The first time I remember buying music was at Best Buy one day in 2001. I came home with two CDs: the Baha Men’s Who let the dogs out and the pop compilation This is what I call music! 5.
Each of those albums costs over a month to stream today, which mirrors everything that has happened to listening to music in the past 20 years: Napster and LimeWire, iPods and iPhones, Spotify and TikTok. Every decade that I have lived, a new format has emerged. Cassettes were replaced in the 1990s by CDs, which were displaced in the 2000s by mp3s, which were displaced in the 2010s by streaming. Now, instead of buying music, people are renting it.
Equally remarkable as this rate of change is how useless previous iterations of my music library are today – my first iPod is unresponsive, and I have no idea where my poor Baha CD is. Men. Losing some of that music seemed to me to break the lines of communication with versions of my old self, in the sense that hearing even an excerpt from an old song can evoke a first kiss, a first impulse, or less articulate memories. of interior life.
The music that I collected from the old days is now part of my collection on Spotify, which I have been using since it launched in the US 10 years ago this month. But looking back at the churn rate of the past two decades, I feel uncomfortable with the hundreds of playlists I’ve taken the time to compile on the company’s platform: in 10 or 20 years, will I be able to access the music that interests me today, and all the places, people and moments it evokes?
Unfortunately, the media preservation and music industry experts I consulted told me I had good reason to fear continued instability. “You’re screwed,” said Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, after I asked him if I could count on my music library decades from now.
The reason I’m screwed is that the ability of Spotify listeners to access their collection in the distant future will depend on maintaining its software, renewing its rights holder agreements, and finally not shutting down when something else inevitably supplants the current paradigm of listening to music. (Kahle sees parallel curation issues with other forms of digital media that exist on corporate platforms, such as e-books and streaming movies only.)
I may be particularly neurotic about the future of my music library because I have lost it once before. About 10 years ago, some 5,000 audio files I had amassed in iTunes disappeared after a hard disk save error – my own personal version of when MySpace recognized in 2019 that millions of tracks downloaded during the The site’s early years had been lost after a “server migration project.”
Even outside of data incidents like these, Dave Holmes, a general editor of Squire, called the period from the early 2000s to the early 2010s the “Deleted Years,” because of the number of mp3s from that era that did not survive the switch to streaming. He mourned the often forgotten artists who culminated in events such as Chingy, Corinne Bailey Rae, Kaiser Chiefs and the Click Five.
But music libraries have been characterized by impermanence since the rise of on-demand listening some 120 years ago, when people used phonographs. “If you look at the history of recorded music, the format changes every 25 to 50 years,” explains Jonathan Sterne, professor of communication studies at McGill University in Montreal, and “the time horizon has shifted. shortcut ”in the digital age.
Sterne, the author of The audible past, notes that at the beginning of the 20th century, most listeners treated a record as they might have treated a printed magazine. “You just listened to it for a while,” then I threw it away, he said. Even when people cling to vinyl (or tape or CD), it can get lost or physically degraded. It can also be destroyed in a fire, which happened in the Universal Music Group archives in 2008 to thousands of original recordings, most likely including some from musical titans such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby.
That said, something seems particularly fleeting regarding personal music libraries hosted on today’s streaming services. On Spotify, the songs in my listening rotation seem to come and go faster than they did when my collection was in iTunes – a new version or a curated playlist is constantly recommended to me. My experience on the app is geared toward novelty, popularity, and recent playlists, rather than browsing beloved tracks buried in my old playlists. Sometimes songs even disappear from Spotify’s catalog out of the blue.
In previous listening eras, choosing what to spend money on made every music acquisition heavier than it does today, when you can drag and drop a song for free into a playlist. “If someone buys an album, they will invest the time to listen to it [in order to] trying to get their money’s worth, ”says Mark Mulligan, music industry analyst at consulting firm MIDiA Research. “Sometimes that translates to albums that can be hard to listen to the first couple of times, which turns out to be great albums all time.”
Of course, what listeners get in return for today’s comparatively more fleeting experience is access to huge catalogs. A 2017 study found that after listeners switched to streaming for six months, the number of artists they played increased by 32%.
Part of this variety is probably due to the curation of Spotify, which makes it easier to discover new music. Its recommendations can be invaluable, although I often find the app a little too quick to make suggestions, like when it automatically selects a song to play after the album I’m listening to ends. On some level, Spotify seems indifferent to the type of audio I fill my ears with. Lately, the company has promoted me countless podcasts and their new Clubhouse-style chat app, Greenroom. The point, it seems, is just for me to keep listening to anything, music or whatever.
It represents a break from the past – my old CD tower never grew or suggested like Spotify does – just like the fluidity of listening to music online today. Mulligan observed that the first mainstream digital listening model, the personal mp3 library, picked up the notion of a stable collection from the age of physical music, when people bought albums and stored them together in one place.
In contrast, he told me, many younger listeners today are used to hearing short snippets of songs on social media and collaborative playlists that change shape as them and their friends add and subtract from the track list. They may not expect, or even desire, the permanence that I grew up with. Yet, said Mulligan, they are just as eager as previous generations to express their identity through music, but in our age of easy accessibility, just saying you’ve heard an album doesn’t mean a lot – thing. As a result, he sees many young listeners turning to relatively more expensive products in order to indicate the depth of their fandom.
I suspect that one day they will want, like me, to revisit the music of their formative years, and it will be more difficult than they imagine. The possible solutions that the experts suggested to me were ridiculously cumbersome: find and download every mp3 I want and save them to a hard drive; buy physical copies of every album I want as well as a playback device for them; use special software to record each song while I play them on my computer; take screenshots of every playlist in my library; write the name of each song. (Spotify allows users to export their playlist data, although this does not include the actual audio files.)
These archiving methods are either flawed, impractical, or both – and besides, even if I did use them, there’s a good chance that decades from now I’ll end up with a monster text file or hard drive. long obsolete that would be difficult to sync with a future listening platform.
Anyway, maybe my anxieties will prompt me to do something. More likely, I’ll just resign myself to grappling with the technical difficulties and industry flows indefinitely, and doing what every music format in my life has asked listeners to do: keep adding music to my entire collection. pretending it will last forever.