Essays on Technology and Culture

What We Lose In A Streaming Music World

You can call it perfect timing. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to try iTunes Match, the iTunes in the Cloud solution that doesn’t involve Apple Music and subscription streaming. After using it on two Macs and my iPad for a few days, I found that some of my favorite albums and songs were being matched with the wrong versions, yet again. In response, I rage quit and got a refund. I’d never been quite so upset with an Apple product in my life.

Then, I came across this sad piece by James Pinkstone whose library was destroyed by an Apple Music and iTunes bug. A week after that, MacRumors reported that Apple was planning to end music downloads in two years. The rumor was squashed by an Apple spokesperson, and that was enough for many. Not me, though. “What if?” has been running through my mind since.

James Pinkstone wrote about how certain, unique versions of songs in his library were replaced by common versions. I ran into a similar issue with iTunes Match, replacing German-language versions of Kraftwerk songs with their English counterparts, or a remastered version of an album with the original CD master. At least I had recourse of a backup and my local files in situ on my main Mac…

I’ve written before about why I choose to own music in a streaming world, but I never felt as though my music collection would be taken from me. Now, I’m not so sure. Maybe music downloads will go away, and maybe the future of iTunes will be cloud first, and local files somewhere below Connect, but above syncing ringtones.

But the looming threat of a streaming only world opens up a bigger question about music ownership and the experience of music. I’ll be the first to admit that all forms of physical media are a huge pain the rear. LPs, CDs, and cassettes are all fragile. Digital files are less fragile, but just as annoying to organize and sync. I keep an external hard drive tethered to my MacBook just to store my media library. I have more music than could fit on the largest of iPhones. Managing this is a hassle.

Yet, these forms of music media are real in a way that streaming music is not. There are digital files in my collection that are over a decade old. They’ve traveled with me across multiple computers, and multiple lives. This is meaningful in a way that streaming can never be. How do you connect with music that you simply rent, and could disappear from your library the moment you turn your back? A record label dispute could mean that your favorite artist’s music might be locked down to a single streaming service—such as the library of the dearly departed Prince.

It feels like the move to streaming music means we’re losing something. What happens to music that isn’t available on a streaming service? How will you explore the music of a surprisingly good opening band when they don’t exist in the library of Apple Music, Spotify, or TIDAL? So much music that has touched my soul, you can’t stream it for love or money. I had to seek it out on my own, pawing through used music bins, or going to shows. When there’s an all-you-can eat buffet for $9.99, what’s the incentive to order something that isn’t on the menu?

Maybe I’m becoming a fossil, but I can’t help but worry. Music is one of the most personal forms of art in the world. The way we relate to it cannot be isolated to files stored somewhere remotely. There’s the thrill of discovery, the emotional connection to lyrics, a voice, or even a single sound. By owning my music library, I make sure that I can maintain those relationships to the art. I should never have to worry that, if I double-click an album in iTunes, I will hear the wrong thing. If I do, I know that restoring order is within my grasp, not something that requires technical support calls and arcane rituals.

I may, eventually, be left behind by a streaming world. I don’t expect I’ll be alone. If the world goes on without me, and I am left to my digital files, and my collection of plastic and wax discs, I will be okay. But there’s a big difference between being left behind, and being abandoned, and it’s the latter that scares me to death. If you care about music in any tangible form, it should scare you as well.