A few weeks ago, I bought a new CD.
It certainly wasnt something Id planned on doing: For one thing, when you consider the steadily eroding sales of compact discs (which are so bad, New York City can barely keep its record stores alive), the fact that I was even able to find one of those stabby-cornered, shink-wrapped eco-terrors was kind of a surprise. But there I was, stuck on a road trip with an ancient stereo system, in dire need of a Drake break (his songs had started from the bottom of the FM dial and continued, non-stop, all the way up). And so I dropped $12 for Tribulations The Children of the Night, an excellent Swedish black metal albumthink Riverbottom Nightmare Band, if its members had spent a year opening for Queens of the Stone Agewhich I then kept on repeat for days.
So, like millions of other music fans with limited IRL storage space, I put complete faith in the cloud, despite the fact that it had been named for an aerosol that has a tendency to suddenly disappear.
It felt like an odd step backward. Not so long ago, Id sold my decades-old CD collection, sending them off to New Jerseyan undignified death if there ever was onewithout so much as a hug or a handshake goodbye, confident Id never miss them. At the time, the decision made perfect sense: My family was growing, my apartment was not, and I needed both space and money. Besides, I’d been assured that everything was going to be in the cloud. And so, like millions of other music fans with limited IRL storage space, I put complete faith in this abstract entity, despite the fact that it had been named for an aerosol that has a tendency to suddenly disappear.
Sonic Separation Anxiety
Now, just a few years later, my music collection is a lawless (but not lossless) messa digital diaspora of streaming tracks; ripped MP3s; Bush/Cheney-era eMusic files; Bandcamp purchases; SoundCloud likes; and iTunes downloads in ancient file formats that now read like dating-site acronyms (everyone was briefly .m4p in college, right?). And while such a collection might accurately reflect the innate messiness of my music-loving brain, it’s become increasingly difficult to navigate, with entire hours lost attempting to track down certain albums and songs.
Look, will the widows weep for me in the hills because of such problems? No. They shall not weep.
But in the last few months, it’s become clear that the grand promises of streaming musicthe notion that all of our collections would be replicated, preserved, and protected digitally; the idea that wed be able to access new music with ease; the assurance that, yes, this would be a blessing for artistsall came with unexpected stipulations. First, theres the recent phenomenon of songs, albums, sometimes entire discographies being seemingly kidnapped overnight, without warning. Then theres escalating battle between streaming services to land weeks- or month-long exclusives of big albums, shutting out some listeners altogether. And, perhaps most troubling of all, theres the fact that, while streaming now comprisesabout a third of music sales, many artists still feel theyre getting stiffed.
Maybe its all that Swedish death metal making me sentimental, but Im kind of starting to miss those CDs.
Perhaps this is all just collateral damagea series of ugly, possibly fixable trade-offs that we must endure so music can (theoretically) live anywhere. Either way, theyre certainly not looming enough to get me to give up streaming (I use Spotify daily, often for hours on end, including right now, and signed up for Tidal once itlanded the Prince back catalog). But, five years after the streaming model broke big in the US, I look at that $12 disc with a kind of confused appreciation: Heres a sturdy, tangible objectpacked with art and lyrics and various liner-note nicetiesthat sounds fantastic, wont disappear overnight, and, after being purchased, presumably will send a few bucks to the musicians who created it. At some point, I had thousands of these things, all part of a clunky museum-slash-library that served as a searchable overview of nearly four decades of music listening. Now, I have thousands of songs scattered across a series of all-digital archipelagos, where tunes can easily get lost, or worse, vanish altogether.
Maybe its all that Swedish death metal making me sentimental, but Im kind of starting to miss those CDs.
A Quick Note on Animal Behavior
To understand the mind of a music fan, picture a weird, easily aggrieved squirrel that lives in a house made of torn pages fromTrouser Press and Spin album guides, and wears a faded Delicious Vinyl T-shirt (sometimes with pants; sometimes not). Being a squirrel, it wants to collect and store everything it findsbut only by using an inscrutable, scattershot, semi-logical system that will never be understood by its friends or relatives (who, it should be said, are only barely tolerating this squirrels shit at this point).
This is me. Even though a good 60-70 percent of my music exists digitally, theres a sizable physical collection, which has been splintered into a variety of fiefdoms and phylum that would barely make a lick of sense to a sane person. Example: I have a bunch of ’70s and ’00s punk and hardcore albums on cassette, because I like the hiss and crackle that serve as a warm-up for whatever sweet guitar-scuzz might follow. But ’90s hardcore or punk or pop-punk albums? Those are (relatively) slicker recordings, so I try to collect them on vinyl. As far as rap goes, thats just as stupidly complicated: I grew up listening to 80s and 90s hip-hop on cassettes, which often came with lengthy thank-yous and liner-notes, so I try to track those down on tape when I can … except for albums that are thick with samples, like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet or De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, as those tend to sound better on vinylexcept some of the original pressings were a little tinny, so …
I will stop now, before I get too deep on my system for new releases (I buy some of them on vinyl, some on Bandcamp, and even got a few on CD this weekand all for reasons so arbitrary and contradictory, they would just annoy/bore you even further). But the point is this: Pretty much every music fan I know is an insane squirrel, born with a voracious appetite for the new, a deep nostalgia for the old, and not enough space nor organizational acumen to keep it all from becoming a mess. Streaming was not only supposed to open our worlds to new sounds and discoveries, it was supposed to make things easierit would make our clutter less haphazard, more elegant. It was going to help us put our pants on. Instead, it has only made our nests more crowded, our collections more rando, our behavior more squirrelly.
To be fair, we all knew from the beginning that we wouldnt be able to hear everything we wanted via streaming, even in a best-case scenario. There were so many labels, artists, and rights-holders to be satisfiedand so many arcane releases to track downthat it would be impossible for services like Spotify or Apple Music to entirely replicate our collections. In a best-case scenario, we could achieve Nirvana, but never nirvana.
That’s largely because, in the music industrywhere many of the biggest labels have been around for longer than half a centuryextensive back catalogs have always served as a bragging right and a bargaining chip, with executives (and artists) fiercely protective of the rights to their works. And while long-time digital holdouts like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles have in recent years succumbed to Spotify, the list of artists whose work is underrepresented on streaming servicesor not represented at allis formidable, ranging from multi-platinum artists (Garth Brooks, Def Leppard) to lesser-selling yet still crucial acts (De La Soul, Slade) to tiny hardcore bands that I listened to while driving around the suburbs in the mid-’90s (where ya at, Falling Forward, literally and figuratively?). If you’re looking for every album ever made, you’re not going to find them streaming, and you probably never will, unless Garth Brooks wakes up one day and decides “Friends in Low Places” needs to be in all places.
Still, all of those big-named absences are mostly forgivable: When I signed up for Spotify five years ago, I knew there’d be gaps in its offerings, but I figured it was a decent-enough sacrifice for being able to instantly listen to, say, 94 percent of the music I was enthusiastic or curious about. (Though, manhow can you not have Slade? This is soft-power prowess at its most affecting!). What I didn’t count on, however, was the way Spotify’s competitionand a few unpredictable artistswould later build an unpredictable bazaar of digital-music destinations, where no site has the exact same offerings, and no album is guaranteed to stick around forever.
These are not real real problems, especially not in 2016, aka Our Year of Perpetual Suck. But they point to the fact there’s no guarantee of permanence or stability in the streaming atmosphere, something I should have been thinking about back I was when selling off my Prince CDs and Radiohead EPs.
This became especially clear in the last few months, thanks in large part to Prince and Radiohead, two of the most listened-to and culturally seismic acts of the year, and artists with complicated, occasionally uncomfortable relationships with technology in general. When Prince died in April, a huge number of fans turned to Spotify or Apple Music to listen to records like Dirty Mind and Sign o’ the Times and even Graffiti Bridge, only to learn he’d relocated the bulk of his catalog to Tidal, the streaming service championed by millionaires, and presumably named after an off-brand laundry detergent.
That’s only slightly less annoying than Radiohead’s more hodgepodgey streaming-service configuration. For the first few months of the year, most of the band’s albums were readily available on Spotify, Tidal, or Apple Musicbut not its seminal 2007 record In Rainbows, nor the group’s killer b-sides, some of which were temporarily removed from the services as the result of a label switcheroo (In Rainbows and those odds-and-sods eventually returned toSpotify circulation). As for the bands most recent album, the great if hyphen-deprived A Moon Shaped Pool was on Apple Music and Tidal upon its release, but withheld from Spotify for more than a month.
Again: These are not real real problems, especially not in 2016, aka Our Year of Perpetual Suck. But they point to the fact there’s no guarantee of permanence or stability in the streaming atmosphere, something I should have been thinking about back I was when selling off my Prince CDs and Radiohead EPs (luckily, I still have most of Prince’s primo records on vinylnot so much because I’m an audiophile, but because they come with cool artwork and mostly complete lyrics, not to mention posters like this). Around that time, I also unloaded my Taylor Swift CDsmeaning that, when the artist pulled her records from Spotify a year and a half ago, I was sent searching through a bunch of old hard drives, trying to find my MP3 rips of her waaay too earnest (but still pretty great) first album.
Granted, all of these raptured tracks are available elsewhere on the webeither legally for purchase or iffily free-of-charge, and all with very little hunting or pecking involved. But its a far cry from the ease-of-use Eden for which I traded in my physical-disc collectionespecially this year, when there’s a new, even more relatively elusive musical format with which to contend: The Elusive Exclusive. These are potentially huge-selling, big-star records like Rihanna’sAnti-, Kanye West’sThe Life of Pablo, The 1975s I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It, Drakes Views, Beyonc’sLemonade, and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Bookall of which were initially in limited release, available on certain streaming platforms for a period that ranged from a just a little over a week to more than a month (thatd be Pablo, though that album technically won’t be finished until West re-records a new version of “Wolves” featuring Carol Channing and an anthropomorphized orange visor).
In the streaming age, its possible to put out a beautiful record, yet still have so many people unaware of it.
These are not only culturally crucial releases from some of the most popular artists in the world; theyre also, for the most part, essential listening in what has to be the most satisfying new-music year in a long time. Yet there were times this spring when actually finding them onlinemuch listening to themfelt like work, work, work, work, work. In the streaming age, its possible to put out a beautiful record, yet still have so many people unaware of it.
Its all a big, confusing mess, one in which the most logical solution is also the most expensive: Signing up for multiple services at once. Your only other option is digging around some Ukrainian website with 36 green arrows to click on, trying to find the one that links to an actual, illicit download.
Which, sure, isn’t super-hard to do. But you know what was really easy to do, not so long ago? Walking into a store, finding the CD you wanted, and taking it home. Granted, it was a lot more expensive than the streaming services monthly flat-rates, but at least the music was yours, and it wasnt going anywhere.
Skipping Around a Bit
As I write this sectionlast one, promiseI’m trying to get a copy of Steve Gunn’s excellent Eyes on the Lines to play in a crappy old CD player that functions, at best, maybe 40 percent of the time (I bought at a flea market a few months ago, when “I think I’m getting back into CDs again” evolved from mused-aloud threat to sad reality). Eyes is a heavy-mellow guitar record, the kind that’s really perfect for Sunday mornings, assuming you wake up on Sundays the way I dounderslept, and frequently overheated by whatever Horrific Backward Incident is currently making headlines that day. It’s a ragged, restless album, but I can’t play it for you, because my brand-new disc is absolutely not working, no matter how many times I try. Finally, I slide it into my laptop, and it spits it out with a mocking mechanical wheeze, as if to say, “A compact disc? Ha! Why don’t you just stick a Tamagotchi in my USB, you middle-aged, overly sentimental shit-snooze!”
And it’s one of the reasons why my recent CD-yearning spree is, ultimately, little more than a small-scale indulgencenot so much a nostalgia trip as it is a nostalgia outing.
So, yeah: My brand-new CD, the one I wanted to use to hammer home all my points about the small joys of physical media, is DOA. Then again, they always seemed to break, or crack, or get smudged beyond comprehensionit’s one of the reasons why, a few years ago, we were all so eager to get rid of them, and so surprised when we found out some people would still buy them, so long as they still didn’t skip.
And it’s one of the reasons why my recent CD-yearning spree is, ultimately, little more than a small-scale indulgencenot so much a nostalgia trip as it is a nostalgia outing. For all its frustrations, streaming is so convenient, and so deeply embedded (maybe even encoded?) into my music-listening traits, that I can’t revert back to the past. I miss my CDs, and miss the illusion of order and convenience they provided, but really: When I’m tipsily doing the dishes, and need to hear Fleetwood Mac’s “Hold Me” or Nice & Smooth’s “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow…” or Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” right away, there’s really no other option but streaming; it’s like a pneumatic tube that sends song requests directly from my brain to my ears.
So I will cue up my Steve Gunn record on Spotify, resigned to the fact that the disc version will soon start accruing dust on a shelf, alongside the Swedish death metal record I bought a few weeks back. But every once in a while, I’ll pick up those cases, scan the liner notes, and remember what it was like when music was something you could actually hold. My CDs were clunky, fragile, and impossibly overpriced, but to a manic squirrel like myself, they imposed a sense of ordera feeling of everything in its right place, even if just for a moment.
Read more: http://www.wired.com/2016/07/i-miss-my-cds/