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.
Ah, yes. Shallow people catch an unwelcome glimpse of self-awareness, immediately decide it must be “the system” that’s to blame.
Wendy Eisenberg, a musician and teacher who recently deleted their account with Napster Music (formerly called Rhapsody), put it this way: “The one thing I’ve noticed since divesting is that music sounds better to me because I’ve put in the work to either locate it on a hard drive or download it from a friend’s Bandcamp or something. And every time I listen to it, even if it’s just on the way to work, I can hear the spiritual irreverence of that choice. And so it doesn’t feel like I am just receiving music from some distant tastemaker. But it seems like I have some relationship to the music, of ritual, which is where I come to it as a practising musician.
“Taking the extra step to load it on to my phone, or the extra step to flip over the tape, or put the CD on in the car, it feels like something that I’m doing, rather than something I’m receiving,” they continue. “And that sense of agency makes me a more dedicated and involved listener than the kind of passive listening-without-listening that streaming was making me do.”
She’s “put in the work,” the spiritually irreverent work, of searching through a file folder or clicking a download button, which is categorically different from compulsively thumbfucking a smartphone. The labor of ejecting a cassette or inserting a CD, the absence of which was the only thing preventing her from, you know, really hearing the music, man. Who says there are no heroes anymore?
I feel like an elderly farmer, watching kids come home from college in the big city for the weekend and rhapsodizing about how authentic and spiritual and mindfulness-inducing it must be for me to work so closely with nature. In reality, streaming music is too common to be special anymore, so the status-obsessed have to find new ways to signal their elevation above the masses. When technological abundance reaches the wrong sort of people, you have to romanticize the inefficient and inconvenient ways we used to do things. Get rid of your dishwasher, turn off all your electronic devices, and have musicians come play chamber music live in your living room if you really want to live deep and suck the marrow out of life.
Like most people who have used a pencil to fix a spaghetti-pile of unwound cassette tape, or who have lugged a small briefcase of compact discs around the car, I appreciate the ease and convenience of streaming. My smartphone is essentially a glorified mp3 player anyway. I have several thousand of my own songs in Apple Music, either bought as digital downloads or uploaded from CDs, organized into playlists. If I don’t feel like listening to any of those, I can just pick a song or a genre and let the algorithm do the work of finding whatever it considers to be related music. I’ve discovered lots of interesting new music this way. How is this “distant tastemaker” any different from the ones who decide which songs get played on the radio station you listen to, or from the ones who choose which bands get featured in the music magazines and websites you read? As always, the relevant question when faced with stupid romantic fantasies is “Compared to what?” The previous status quo wasn’t more authentic; you simply had fewer options. I’m sorry your digital agoraphobia prevents you from appreciating that.