Streaming music is all wet

(This post also appeared at Medium.com.)

If you want to know what music I like, just ask. I’m happy to tell you, and I don’t need Rdio, iRadio or any other misspelling of the word “radio” to broadcast my questionable tastes. When it comes to listening, it’s better to keep both feet on the ground than to dip them in the rushing waters of streaming music services.

Streaming music is such a Next Big Thing that both Google and Apple have gotten into the act. But as avid a listener I might be, I don’t ever use the Twitter music or Spotify apps on my iPhone. I have fallen out of love with Pandora.I never tried Rdio and I won’t take Google’s new streaming music service for a spin.

As for iRadio: I draw the line with Apple at my MacBook, iPad, iPhone, iPod and iTunes account.

My antipathy is partly out of privacy. I don’t need to know what bands my friends are listening to, and I don’t want them to know when I’m listening to Pink’s “I’m Not Dead.”

(Full disclosure: On occasion I listen to Pink’s “I’m Not Dead.”)

Still, it’s not out of a desire to live off the social media grid.

Far from it. I am plugged in as much as anyone. I have a Google Plusaccount, multiple Twitter handles and a Facebook account or two (maybe it’s three). I have shared photos of myself, my family and my kids on sites that are more public than I want to know. I will even post on Vine short videos of the music I’m listening to at any given moment.

On top of that, I spent more than five years as a music reviewer, which is just a glorified way of telling the world what bands you like.

Taste is not binary

Still, the use of these services is one more step along the way to reducing people into quantifiable data, in the tradition of supermarket loyalty cards, as a marketing tool.

The world of social media has ripped open the age-old privacy debate, and we willingly share online much more than we ever would if a total stranger asked us. It didn’t start with sites like Spotify, but it certainly continues, further exposing who we are as individuals to the rest of the digital universe.

Worse, it reduces something as discrete as music taste into an algorithm. If you like X band, you might like Y. So says a remote server somewhere in The Cloud.

(Which isn’t true. If you like X, it just means you’re a fan of early ‘80s punk. Good for you.)

Virtual, schmirtual

My biggest objection, however, is the fact that you never really own the music. You pay a monthly fee (or tolerate ads on otherwise free services like Spotify and Pandora) and you can listen to the music, but you have no tangible copy of it. All you pay for is the access that brings the songs to you, but once you stop paying, the notes end. You no longer own albums; you just rent the airspace.

Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my music collection where I can see it: on my CD shelf, in my record cabinet and, if necessary, on the external hard drive where I store my iTunes library.

That last option isn’t ideal, but we live in a digital age and even music fans must keep up.

The point is, the albums I own have a physical presence. When I playBruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” on the turntable it’s because I want to listen to THAT album at THAT time. There’s a physical connection, however small or brief, doesn’t exist with streaming services. You just turn it on and let the digitized tunes flow, as passive as standing in a – well, a stream.

It’s also no great deal for the artists. Album sales and legal downloads are what help the struggling independent musicians – the ones that you might possibly “discover” on Spotify. Payouts from streaming services are a pittance by comparison — $100 for 20,000 plays on Spotify, according to New York Magazine.

There are plenty of ways to find exciting new artists whose music you should buy, ways that won’t cost you $10 a month. If you’re an avid listener, buying by the album remains the best way to support both your habit and the artist’s way of life.

I don’t know if Google’s new service will last, or whether Apple’s iRadio will go the way of Ping — remember that? Heck, I haven’t paid attention to Twitter’s music app to know if it’s even still around. But I was encouraged by some news that vinyl sales – people buying physical copies of music – rose in 2012, for the fifth year running. Perhaps I’m not the only one who prefers to keep my listening offline.

My daughter enjoys it when I play records for her, whether it’s Mozart or Jr. Walker & The All-Stars. That’s good. When I’m dead, she’ll get the albums and, with any luck, the turntable.

She won’t inherit a monthly invoice for streaming audio, that’s for sure.

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3 thoughts on “Streaming music is all wet

  1. You raise fine points here, and I agree with you on, oh say, 75% of them. I agree, there are better ways to support independent artists. Services like Spotify make the pay scale record companies give look like a fortune. Also, I share your love of physical media. The tactile sensation, the knowledge that this is mine, something to hold on to, is something I savor every time I open a CD.

    Don’t give me that look. I told you, I don’t have a turntable. One of these days, I promise, but just not for the foreseeable future. There’s no room in the house for one right now.

    But I must disagree with your anti-streaming stance, old friend.

    I have an account with Slacker Radio. Yes, I’m a cheap bugger and I’m using the free (as in ad-based) version of the service. Yes, I’m sure they’re quantifying my data, but I’m not using my one, lone Facebook account to share with the entire world what I’m listening to. I’ve opted out of that, and I have several blockers running on my computer that prevent such interaction, in case they’re trying to analyze me without my knowledge.

    Also, I see streaming as the logical successor of radio. Yes, they’re using algorithms to determine what song to play next, but then, so are most radio stations (independents not withstanding). That iHeartRadio app? I’m sure the 2,000 pound gorilla Clear Channel isn’t using real people to pick what to play next, they’ve got a program that churns out the same 26 songs that’s in the current rotation.

    Mind you, I also have found a number of streams from real, brick & mortar radio stations that are broadcasting on the internets, and I give them a listen every once in awhile. Even though I’ve left the ‘Burgh, I still need my WDVE every now and then.

    Yes, streaming media has it’s dark side, but then so does everything else. I see it as yet another way to hear music, something that I need in my life as much as air, water, and my wife. I won’t use it on a daily basis, but every now and then, I’ll dip my toe into the stream to see how the water’s doing.

    1. I think your comment might be longer than my post. 🙂 Good points, my friend, though I stand by what I wrote. Streaming music is inferior in every way to any alternative. Harumph.

  2. Yeah, well, there are times when I don’t know when to shut up. 🙂

    Oh, and I listen to Pink’s “I’m Not Dead” occasionally as well.

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