Have you read Dan Brooks’ opinion piece about streaming music in the New York Times yet? If not, you should: it’s already sparked plenty of chatter from music fans and digital music industry folk alike.
It’s a lament for the age when music snobbery actually meant something, although more nuanced and self-aware than that sounds.
“The bad news is that we have lost what was once a robust system for identifying kindred spirits. Now that we all share the same record collection, music snobs have no means to recognise one another,” wrote Brooks.
“We cannot flip through a binder of CDs and see a new friend, a potential date. By making it perfectly easy to find new music, we’ve made it a little more difficult to find new people.”
His theory: that when you had to make a real effort to discover music outside mainstream fare, the results – your music collection – were properly meaningful. And when you met people who had made a similar effort, the ensuring relationships (romantic or otherwise) were also meaningful.
“When getting into a band became as easy as typing its name into a search box, particular musical tastes lost their function as signifiers of commitment. What you listened to ceased to be a measure of how much you cared and became a mere list of what you liked,” wrote Brooks.
“Worse, this list was no more ethically righteous than anyone else’s. You didn’t have to support local businesses or hang with freaky beatniks to hear Choking Victim anymore, so liking them became no better (or worse) than liking Pearl Jam.”
As I said, if I’m reading Brooks’ tone right, his article isn’t a holier-than-thou piece of snobbery: it’s more self-aware than that. I enjoyed it, and it made me think: both good things for an opinion piece. And I also disagreed with some of its points, which is also a good thing.
Why? First, because while we all share the same record collection now, that doesn’t mean we know how to find our way through it. You can’t swing a cat in the streaming music industry without hitting seven people banging on about curation and trusted filters, so there’s still a value to the kind of passion and expertise that Brooks is talking about.
So yes, anyone can use Spotify and follow knowledgeably-compiled playlists on (for example) underground dubstep or math-rock or witch-hop or whatever you like. Anyone can read about a new band online and instantly listen to everything they’ve ever released.
And yet… there’s still value – a social currency – in being the source of those playlists or recommendations. The person who knows enough about witch-hop to make that 20-song playlist to share with the world, or the person who picks up on a new band first and becomes the seed spreading their work to an extended social group.
But also, modern streaming services have the potential to identify us in just as granular a fashion – if not more so – as the old days of physical record collections. Find your fellow snobs not based on what they own, but what they actually listen to.
There are even online dating services – Tastebuds for one – popping up to use this data in their matching algorithms. Although just like general online dating, this data isn’t totally free from manipulation, as anyone who’s ever flicked on Spotify’s ‘Private Session’ mode for a day-long Girls Aloud session (*looks sheepish*) will know.
The gap may have reduced between tastemakers getting into a piece of music and mainstream fans hearing it, but there’s still a difference between being the person creating playlists and listening to bands in their early days, and the person listening to other people’s playlists and listening to bands that are starting to break.
(Or, to pull this down to a personal level: some of my favourite songs from the last few years have been tracks I’d NEVER have been cool enough to discover in the pre-streaming era, but if I found myself in a social situation with a massive fan of those artists and/or genres, our respective expertise would be clear immediately.)
Brooks’ article did make me think about what the future might hold though: where the next “robust system for identifying kindred spirits” might come from. I think it may come from digital communities around artists and music.
Look at Bandcamp, which is building a thriving community of people identified by a.) their willingness to buy music – itself perhaps the new signifier of “music snobs” although I don’t mean that negatively – and b.) by their ability to review that music and browse one another’s collections.
It’s an almost exact match for what Brooks worries is disappearing in the streaming era, even if it’s digital.
Or look at the way some indie labels are launching their own subscription services using Drip.fm: Sub Pop, Domino, Stones Throw, Hospital Records, Ninja Tune, Mad Decent and more.
Right now, these tend to focus on the music itself – fans paying a flat monthly fee to get new releases and (often) their pick of the archives. But why couldn’t they become mini-communities of “kindred spirits” in their own right, with events in the real world (like, oh yes, gigs!) bringing those people together?
Actually, maybe it’s gigging and clubbing that will become (or remain, because it was certainly this when I was in my teens) a rallying point for likeminded souls.
Perhaps when everyone has access to the same unlimited record collection, it’s the willingness to pay for tickets to see an artist or DJ in the flesh that’s the extra tier representing passion. Perhaps digital – in the form of apps like Songkick, Dice, Bandsintown and Jukely – can play a role there too.
Anyway, none of this is an attack on Dan Brooks at all: it was actually really refreshing to read someone’s thoughts on what streaming music means for our culture – for humans and the way we interact with one another – rather than just the ‘is it good / is it bad / will it kill or save the industry’ angles, important though they are.
But the more I think about it, the more I realise that there’s not less value in passion and knowledge and effort around music that’s off the mainstream path in a streaming world. In fact, it’s more valuable than ever, which should give music snobs (again, not used as an insult) more reason for optimism. Although I can’t make any guarantees on the dating front…