My first experience with music streaming led me to accidentally and irreversibly delete my digital library.
A search of internet forums returned plenty of results from people in a similar position, and I could relate to the note of hysteria in their posts.
“I deleted my entire Apple Music Library by accident and I need an adult to tell me everything will be okay and that I can get it all back,” read the subject line of one. “All my Spotify playlists are gone!! and there is no mail in my email and ur solutions don’t work,” lamented another.
Since then I’ve been operating in the musical wilderness, unable to trust streaming services and unhappy with my unrecognisable iTunes library, which I managed to partially resurrect from a backup hard drive stored at my parents’ house a year after the calamitous event.
After consulting widely I have realised I’m caught in the shift from a music model based on “ownership” to one based on “access”. And I’m not the only one.
Apple’s announcement late last year of the end of iTunes as we have known it is a symbolic bookend to the “ownership” era.
While streaming services are now the norm, these platforms can feel disconcertingly ephemeral to people who are used to the sense of control and emotional connection that comes with having a physical copy of a song.
The recent changes to iTunes are largely cosmetic, so if you have spent years building up a music library, it’s not going anywhere at the moment. But the announcement is the latest signal that the company that taught us to organise our musical lives around digital downloads is moving on.
Will those of us who aren’t quite ready to let go eventually have to move on too?
The problem with streaming
Ownership and access are not exactly binary opposites.
“You never really own music, because it’s temporal, so what you own is access to it at a time of your choosing,” says Yanto Browning, a music lecturer at QUT.
Previously, people maintained access by owning records, cassette tapes, CDs or, more recently, digital files. Now all you need is a playback device and an internet connection.
But the shift to streaming comes with trade-offs.
When Apple Music launched, there were teething problems. If you allowed the service to upload your library to the cloud and wipe the files off your device to free up storage space, suddenly you couldn’t play tracks when you went through a train tunnel. Even worse, if you unsubscribed without re-downloading – as I did – you could find your whole library gone.
Apple also has a tendency to substitute explicit versions of tracks with tamer counterparts, or replace beloved remixes of favourite songs with different versions.
And while streaming services appear to offer infinite variety, music licensing deals and the whims of musicians mean you can’t always find your favourite artists.
Remember when you couldn’t stream Beyoncé’s Lemonade album anywhere but Tidal for the first three years after its release, thanks to an exclusive deal designed to lure fans to the platform owned by her husband?
Streaming platforms offer convenience and variety, but they don’t always give us the latest album from the hottest artist of the decade – or the 1992 Vampire Mix of A Tribe Called Quest’s I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.
There are more subtle trade-offs too.
When people build up music collections over decades, specific songs, artists and albums become connected to certain periods of life, capturing memories as effectively as polaroids.
I couldn’t listen to the 1999 Chemical Brothers album Surrender for more than a decade after I saw their set at the 2000 Sydney Big Day Out. The sheer intensity and pure joy of the experience was imprinted in the songs and playing them back created such woeful dissonance on a morning commute – or anywhere – that I put it away almost for good.
Luke Dearnley, a live sound engineer and one half of 90s Sydney music duo Sub Bass Snarl, likens scrolling through iTunes to flipping through a record shelf. “You’re looking for certain records, you find them and then you notice other ones next to it … and you’re like, ‘Wow, I remember that. I haven’t played that for years. That’s an awesome track’.”
“How else am I supposed to remember that the music exists?”
Research suggests that we become particularly bonded to the music of our younger years because of the way our brains are wired.
That’s why browsing your music library can quickly turn into a nostalgic romp back in time to your first whiff of teen spirit (Nevermind), early heartache (Kid A), or a snapshot of that moment at a music festival when you were 20 and wild strains of PJ Harvey wafted across the festival grounds as the sun set and your friends jostled around you high on life, possibility and things that could get you strip-searched these days.
Perhaps part of my reluctance to move to streaming was a fear that losing control over my favourite music meant losing access to the memories associated with it.
Dearnley says: “I feel weird only having the files and not having a physical version that I can get the files back from again, like a CD. That feels a little bit … unsafe to me. But not having the files at all seems absolutely bonkers.”
Music as an ‘aid to mood’
Streaming is changing music culture in ways that go beyond the individual playback experience.
Dearnley describes his digital music library as “a curated subset of all the music in the universe” he has specifically chosen. While searching it returns a manageable number of results, the same search on Spotify could return millions of songs he has no interest in.
You can, of course, create playlists on streaming platforms, but studies show that streamers are increasingly outsourcing that task to others. A 2018 analysis by Deutsche Bank found that curated playlists – the ones created by Spotify – account for 30% of listening on the platform.
Research also suggests that despite the K-pop boom and the advent of Spanish lyrics in the billboard charts, western music culture is becoming increasingly homogenised.
“You can see that even though the music is coming from a larger number of countries, it’s actually sounding increasingly similar,” says Patrik Wikstrom, a professor of media and communications at QUT.
There is a circular loop between the way we listen to music and the way it sounds, as musicians structure songs to suit the medium. That has always been the case – from broadcast radio to television to streaming. “If you want to be successful in a certain medium, you try to adapt,” Wikstrom says.
But digital streaming services gives musicians and producers access to almost real-time feedback about listener behaviour. Consequently musicians now tend to get into the hook of a song within 30 seconds – before the listener skips to the next track.
Wikstrom suspects, but can’t prove, that this feedback loop is also responsible for narrowing what he calls “acoustic diversity” – a way of measuring the sound of a track according to dimensions such as energy, danceability, whether it has vocals, as well as cheerfulness or negativity.
The dimensions were developed by a company called The Echo Nest, which was founded by two MIT Media Lab graduates in 2005 and acquired by Spotify in 2014 for US$100m (A$148m).
Spotify now uses the software to power its playlists. It identifies the style of music you have been listening to and automatically offers you something similar once the album or playlist ends.
“I think streaming has changed people’s entire relationship to music,” Browning says. “Music has become this sort of ‘aid to mood’ more than an expression of individuality or being part of a community of like-minded listeners.”
He thinks streaming platforms occupy a middle ground between listening to albums and radio. “Spotify is more like radio that you get to choose … It’s this thing that sits in the background and then it happens to also do the job that albums used to do.”
While Browning pays for a streaming subscription, he buys music on vinyl whenever he can. “I want to listen to an album rather than someone’s idea of what my Friday afternoon should sound like,” he says.
Holding on to the physical object
Strategies to preserve music libraries while embracing streaming have not always proved successful.
Nine years ago Catherine Cuellar, a consultant based in New York, turned to a startup called Murfie to digitise her music collection. She sent them more than 1,000 CDs over several years and paid a subscription fee that contributed to their physical storage in a warehouse in Wisconsin.
“It was great because Murfie ripped all my CDs into their cloud player and I could listen to my music through their app or my web browser on any device,” she says.
But in November customers were informed the company had gone bust.
As soon as she realised what had happened, Cueller opened the Murfie app on her smartphone and took screenshots of all the cover art thumbnails so she would know what was missing.
“My music collection is a record of my life and a sign pointing out what was going on socially, politically and professionally for me personally and more generally in the 20th century,” she says. “All these associations and memories are beyond measure – but, like encyclopaedias, it’s clearly a thing of the past.”
When Murfie went down, there was a period when customers feared their music collections were lost for good, but a group of former customers banded together to ensure everyone’s collections would be returned. Their efforts resulted in a company called Crossies taking over Murfie in January and offering to resurrect its streaming and storage service.
In the period between Murfie’s demise and resurrection, Cueller pondered her options for music playback. She figured she would ask her nephew to rip her CDs to a hard drive and use “a combination of whatever free Apple Music and Spotify I can, plus – if I buy a CD player – my physical media. I also still have two radios in my home (alarm clock and receiver) and a record player and some vinyl.”
The long list of playback devices is a symptom of the struggle to preserve a music collection in an era defined by rapid technological change.
“Unless you’re exceptionally lucky or you’ve maintained this sort of graveyard of old technology … you always run the risk of technological obsolescence in any format,” says Browning. “It’s very, very difficult to get something as failsafe as an analog backup in many cases.”
And even then, there are no guarantees.
In 2008, a fire that engulfed Universal Studios swept through Building 6197 – a warehouse that stored 2,400 square feet of master recordings by some of the greatest music artists in history. The inferno reduced analog tapes of hundreds of thousands of songs – from Louis Armstrong to Janet Jackson – to ash.
So what is the best way to store your music?
For those who aren’t yet ready to make the leap to streaming, iTunes is still a decent option – as long as you create back-ups.
“You just better make sure that whatever digital things you’re backing them up to you make a copy of the copy,” Browning says. “If you lose the hard drive or the hard drive stops working, that work’s gone and then you better hope you haven’t sold your CD collection.”
Dearnley buys all his music digitally now, downloading the files at a lossless uncompressed quality so he can be sure he’s getting the best sound. He will occasionally still buy vinyl or even a cassette if the artist is a friend or it’s a special anniversary release.
“If it’s a really nice double gatefold vinyl release, I get the high quality files to listen to immediately and then the physical release arrives in two weeks,” he says. “But a lot of the time I wouldn’t even play the record … and [it] goes on the shelf as a kind of thing to look at occasionally.”
As for me, I haven’t yet decided. Going to the effort of recreating my collection on a streaming platform feels risky knowing I would lose it all as soon as I stopped paying the monthly service fee.
But society is shifting from ownership to access in other spheres too: movies, software, cars, even mobile phones.
Perhaps I need to shift my mindset and embrace the loss of certainty and control. Accept that the lesson of on-demand music streaming could be, paradoxically, that you can’t have everything you want, exactly how and when you want it. That any version of I Left My Wallet in El Segundo will do.
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