Damage Done: Won’t Someone Think Of The Children?
Put yourself in the place of a 15 year old just beginning the descent into delirious music fanaticism. Imagine having an insatiable need for music, and then imagine having a bottomless well of songs to listen to for a laughably small price with a negligible effect on your hard drive space. If you think you wouldn’t listen to literally anything at least once, I think you’re underestimating yourself.
The rise of Apple Music and Tidal as competitors prove that Spotify and Rdio are not destined to be blips on the radar of music history. My colleagues have already written at length about the negative effects the rise of streaming has had on artists and the industry as a whole, but artists getting screwed out of money is a tradition as old as time. If artists are going to suffer regardless, then the real question is how streaming will impact the audiences using it.
A pessimistic view on this situation would be that either this (nearly) unlimited access doesn’t matter, due to people’s general unwillingness to wander outside of their comfort zone, or that the vastness will have a negative effect on the listener’s habits, stretching their attention too thin and leading to a shallower appreciation of the music. I will admit that the latter does worry me (Lindsay Zoladz articulated this kind of option paralysis here), but that feeling of being overwhelmed by possibility has existed in record stores across the globe for years without deterring hardcore consumers.
Streaming is distinct from physical media, and even the digital libraries fostered by iTunes and pirating, in its impermanence. Though people are able to construct playlists and mark tracks as part of “their music” on Spotify, these distinctions never prevent someone from listening to other music. All music on Spotify is on a level playing field for people’s attention, provided they’re actually looking for new music. Even if a large portion of listeners rarely make it out of the Top 40 playlists, those that do will find themselves free falling into an ocean of new sounds.
This more ephemeral approach to ownership does not only free up space that would otherwise be used for crates of vinyl and CDs, it also negates the social currency granted by those physical collections [This may have something to do with the resurgence of vinyl as a collector's item -Ed.]. Amassing a curated collection of music is as much about presenting an expression of self as it is about the functional act of listening to music. Every record publicly displayed in a collection will inevitably say something about its owner. Given that this is a site that caters primarily to a certain kind of music obsessive, I think it’s safe to assume that most readers have looked over someone’s record collection and scoffed at a marker of poor taste. I would also wager, only slightly less confidently, that no one has done the same while looking through someone’s listening history on Spotify.
Let’s revisit that hypothetical teenage self that I brought up earlier. That situation is not hypothetical for today’s budding music nerds. They have access to a preposterous amount of music, and they are able to listen to it both without having it take up any real estate in their home, and without compromising their social identity. What will stop them from catching up on the entire body of work of a longstanding act? What will stop them from stepping outside of their comfort zone into new genres and styles if there are no social repercussions for doing so? Why not take the George Mallory approach and climb the mountains of streaming simply because you can?
In the absence of taste, everything is permitted.
This kind of omnivorous approach to music consumption could have a dramatic effect on the way audiences conceptualize their relationship to music. Streaming is a fertile environment for a less entrenched and more curious approach to listening to music. In some ways, it promotes something closer to the ideal mentality of a music critic i.e. a willingness to approach music on its own terms rather than as an expense to be justified (by the way, streaming is a huge boon for younger music critics looking to do research fast in order to catch up to the old guard).
But not every budding music geek is interested in becoming a critic; a good deal have their hearts set on being musicians themselves. This is where the long term effects of streaming are the most fascinating. If you raise a generation of kids that see no problem with listening to Burial, Bell Witch, and Future back to back, what kind of music will they make? Will any genre ever die if it’s readily available to be rediscovered by a new set of ears on a daily basis?
The fun thing about these questions is that they aren’t actually hypothetical. In his extensive write-up for Deafheaven’s New Bermuda, ex-IO editor Michael Nelson sets up a dichotomy between the buffet approach to genre that Deafheaven employ and the hyper-specific set of influences that Horrendous draw from. I won’t go so far as to say that these types of well researched and widely informed records exist because of Spotify, but I do they think they have the potential to become more common in the future.
Whether or not you enjoy these two bands (I happen to quite a bit myself) is beside the point. They are only the tip of an iceberg whose shape for now remains blurry. Purists will balk at genre cross pollination, and novelty junkies will roll their eyes at revivalists. But luckily for both, $15 a month will buy them access to a canon of their own design, as malleable and fluid as they desire.