Once upon a time not that long ago, the supply of music was limited. We relied on record labels to filter through everything and then record stores, radio stations, music magazines, and later, video channels to further filter things. The result was a finite amount of choice for music fans.
To many, that was frustrating. Everyone had discovered a great artist or song that for some reason just wasn’t getting the attention they deserved. “Why isn’t this song on the radio/in the record store/on MuchMusic and MTV? IT’S SO GOOD!”
We also complained mightily about the cost of music. Weren’t the prices of CDs supposed to come down? And what do you mean I have to buy a whole CD to get just one song? The industry eliminated CD singles? You bastards!
But then that hegemony over musical choice began to crack with the arrival of Napster in June 1999. Suddenly, anyone with an internet connection could access far more music than was available on any radio station and in any record store. Plus we could all get that music for free. We could have more music that we’d ever could have afforded or dreamed!
Then streaming took off. Music libraries were small at first but have now expanded to about 100 million tracks. It’s also estimated that 100,000 new songs are being uploaded to the streaming platforms EVERY DAY.
Today, there’s too much music. We can’t keep up. No one can.
The result is shorter attention spans, less engagement with artists, and being overwhelmed by choice. Has the tide begun to shift away from these all-you-can-eat buffets? This story in The Guardian suggests that more and more people are quitting streaming services like Spotify “to save their love of music.”
Meg Lethem was working at her bakery job one morning in Boston when she had an epiphany. Tasked with choosing the day’s soundtrack, she opened Spotify, then flicked and flicked, endlessly searching for something to play. Nothing was perfect for the moment. She looked some more, through playlist after playlist. An uncomfortably familiar loop, it made her realise: she hated how music was being used in her life. “That was the problem,” she says. “Using music, rather than having it be its own experience … What kind of music am I going to use to set a mood for the day? What am I going to use to enjoy my walk? I started not really liking what that meant.”
It wasn’t just passive listening, but a utilitarian approach to music that felt like a creation of the streaming environment. “I decided that having music be this tool to [create] an experience instead of an experience itself was not something I was into,” she reflects. So she cut off her Spotify service, and later, Apple Music too, to focus on making her listening more “home-based” and less of a background experience.
Such reckonings have become increasingly commonplace in recent years, as dedicated music listeners continue to grapple with the unethical economics of streaming companies, and feel the effects of engagement-obsessed, habit-forming business models on their own listening and discovery habits. In the process, they are seeking alternatives.
Keep reading. This is important. (Thanks to Sean for the link.)