Critic’s Notebook: With Spotify and its ilk, there’s no ‘my’ in music anymore

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I am sitting on a couch facing two turntables, a DJ mixer, a dual-drive CD player/recorder, a cassette deck and a wireless two-terrabyte hard drive half full of music — all in one way or another plugged into my sound system. The various components live in service of the thousands of LPs and 45s on shelves spread throughout my home, which I love, and the 3,000 CDs stored in containers in a closet that I’m reasonably ambivalent about but haven’t figured out what to do with. They’re near a tub full of tapes that I once tried to throw away but retrieved from the dumpster a few hours later and the MP3s on the hard drive, which I used to access way more than I do now and have no emotional attachment to whatsoever.

I’ve got music in there you wouldn’t believe, objects of such beauty and history that they should be in the Smithsonian. My collection of Mekons records is second to none, and my Joni Mitchell, Sun Ra, Def Jux, early Chicago house and Bob Dylan holdings are fat (“Great White Wonder” on original bootleg vinyl, a pristine mono copy of “Blonde on Blonde”). Having worked on this collection for the last three decades — the first of which was spent as a clerk and indie/electronic music buyer for record stores — I’ve dutifully if begrudgingly added formats as the industry has dictated while stubbornly (and at times compulsively) keeping earlier ones, moving from vinyl to compact disc to MP3. My collection, along with my many books, have been the physical manifestation of the musical data I have accrued, the accumulated evidence of my passions.

But with the evolution of streaming and download services such as iTunes Match, Spotify, Google Music and Rhapsody, that no longer need be the case. Right now, if I so desired, I could sell or delete 90% of my holdings, every last object, megabyte and piece of gear, in favor of two services, iTunes and Spotify, and seldom lack for a specific track, new release, rarity or reason to dig. The format continuum that started with the rise of sheet music publishing in the 19th century, moved from player piano roll to Edison wax cylinder, to 78 rpm record, 45, LP, 8-track, cassette, compact disc and MP3 has entered a new and already maturing phase: high-quality streaming in the so-called data cloud, no physical space on my part required.

This isn’t news anymore, though; we’ve seen it coming for at least half a decade. But over the last six months, the services have unveiled new initiatives, expanded their breadth and moved to control the next frontier of music consumption, one that has many fans reconsidering certain basic assumptions of geeking out. And looking at the bookshelves mixed within the vinyl shelves, it has me wondering about my changing relationship with them as I flip the pages of downloaded books on my iPad.

In a race to provide the most convenient, engaging and entertaining way to experience/discover/share recorded music, iTunes and Spotify in particular have been pulling ahead. Neither has gotten it completely right, but within these engines a new way of hunting for and listening to music is revealing itself as are new fanatic-friendly ways of sharing your passions through curated playlisting, one that’s resulting in a whole new hierarchy of tastemaking.

Universal access

Apple’s iTunes Match was launched in mid-November as a way for customers to store their digital collections on a central Apple server, offering access to a consumer’s catalog anywhere, any time on any device for $25 a year for 25,000 songs. Setup is easy, if a little time consuming: After you’ve bought your plot of server space via iTunes, the software scans and matches your iTunes catalog with what it’s already got stored. Tracks that it doesn’t have, it uploads from your computer and adds to its database — then offers you identical access.

That initial process took about two days for the 10,000 or so songs on my laptop, and once it was finished, I immediately could listen to all that music on any device with iTunes. I could load the new Beach House album, for example, on my work iTunes, drive home while streaming it on my phone and then when I got home, it was available on my laptop and AirPlay-enabled receiver.

The sound quality, however, varies: When streamed from the cloud onto a device, the compression is apparent and some serious nuance is lost; download the same song onto the device and then listen, and the sound is much better — though still not CD quality. The bonus, though, is that all your muffled 128 kbps blog tracks from 2007 in your iTunes library can be upgraded to a doubly superior 256 kbps when matched in the cloud.

This, in addition to the perpetual access to iTunes, which automatically updates all new iTunes purchases for multidevice access, makes Match and the iCloud (Apple’s centrally based storage server) worth the price, especially as I upload more and more of my digital archive into it.

Spotify, which launched in America last year, has quickly established itself as iTunes’ chief competitor, and its service has already surpassed iTunes in terms of innovation, ease of use and social interactivity. With Spotify’s premium service ($9.99 a month), access to its 15 million songs is virtually instantaneous from anywhere you can get a phone signal — though its Achilles’ heel is how much data it consumes.

The free version works the same way, but the sound quality is lower, commercials are inserted between songs and you can’t access the mobile or iPad applications. It’s perfect for the amateur listener, but you can really tell the difference in sound quality (160 kbps versus 320 kbps).

Spotify’s recent innovation arrived when the Swedish-based company at the end of November began offering free add-on applications — basically, little icons that line up like file folders, which when selected act as portals into curated collections. This, more than any other innovation, has pushed the service’s potential in fascinating directions. It’s here, in the world of filtering, rearranging and shuffling of all this music, where the real game-changer arrives.

Click, for example on the Matador Records icon and you’re transported to virtual real estate that offers instant listening to all the label’s new releases and catalog, ranging from Pavement to Perfume Genius. Other label apps also feature music tips from artists. Sony Music’s Legacy app provides the opportunity to explore and learn about the catalogs of, among others, Hall & Oates and Miles Davis.

A different kind of app, called Hot or Not, is a Warner Music-powered game in which you rate songs and compare scores. How does Eric Clapton’s “Forever Man” rank? Eighty-seven percent think it’s not hot; 13% dig it. Rihanna’s “You Da One” is deemed hot by 59% of the voting public. Pitchfork offers an app that provides access to the releases it reviews, along with a selection of playlists.

Soundrop is an interactive portal that one-ups last year’s fad; listeners enter themed virtual rooms, vote on song selection and can chat with friends and kindred spirits about the music while it plays. The Beastie Boys // RIP MCA room has been a 24-hour jam session/place of mourning since news of the death of Adam Yauch, a.k.a. MCA, on May 4.

In addition to their utility as agents of discovery, the apps serve to temper the overwhelmed feeling that may accompany staring at a blank search window with 15 million listening choices behind it. When in doubt about what you’re in the mood for, you can download Moodagent, which picks music based on mood — though not, I might add, very well. Just because I’m “angry” doesn’t mean I want to listen to “Pornographic Memory” by Pig Destroyer.

Rare? Not anymore

All this activity has rendered meaningless three pregnant words — “I have that” — which always gave me a metaphorical leg up as a geek, critic and would-be tastemaker. It’s not easy to impress a kid with your Roc-A-Fella vinyl when she’s got the entire Jay-Z catalog, complete with cameos, collaborations, covers and karaoke versions, a few finger-bumps away. “Garvey’s Ghost,” the stunning dub version of Burning Spear’s “Marcus Garvey,” used to be rare. Now it’s been Spotified.

The other day, I caught myself saying, “Yeah, I have that,” about the new Rufus Wainwright album but quickly realized that, well, so does anyone with a smartphone. With mobile access to iTunes, Google Music through Android or Spotify, everyone “has” a copy of everything available more easily via Web than digging in a crate or on a hard drive. It’s no longer special to be first.

That’s a shift in the way hard-core music fans interact with music, even if many will merely add streaming services to their arsenal and still buy objects. When we no longer need to accumulate music to prove how passionate we are, either by downloading torrents of pirated MP3s or spending cash on product, when more cultural capital comes from having 75,000 followers on your hot Best Dubstep Bassdrops playlist on Spotify than with the volume of records on your shelves or MP3s on your hard drive, the entire social structure of music obsession shifts. Even if for some of us acquiring objects/signifiers is a hard habit to break, and nothing silences an existential crisis like a good record store.

Yet the gaping hole in both services is context and interest in educating listeners, one reason why, as the resounding success of Record Store Day has proved, good shops with smart clerks will continue to play an essential role. For example, the way in which Spotify documents the dates of its releases is incredibly annoying; if you’re interested in the chronology of Pulp’s album releases, you’ll find that the service confuses release dates with reissue dates; “Different Class” is listed as being released in 2006, not 1995, which is when it actually came out. This is a service-wide concern, as is the seeming disinterest in liner notes, album credits and virtual booklets — the minutiae that make buying an album so engaging. Why not offer as much information as there is available across the Web?

And then there’s that irrational voice in your head that is worried about getting rid of anything, the one that if you don’t keep in check will land you on an episode of “Hoarders.” After all, a certain comfort remains in having your vinyl surrounding you, safely there for your perusal and consumption. If Newt Gingrich is right that a magnet bomb or whatever exploding over Los Angeles could disable Internet access and erase every hard drive in the city, most would be in big trouble, musically. With my vinyl, at least I’d still be able to put on my copy of “Paul’s Boutique,” spin it manually on my turntable and if I listen real closely, be able to hear the music as the needle moves through the grooves.

So the vinyl I’ll keep, even if some of it gets dumped as interests shift. But the discs I’ll continue whittling every few months as I do, as I get used to my Universal-issued “The Best of Chuck Berry” CD sounding no better than the Spotify version or the one that’s available to me via Match. The sound files on the hard drive aren’t going anywhere, because they aren’t taking up space. Maybe someday in the distant future, a hard-drive digger will find my 2 terrabytes of choice tunes from the ‘00s there, reboot them and commence unpacking them. Then perhaps their true value will reveal itself.