greater than on any other listening platform I’ve ever known. I experience a twinge of pleasure whenever an album I added to my collection then gets added by a friend. Some days I feel like a tastemaker (when I get props for adding Daptone Records’ latest afro-funk and soul revival compilation), other days a kindred spirit (who knew I was the only one feeling the latest gloomy ambience from Fennesz + Sakamoto?). I also enjoy reading the comments of other Rdio users, who are generally a troll-free group who show a level of knowledge and adoration for music I haven’t seen since the salad days of Soulseek.
It’s been months since that trip to Portland, and I still haven’t loaded a single song onto my iPhone. Save for one new album, my iTunes library lies dormant. My Rdio collection grows every day. Allow me to suggest a koan for the digital age: if an exquisitely crafted music library spins on a hard drive and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Photo by Karin Dalziel