The world of streaming music has been with us a while now, with the earliest forms of Pandora actually dating back to 2000. That said, I think most people only started seriously streaming music within the last five years and a lot of folks don’t do it at all, either because they have great music collections or because they don’t have great data plans.
As for me, I’m a “sometimes” streamer. I have no problem going out to a music service to find something but I don’t pay for any of them. I have spent most of my adult life acquiring a fairly substantial collection of the stuff I like to listen to, and I’m not much of a fan of the music of the 2010s. But I’ll stream too, because there’s always something out there I’ve either avoided buying or simply didn’t re-buy as I made my way from records to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs to MP3s. There’s a lot of good music out there in the last 125 years or so since it became possible to own a copy of a performance.
So why haven’t I jumped 100% onto Spotify, Apple Music, or one of those other services that let you stream nearly any track on the planet? Part of it’s my thriftiness, because I just don’t want another monthly fee. But, there’s more to it than that.
To someone my age — and folks older than me by a few years — your record collection said a lot about you. It was evidence of your discoveries, your hopes, the places in your life you had been and the lives you had lived. Back in the days when a decent sized music collection took a wall in your living room, just a glance could remind you of the year you spent obsessed with Joni Mitchell, your ill-advised foray into listening to Jethro Tull while completely sober, or the time you thought that Wilson Phillips was destined to reshape the music scene. And it wasn’t just a map of your failures, it could remind you of the first time you heard Beethoven, or Run DMC, or Boys II Men, or Miles Davis, moments that made you smile. Maybe you remember the song that was playing the first time you met someone important to you.
Translating all that music down into a flash drive takes away some of that, but at the very least you can scroll past album covers, reliving moments as you do. There’s value in that, and honestly, at this point in my life I don’t listen to music to hear new things, I listen to remember old days. So having that library in front of me in some tangible way, each song representing a conscious decision to keep a song with me.
Streaming doesn’t do that. Streaming lets me sample millions of tracks with no commitment and no connection. There are plenty of benefits to streaming, and especially for someone who remembers relying on John at Record Village to introduce new music that would never have been heard otherwise, for someone who mail-ordered extravagantly-priced imported music and waited weeks to hear an obscure track. Still, a reliance on streaming means that you can listen to music that in a sense, you haven’t earned. Streaming doesn’t create the kind of permanent connection that buying does.
In the end it makes no difference if you danced with your spouse or partner for the first time to a song that was streamed, or if it was on a hard drive or physical medium. The difference comes when you want to listen to that song again. Will you have the same wistful moment as you search and stream that you would have had if you recalled the file from your hard drive? It’s not that far off, I suppose. On the other hand, what are the chances you’ll randomly run into that track when you’re browsing through Spotify? Pretty low. That spontaneous rush of memory doesn’t happen when you’re streaming. You’re not that connected.
Perhaps it’s a generational thing and I’m sure that younger folks, who can’t understand ever buying a song, book, or movie for themselves, will find ways to build these same sort of connections for themselves. That’s up to them. Why do I still own my music? (Or at least, keep it on my devices, since the stuff you buy from iTunes isn’t really owned) Because that’s not just how I catalog my musical preferences… it’s how I catalog my life. And I’m happy with things that way.