How Spotify Stole Music's Soul

When I was sixteen I had a Volkswagen bus with the color scheme of a Reese's peanut butter cup. It did 75 mph downhill, with a favorable tailwind, and had a tape player that I'll just characterize as "disappointing." One day I slid the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street into the tape deck, and then the eject button broke. Prying the tape out with a butter knife was futile, so I and everyone else had to listen to the album for months in my car. I mean, I guess I could've kept the stereo off, but who drives anywhere without music playing? That's just silly.

I'd had the Exile tape for several years before getting it stuck, but I didn't care much for it. And because I didn't think I cared much for it, I didn't listen to it. And because I didn't listen to it, I never let the album challenge my initial opinion of it. But a funny thing happened when I got it stuck and couldn't listen to anything else -- it grew on me. I found my shoulders shimmying to the bright, brassy chorus on "Rocks Off," my head swaying to the sing-along southern ballads "Sweet Virginia" and "Shine a Light," my fingers drumming the steering wheel on the irresistibly joyous "Happy." Each time the album circled from end back to beginning, I discovered some new sparkle the next time through.

My point is that the album came into focus bit by bit, listen by listen. You just couldn't fathom it with one or two quick listens. You'd miss its sprawling cacophony of sounds, the thematic clashes of spirituality and debauchery, the muddy mix of tinkling New Orleans pianos and revival choirs and twanging steel guitars and sloppy harmonies and strutting blues riffs. You wouldn't realize that, if you give it time, Exile's eighteen discrete songs run together into a messy, ebullient Polaroid of dusty, gospel- and gin-soaked southern Americana, ironically composed by only semi-conscious British boys.

Twenty-first century music media is different. It's awesome. Various online musical services offer instantaneous access to virtually any song or album one can think of. Creating playlists is as easy as dragging and dropping songs into a bin. There's no question this is amazing and that it's positive for both music-lovers and musical artists. Artists no longer necessarily need to break into the radio or music video "mainstream" to get their stuff heard; listeners with little more than internet access, social media accounts, and impossibly varied musical tastes can create pockets of interest in the most obscure musicians, which countless boutique media outlets devoted to music and made possible by the seemingly infinite information-passing forum the internet has created can then fan that interest and direct it to even more potential fans. As music aficionados, we can sample anything we wish with little to no financial or any other kind of commitment -- if something's garbage, fine, we won't listen to it again.

On the other hand, I kind of miss commitment to and investment in artists and albums. I have had a Spotify account for almost a year. I've listened to hundreds and hundreds of albums. But I don't think I could tell you very many lyrics from even my favorite new-found songs. Even the best albums Spotify has introduced me to have failed to become all that meaningful to me. Do I love music less than I used to? Is 21st century music simply hollower and more forgettable than music from decades past? Or has the fact that I need only click a mouse to listen to whatever I want whenever I want somehow severed that intimate connection I used to have with the music I loved?

I think there was something special and meaningful about sacrificing something to access music. I remember putting a four-tape Rolling Stones boxed set on layaway (back when we used to not buy things we couldn't afford) and then saving for a couple months for the necessary forty bucks. The lyrics of most of those 50 songs are still etched all over my brain lobes.

One of my favorite bands is Counting Crows, yet I never bought a Crows album I liked all that much on first listen. But when you've spent fifteen of your own dollars for a CD, you don't take "This album sucks," for an answer. You listen to it until you like it. How many Counting Crows have I listened to on Spotify, thought "Nyeh, this band's not that great," and then moved on to something else simply because I could? How many of those bands, given a couple dozen listens, would have turned out to sparkle?

When I can listen to all the music, right now, there's no time to linger and get to know my music the way I used to when finite financial resources limited what I could hear. I think the same idea applies to someone owning tens of thousands of songs they pulled off friends' hard drives. I asked one guy who had a couple hundred gigs of music, I said "How do you listen to all of that?" His reply was the only possible one: "I don't." What's the point in having all the music if you don't know your music, if you don't understand it, if it doesn't mean anything to you?

That's why I'm cancelling my Spotify account and turning back to the several hundred albums I actually own. When I know them backward and forward, the way I used to know my music back when you had to invest a few seconds to change a CD or skip a song, then maybe I'll return to the infinite internet music depositories to see what else I might like. In the meantime, I need to reconnect with the music.