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Downstream: Saying Goodbye to Spotify

Downstream: Saying Goodbye to Spotify

Step away from the streaming. On National Record Day, re-embrace the record store clerk and the joys of human-guided sonic exploration.

David Skinner

Tomorrow, April 20, is National Record Store Day, a day of promotions, special releases, in-store appearances, and much else in the way of organized hoopla for music sold over the counter. It is best observed with an actual purchase at your local record store—mine is Crooked Beats in Alexandria, Virginia. 

But National Record Store Day can also be a time of reflection. And so, as we recall the characters from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and their real-life analogs, wondering if we should pull down that box of vinyl records in the attic, stuffed with our parents’ Jim Croce and our bedroom favorites from Fleetwood Mac to Nirvana, I suggest we take a hard look at what the digital revolution has done to music listening. 

Is streaming music through our phones really equal to or better than what deejays and record store clerks did for us during the heyday of compact discs, cassettes, vinyl records, and radio? I think of the skinny guy manning the counter at a shop called Prime Cuts on Northern Boulevard in Queens. He asked me a couple of questions about what my dad listened to, then confidently asserted that what I should give him for Father’s Day was the new Sade album. He was right, it turned out. I bought it and my middle-aged father, nearing divorce, loved that album in a way that I, as a young teenager, could not begin to understand. Thinking of that skinny guy—who also sold me cassettes of albums by The Clash, The Smiths, The Ramones, Cyndi Lauper, and many others—I say, finally, no. 

A few months ago, I took action. I decided to stop listening to music through streaming services. There was no firm end date, no New Year’s resolution to signal the moment of rejection. I just stopped using the two music apps on my phone. It’s been about five months now. I do not miss streaming music at all—which is funny, considering that I miss music very much, especially when I am in the car. But streaming music wasn’t helping.

The basic problem I noticed early on with streaming music services was that their predictions for music that I would like were too cravenly imitative of the music I already liked. The next song would sound like it had been exported from the same sonic microcosm whence came some of my favorite Tom Waits songs, but the new song was much less interesting and original, especially standing in the shadow of a Tom Waits song, with which it was immediately compared and found wanting. Or sometimes, the selections would reflect some formal aspect of the music I like—say, the blues influence—and park me in a trench of blues music not well selected for someone whose tastes ran heavily in the direction of folk and indy rock. Of course, I was also not asking for the blues, but that may have been the deeper lesson of this experience: No one ever asks for the blues, yet they come all the same.

That period of experimentation, however, now seems far more interesting than what I was getting a few months ago. By then, streaming felt like high school in senior year, a treadmill of repeating faces, completely predictable and without mystery or surprise. (Also, I should add, without depth.) A convenience. Background noise. Asking little of me and rewarding my tepid willingness to listen with passable selections until boredom took over and I moved from one channel to another, where I frequently found the service playing the same song it played a half hour ago. I can hardly think of anything more damning to say. Almost the exact same complaint inspired me, around the time I became a regular customer at Prime Cuts, to abandon Top 40 radio. But in some ways my streaming music experience was worse: More like Top 20 radio, a personal list of songs I “liked” stuck on repeat.

We often frame our willingness to trade in systems that work imperfectly for newer systems that innovate imperfectly as an exchange of quality for convenience. This is too generous in the case of music streaming. The quality is poorer with streaming, but it turns out that the convenience is rather poor as well. If I want to listen to any streaming content in my car, I have to futz with the never-reliable Bluetooth system or connect a wire from my phone to my dashboard, then open the app, choose a channel, press play, and hope for the best. In retrospect, popping in a CD of music I know I like or have been looking forward to—though the disc will need to be traded out and put away—is hardly less convenient. 

Even so, you get used to the bother of phone, apps, and wires, and go on calling it convenient. Habits form and make short work of the awkward motions involved. But as you adjust yourself to streaming, streaming begins to adjust your expectations, queuing up music to suit its convenience, plying you with an ever narrower selection of music, especially of music you already like: While the system of delivery may be innovative, the content is retrograde, predictable, based on old information, uninterested in what might be ahead. You pay less attention. No longer a jolt to the system or a balm to the harried mind, music becomes an atmospheric tweak, like a puff of air conditioning for the ears. 

At home, there is no problem. In my house, I can even play vinyl. Recently, my wife and I invited some friends over to play records and drink wine. Our friends showed up with many more records than we could listen to. The sound was generally very good, even on our modest stereo equipment, but the act of choosing music for each other made the exchange hospitable and personal. It gave context and enthusiasm to our selections, especially the so-called deep cuts that help reveal the path an artist takes to reach their highest peaks. With effort such material can be dug out from a streaming service (Pandora has a “deep cuts” mode), but the overall effect is ever narrower. Algorithms never get bored with their own patterns—which is why I do not let them play deejay in my living room.

It’s in the other listening place where all the problems show up. My car is a 2022 model and does not have a CD player (or a cassette or record player, of course), so there I am once again exploring the radio dial but it’s generally a disappointment. Political podcasts are filling the silence for now, and they offer an interesting contrast to music streaming: Just as an album or a live show gives you a sense of the range of a musical act at a given moment in time, podcasts give you a sense of the conversational range of individuals with specialized knowledge. The genre, so to speak, is suited to the messy parts of life and full of theories that don’t quite pan out; disagreement; inconvenient information; and the occasional glimpse of a way forward through the thickets of our present conundrums. But it’s not the kind of thing you can sing along to. And podcasts are more than capable of their own narrowing of the soundscape and mental channels. But theirs are the shortcomings of human nature, for which I have far more sympathy than I do for the limitations of a mathematical model.

A one-man boycott surely makes no practical difference to the firms involved that, as it happens, are receiving not a penny less than before from my family. We have one of those group subscriptions—it covers all five music fans in my household. And yet it has still come to seem important to me that I not go on relying on a system of music consumption that is reducing the musical pulse in my life to the faint murmur of a failing heart. There is also the problem of what streaming is doing to the financial well-being of recording artists. It’s a serious problem in its own right, but, curiously, not one that had compelled me to stop listening.

Using a gift card to buy some music last month, I selected five albums, four of which I discovered through radio stations and one I’d discovered through a streaming service. Were I to go back and buy another five albums, the ratio would probably be about the same, or even more imbalanced in favor of music I learned about from human beings—picky human beings, I should say, who choose music for themselves before playing it for others, and who are much better than algorithms at selecting for novelty and juxtaposition. It’s interesting, humorous even, that “curating” became a vogue word during the rise of streaming—it captures everything streaming is not. Indeed, the only music programs that I still sometimes stream are radio shows led by an actual deejay.

Because streaming services do not make it possible for me to select music programming selected by human beings, the music chosen for me reflects the tyranny of averages and the shortsighted logic of musical types, this in an area of life where all that is interesting is an outlier—atypical, unexpected, the one in a million and not the most common denominator. The result is risk-averse, clingy, and completely without imagination or love. My own interventions have, at times, temporarily improved the selection of music. But if I am constantly being called on to compensate for the shortcomings of streaming, it is not actually a service. It’s a problem. 

David Skinner is an editor and writer. He writes about language, culture, and history.

Image: The view from the jazz section of a Florida record shop. (Unsplash: Rocinante_11/Mick Haupt)

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