It is now June. So far this year, I’ve bought one new CD. Even a few years ago, I can’t imagine those two sentences belonging near each other, being true together. I’m old enough (just) that, for me, what it means to be a music lover is to go out and buy new CDs. To be proud of my collection. To enjoy organising them on my shelf. CDs, not vinyl. Because I grew up in the 90s and early 00s, it is CDs I have an affective tie to. It is CDs I love taking home, unsealing from their infuriatingly tight plastic wrap, sliding the booklets out of, checking out the disc art. At Christmas, I count up how many of that distinctive 12cm x 12cm shape are wrapped up under the tree with my name on them.
But, for financial reasons more than anything else, this is the first year I’ve not really bought a lot of new music on CD. Plenty of second-hand CDs, yes – a quick count suggests about 40, though the majority of these came from a big, insanely cheap sell-off of insanely excellent music that Norwich Millennium Library had a few months back. (I picked up everything from Alice Coltrane to Kendrick Lamar to Konono No. 1 to amazing compilations like Cartagena! and I Am the Center, all in one fell swoop. It was a good day). But these second-handers are easier to justify, never costing more than a pound or two. New CDs, at a tenner a pop, are harder to defend on a tight budget.
And so, I have been won over to the dark side, to what seems certain, for better or worse, to be the future of the industry: to on-demand streaming. For two months this year I had Tidal; I also had a month’s trial of Spotify, and three months of Apple Music. I’ve yet to pay any money towards these services, but am running out of free trial options. Which means sooner or later I’ll have to decide if this is how I want to consume new music, or if I want to stick to my old CD buying habits.
Because of streaming, I have listened to more new music this year than ever before. Every album I read about that sounds interesting, I can check out that very same day, listening while I cook dinner or do the washing up. This seems incredibly modern and cool to me, but in a way it’s a listening process that is still entrenched in old ways of doing things: reading about an album, listening to it front to back. I’ve always been an albums person, rather than a radio or singles or live person. I suppose that comes from also being a lover of books – of something you can sit down and journey through, return to bits of, think over and through.
Streaming, though, seems to be moving music away from the album, towards broader and looser ways of listening: algorithms and personalised stations and playlists that take one song and play a bunch connected to it, spiralling out from it. These things seem pretty alien to me. And while the disadvantages are obvious (less focussed attention, more inclination to hit the skip button, no chance to spend prolonged and deep time with a single artist) I can see the advantages too. It allows for greater discovery and broadness, listening across genres and artists for other kinds of continuities, as Ben Marcus discusses at length in his book Every Song Ever. (This book is great, and well worth checking out; I hope to review it sometime in more depth).
My own approach – reading about albums, researching, then choosing myself what to listen to – has its inevitable drawbacks. I’m limited by what sources I read, what sites I check. I’m limited, too, by a fair amount of self-selection, the natural tastes and tendencies which lead me to click on certain reviews rather than others, certain albums rather than others: judging records by their covers, or their names, or other semi-arbitrary things which shouldn’t really stop me from listening. Streaming opens up different ways of listening that can help counter these tendencies and limitations. In turn, it opens up other ways of hearing, because when you listen to a song in different ways and in different contexts, it sounds different – it almost is a different song.
Still, I don’t want to abandon the album as a format. When I hear something on a streaming site catches my attention, I’ll often sit down a few days later for a proper listen: that is, no distractions, no other activities. This, too, is maybe becoming old-fashioned, but it’s not something I want to give up – I think it’s important, and I think you can’t really call yourself a music lover unless you sometimes spend time just listening to music. It would be like calling yourself a foodie and only ever eating dinner in front of the TV.
The one CD I did go out and buy this year, in a bricks-and-mortar shop, on the day of its release no less, was the new Animal Collective. They’re one of those bands, like Grizzly Bear and Beach House, who I discovered at a certain age (16, 17-ish), the age when the bands you like seem terribly important to your identity. And though I’ve moved on since then, and my tastes have changed a lot, I still can’t imagine myself not immediately going out and buying new Animal Collective music. There’s a nostalgic thrill to it: the anticipation for release day, the need to hold the physical object in my hands, the ritual of first putting it into the stereo. To not go out and immediately buy the new Animal Collective record would be, somehow, almost upsetting. It would be like losing a part of my past.
Indeed, I don’t ever imagine I’ll stop going out and buying physical records, unless they stop making them. It’s still what it means for me to love music. Maybe my future children will think it very odd. But I think there’s something in the experience, even with a humble CD in a jewel case, in taking out a physical album and playing it, a pleasure that streaming can’t replace.
Yet I am getting into streaming, finally. I definitely understand the appeal. It’s a great way of discovering stuff, checking stuff out, in a way that’s (at least in theory) entirely compatible with buying records: when you find an album you love, you go out and support the artist by buying it. It’s expanding my tastes, and it’s helping me find better records than the ones I might otherwise have bought based on descriptions or singles alone.
But there’s a danger to it, too. When you buy a record, you give it a good chance to sink in, to win you over, having already invested money in it. But when you stream a record for free, it’s easy to quickly dismiss it if it doesn’t immediately grab your attention. That skip button is what we’ve got to resist. It’s all too tempting, when there are 15 million other songs to listen to, sitting right there, to simply skim through them, searching for something that gives us immediate gratification. But if we stop putting effort into listening, if we expect music to do all the hard work for us, then our music will be poorer, and our lives will be poorer. That’s the danger of streaming – that it will become all surface, no depth – and that’s up to the listener, more than the streaming service, to avoid.