Essays on Technology and Culture

Owning Music in a Streaming World

Unlike an increasing number of people, I don’t subscribe to any streaming music services. I’ve tried them from time to time, but the idea of paying for music I don’t get to keep does not appeal to me in the slightest. If I wanted to be a freeloader and listen to ads between songs, I’d just tune in to any streaming terrestrial radio station I can get online. It’s going to sound better than turning on any of the crappy AM/FM radios around me. Still, so many people I know, passionate music lovers, are streaming for most of their music listening. Buying albums (even digital albums) is feeling somewhat anacronistic.

Talk of shitty streaming royalties aside, it’s that streaming doesn’t fit with my music consumption habits. I’m the sort of music fan who, nine times out of ten, would prefer to listen to an album in full, rather than just disparate songs. While you can listen to full albums with many streaming services, it’s clear that they’re geared more for a casual, radio-like method of music consumption. I’d rather spend time in iTunes, making sure I have the right albums on my phone than burn through a data plan, or hog the wifi at the office. Besides, streaming doesn’t help me when I’m on the subway and can’t get a signal anyway. Sure, you could download stuff if you think to do it ahead of time, but it’s a kludge.

Ownership of my music library, is important to me. It gives me control. Even the digital files that comprise the vast, and growing, majority of my music collection are my files. Apple can’t take away all the music I’ve bought, at least not since dropping DRM for music in 2009. I could still lose my files in a hard drive crash, fire, or other disaster, but they’re no more fragile than LPs or CDs. They’re certainly less fragile than cassette tapes. And I back up my digital music library religiously. I’d probably save money, since I’ve been known to buy anywhere from $20 to $50 worth of iTunes music per month, but I feel like I’d get less for my money.

What are people seeing that I’m not? I’ve discussed the issue with Andrew Marvin on multiple episodes of Crush On Radio. For him, streaming is convenient and a great way to discover new music. I’ve already outlined how the convenience of streaming is inconvenient for me, but discovery is an interesting problem. I tend to find new music through either seeing bands open at shows, browsing music review sites, or hearing about it directly from friends. Streaming might make life easier.

Problem is, when I last experimented with streaming music, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the discovery aspect. This was because discovering new music relied on using streaming like a radio station or jukebox, and not in the album-oriented way I listen to music. A streaming service could be a good backup for when I’m bored of what’s on my phone, or interested in dipping my toe into a new artist without putting out the cost of an album. I just don’t see that happening terribly often, and if I was going to stream with this use case in mind, iTunes Radio would be all I need.

I’m certain that I’m an outlier in how I get my music. Streaming music services fit the consumption patterns of the majority. That’s their strength, but their weaknesses overlap neatly with how I choose to listen to music. I’ll stick with paying $9.99 or so for albums of digital files, scrounging through the stacks at used record stores, and spending hours rebuilding the playlists on my iPhone so I have a regular selection of fresh music and evergreen favorites to choose from when I need something to listen to. So be it. The kids can have their streams, just keep them off my lawn.