Between Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, SoundCloud, and YouTube, I can queue up practically any artist, album, unreleased single, rare B-side, or other obnoxiously obscure piece of audio, all in a matter of seconds. This is, without a doubt, really fucking cool. In the wake of all this effortless, instant gratification, I can't help but think back to the days of yore: the expense of having to purchase a physical copy of an album in order to hear it, or the pain of waiting 15 minutes to download a single Nine Inch Nails track on Napster, only to find out halfway through that the file is totally corrupt.
As silly and outdated as that process may seem in the era of Spotify, those experiences played a critical role in shaping my distinct taste in, and appreciation for, music. Back in those heady days before Napster was undone by the Man (roughly 1999 to the mid-aughts), we were forced to wait and work for the music we wanted to hear -- and thus, we were more discerning consumers of it.
Spotify, God love it, has made me lazy. Its cup overfloweth with incredibly cool features, all-knowing algorithms, and impeccably curated Discovery playlists. But I can't help but wonder if it's breeding generations of lesser music fans, who will never know what it was like to really put effort into finding music.
It required a lot of patience
Remember the countless hours spent staring at your old PC monitor, watching individual songs download over 56K dial-up connections until their progress bars reached that sweet, sweet 100%? Not to mention the rampant false-starts, corrupted files, and devastating system freezes that plagued Napster, LimeWire, and Kazaa. Once your download hit 98% you'd invariably cross your fingers that you hadn't just wasted the last half-hour in vain on a glitchy version of "The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World. The whole thing is laughable compared to how quickly you can cobble together a Spotify playlist today. Still, there was something special about steeping in the anticipation of having a fresh new mp3 to add to your Winamp library.
When you had proverbial skin in the game -- in this case, a finite amount of time and hard-drive space -- learning as much as you could about the music you were investing in became increasingly important. Did you really want to buy that new Radiohead album, or were you more of a Blink-182 dude? You heard both bands' latest singles on the radio, and liked them, but what about the rest? What did Spin magazine say? Rolling Stone? Pitchfork? Did Tower Records have those albums loaded up into its weird communal-listening stations so you could give 'em a quick preview? Gah! You had to do work, dammit!
There was a sense of community that Spotify doesn't have
Another option was to poach from the libraries of other users whose tastes seemed to match yours. There was a certain sense of camaraderie that came with knowing you were all engaging with the same illegal platform -- especially towards the end, when you'd hear stories about random users getting sued out of the blue for thousands of dollars by record companies. But it never stopped you. What’s this new band in indiedude82's library? He’s got a bunch of other stuff I like, maybe I'll download a couple tracks. This was the DIY equivalent of today's glorious Spotify Discover playlist -- but the burden of discovery was on you. It was a way to find stuff you might enjoy, based on the sharing of similar tastes within the Napster community.
By necessity, we were carefully curating our libraries with music we knew we wanted to listen to more than just once. We spent hours perfecting our playlists of 19 to 22 tracks to burn onto blank CDs so we could listen to them over and over in our cars (that's right kids, no Bluetooth back then). Burning a CD for someone was our version of the mixtape: an intimate gift we gave friends for their birthdays, moms for Mother's Days, and our significant others for no reason at all.
We were more tuned in to the album-release schedules for artists we liked. We spent time marinating in their albums and learning their lyrics. We felt more personally connected to them, and fostered a sense of ownership, as if they were "ours." Yes, it was an environment ripe for elitism and music snobbery, but more than that, it positively bred feelings of true fandom.
The music I stream doesn't feel like mine; it's not something I worked to get.
I'm not saying that streaming services have completely eradicated this sentiment. I'm not an 80-year-old curmudgeon; I'm actually an unrepentant streaming evangelist and would be pretty inconsolable if you stripped me of my Spotify access. Spotify is great for many reasons: up-and-coming artists who might otherwise have a hard time getting in front of a big audience can easily be heard by anyone with an internet connection. It also means that we are, in theory, being exposed to a litany of genres and styles we might otherwise not have given the time of day to.
Still, there's a permeating sense of disposability on Spotify. There's no big disappointment if I queue up a track or artist I end up not liking -- with one click, it's just on to the next one, and the next one, and the next one. The music I stream doesn't feel like mine, it's not something I worked to get.
For all its antiquated flaws and frustrations, the Napster era taught me how to be a true music fan -- and for a music fan, Spotify is like the height of the Roman Empire, a hedonistic playground of new artists and tracks and playlists. Discovering and loving great music has never been easier. And that's absolutely badass -- as long as you don't take it for granted.