There was once a time when songs existed as downloadable files, when voracious music consumers could simply hit Save As, pick a folder for their peer-to-peer client, and a track or album would be theirs. Sadly, that time has since passed.
Critics of the digital era enjoy bringing up the death of vinyl LPs, cassette mixtapes, and CDs as symbols of our current disregard for any format longer than a single three-minute pop song. Naysayers cite 20th-century German philosopher Walter Benjamin, author of that keystone essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and bemoan the downfall of Benjamin’s idea of “aura,” that certain ineffable presence and allure that a unique physical object holds for its viewer. Personally, I like to mourn the death of the MP3, the scarcity of the lossless FLAC file, and the extinction of the noble WAV.
In the frenzy of critics penning articles eulogizing their favorite physical formats, music has moved on to a brand new period of decay. This is the scourge of streaming, pulling down songs and albums and loading them in real time onto a computer or device. Though streaming subscription services like Rdio, Pandora, and Spotify herald a new level of convenience when it comes to listening to your favorite tunes, they also represent music’s latest degradation. When we log in to our accounts and kick off our favorite playlists or search for our favorite bands, we no longer possess anything; we’re just borrowing it from the cloud.
For music, streaming represents the ultimate loss of Benjamin’s aura. The consumption of music has moved onto mediated platforms, the new middlemen of the music business, and we as listeners no longer even have the pleasure of receiving a locally saved aggregation of zeroes and ones, let alone something physical. Though digital files have no true physical presence, they are still possess-able objects of a sort, as unique and full of aura in their own way as any retro CD jewel case or pressed vinyl, and have their own kind of mystique.
I have a particular attachment to the aura of a discrete MP3. As many 13-year-old boys were in the early 2000s, I was completely obsessed with the Dave Matthews Band. I spent days of my life surfing the extremely active online DMB community, perusing forums and sifting through the group’s endless collections of fan-taped live concerts, a commodity that could be compared to butterflies for a lepidopterist.
There were famous concerts that I hunted down and siphoned onto my hard drive, full early shows from 1993 and 1995, iconic performances at famous venues like Red Rocks and the Gorge, and, best of all, epic extended live versions of DMB’s hits that the band had jammed out interminably. I ate it up, though at this point in time I only appreciate the 30-plus-minute rendition of “#41” theoretically.
My DMB collection has persisted over the past decade as a series of dusty folders on aging computers, CD backups, and mixes on outdated MP3 players. After I moved on from my DMB mania, my younger brother took it up, and it was one of the prouder moments of my life when I showed him, a novice in the art of music hoarding, the mysteries of my archive. “Wait till you hear this version,” I’d say. “It’s insane.” Streaming platforms need no such commitment to the obscure, and even if I were to find that exact 1996 “Recently” take guest-starring Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, I would never be assured of the companies’ ability or desire to keep the track accessible.
Music streaming may enable us as consumers of music, able to call up and listen to virtually any well-known track in an instant, but it fails to empower listeners as collectors. It’s possible to bookmark songs in applications like Spotify and recall them at will, but for now at least, it’s not possible to gather together the songs you like in an enduring, sharable library the way we might arrange books on a bookshelf (another dwindling piece of technology). It’s great that we can create and share curated playlists, but they require opting into a service. I’d rather get a digital mixtape on a customized USB stick, thank you very much. Maybe throw in some Photoshopped cover art?
It’s the sloppy, human touch that streaming loses, but there are gains in serendipity. The ubiquity of online music hosting now means that friends can post single tracks to their Tumblr, and we can spy on what they’re listening to through Facebook feeds, though we might not be able to download them. These ephemeral glimpses at others’ listening habits are fascinating and inspiring, but unstable. The thing about clouds is you never own them — they have an instinctive tendency to drift away. MP3s, obsolete as they may become, stick around.
Photo courtesy of the Nationaal Archief