King Kong vs Spotify

"No one's buying music anymore: They're renting it."—John Atkinson, keynote speech, AXPONA 2018

Streaming music isn't new. US companies have been doing it since the 1920s, when it was discovered that multiplexing—the then-new practice of combining multiple signals over a single conductor—could be used to send live or recorded music over public power lines. The first of those companies was Muzak LLC.

File that away.

In the middle-class world in which I was raised, my family had a tidy little house, plenty of food, clean clothes, and excellent medical care. My sister and I attended good public schools, and we lived in a neighborhood where there were lots of other kids our age. Apart from safer cars, the ability to buy our favorite fruits and vegetables year-round, over-the-counter steroids, Gore-Tex, and cheap cashmere sweaters, the only thing we didn't have then that we have now was unlimited access to whatever broadcast entertainment we wanted, whenever we wanted it.

That turns out to have been a blessing. We learned to cherish the nonessentials that mattered most—like hearing our favorite songs on the radio, or enjoying the annual television broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. Over time, the latter tradition was extended to the 1933 film King Kong and the 1955 video recording of the Broadway musical Peter Pan, broadcasts of which were reserved for Sunday nights. My dad would make popcorn in a big pot, and my sister and I would sit on the floor, closer to the television than we were normally allowed to be. That was a pretty big deal.

Those pleasures evolved but did not die. By the time I was 10, I had my own transistor radio, which I usually kept under my pillow. I would stay awake as late as possible, in the hope of hearing my then-favorite songs—like the Rolling Stones' "Heart of Stone" and the Moody Blues' cover of "Go Now." Sometimes those songs would be played while I was still awake and listening, and sometimes they wouldn't—and sometimes a new favorite would come along.

All of those things were events, like holidays in miniature. I remember being almost crazy with excitement when King Kong was about to come on the TV (and almost crazy with fear every time I'd sit through the scene where you couldn't yet see the title character but you could hear his thunderous footsteps). Ten years after that, the words to the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" held me rapt every time that song came over the radio. It didn't matter that I'd already committed them to memory: hearing someone choose to play that record was different. And the walk from the tonic to the relative minor in Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" enchants me to this day, even though the same trick has been used in a thousand other pieces of music.

Did those experiences leave me with a sense of thrift in my approach to the recorded arts—a sense that being able to listen to my records all of the time, wherever and whenever, might actually be a bad idea? I began to think so during my college years. Around that time, on my occasional visits home, I'd hang out with my old friends, one of whom had a tape deck in his car: at the time, a rarity in my social circles. He'd mastered the art of fast-forwarding, usually while fast-driving, to the precise beginnings of every guitar solo in every song on every tape he had, rather than listening to the songs and the albums in their entirety. That didn't make me hate listening to recorded music, but it did make me hate those songs. (I will happily live the rest of my life without ever again hearing Deep Purple's "Highway Star," through no fault of Deep Purple's.)

Today, 54 years after "Go Now" was released, the relationship between life's essentials and its nonessentials is inverted. I know few people of any age who are not lacking in at least one of the basics—medical care, education for themselves or their children, affordable housing, a reliable living wage, a premortem retirement—and yet for just a few dollars and with the push of a button, we can stream or download every damn thing we think we want. In the fall, I used Tidal to stream an album by Serge Gainsbourg, with whom I was otherwise unfamiliar, but after five or six songs I decided it was crap and bailed. This evening, I used Netflix to stream, during dinner (I was the only one home), Giuseppe Tornatore's brilliant film Cinema Paradiso (1988). I dammed that stream countless times, to perform such tasks as fetching the salt, refilling my water glass, and turning off the burner under the spinach.

Taken to an extreme, luxury means never having to fall completely under the spell of a work of art, never having to be captivated: that's some sort of freedom, I guess. Yet in a world where no music is revered as special, everything is a commodity. Everything is just more product. Bread, meet circuses.

Maybe Serge Gainsbourg's music isn't crap. Maybe I just didn't give him enough of a chance, because I was guzzling instead of sipping (footnote 1). Maybe the Bee Gee's "Holiday" isn't the brilliant single I believe it to be—maybe I believe that only because, in 1967, I heard it on the radio no more than once a week, instead of once an hour.

Then again, maybe it's time to heave ourselves up out of our Lay-Z-Boys, find the switch that controls the sodastream of abundant everything, and turn it the fuck off. On the desert islands where we once longed to live our every waking minute, recorded music is the coconut we bash against the rocks with ever greater force, frustrated that we no longer get from it what we want. And the music industry, for its part, seems genuinely baffled that most consumers assign less and less value to music—and are far less willing than their forebears to pay for music itself, or the hardware with which to enjoy it.

Commoditization is not the cure. It is the disease.—Art Dudley

Footnote 1: I'm just saying that for rhetorical symmetry, and to sound gracious and thoughtful. Serge Gainsbourg's music really is crap.

cpmiller's picture

From my own perspective the core of this concern is not economic, it is about the medium itself. Streaming is essentially an on-demand process. To my mind the evil (if I may use an emotionally charged word) aspect about streaming is that it doesn't encourage me to commit to the process of listening. I can usually find nuggets of gold panning in a barren stream if it's far enough away from conveniences.

Anton's picture

In my gang of Hi Fi or music loving friends, we have debated this idea.

1) When Beethoven's Fifth hit the scene, how many times in a normal person's life would one hear an orchestra perform it?

If that is a limited number, then who are we now to own the record and play it in a casual fashion? Shouldn't we need to put on our symphony clothes and go through a formal ritual before the rare event of hearing it?

I think it does argue against consumers owning recordings. Perhaps a significant pay for it to play it is that answer - an even harder commodification to make us appreciate what we are listening to! No puttering about the kitchen if one has paid a C-note for a chance to hear a symphony.

That, plus, in the early '70s, the opening notes were played to death by ads. We were almost forced to encounter some music against our will!

2) Pity the poor artist, as well. I am constantly amazed that so few music performers turn to drugs when they are faced with having to pretend "[You town's name here] rocks, here comes Dream On for our 200th time this year." As a listener I would be able to stand it, yet we expect artists to emote for us like it's the first time the meaning of this song has ever dawned on them."

What is it, even with live music, that so many listeners expect greatest hits or standard canon performances? Man, if I had to perform satisfaction each night on a world tour, I'd need heroin, myself.

3) Is it fair to dissect a performance with repeated and repeated listening? Even if one followed a band on tour, one would only hear a song once at a time. Playing it back several times in order to opine about being able to hear someone working the keys on his sax, or any number of things us audiophiles 'find' in performances shouldn't really happen.

Listening to music should be like a dog pondering his owner while the owner is picking up his poop on a walk. The dog says, "Smell it once and move on, why save it?"

There is a beauty to that in music.

4) Should music be like a fixed sculpture or painting, "on display" as we desire it, or should it be a Buddhist sand painting, ephemeral and enjoyed in the moment before it is gone forever.

5) Is there such a thing as casual listening, or is it a lazy assed phenomenon that the modern world has allowed us to indulge in?

6) On the plus side, hearing The Cars play "Let the Good Times Roll" inside your headphones while you walk on a desert playa at 3 am can add meaning and new context to music that normally wouldn't be available in that spot at that time.

Same goes for music in your car or on your head playing as a soundtrack for one's visual impressions of the city or passing world. Does it enhance meaning, create meaning? many times, yes, in mind bending fashion!

7) I love classical music, but feel that many times, I should shut up and enjoy instead of popping on a different performance of the same piece and picking them apart. Nothing drives me crazier than some bullshit friend pedantically mewling about how Simon rattle's pace and tempo just doesn't compare to von Karajan's cover versions of Beethoven symphonies. "Blah blah blah, I prefer von Karajan's direction of the pace of the second movement of this symphony blah blah blah."

We can be a pretentious bunch, thinking that one performance of a symphony is somehow demonstrably superior to another. Seriously, amigos, "sniff it and move on."

Yikes, that turned into a rant. pardon me while I go yell at a cloud!

Thanks for an awesome conversation starter, Mr. Dudley!!!

I heard Herb's voice as I thought on this topic, I can honestly hear him saying, "Listen mindfully" inside my head, which is what I will try to do, Art and Herb! You guys are gems.

dalethorn's picture

Good points, all.

Lorenzo-Italia's picture

Rarely science and passion can live together for entire life. for many of us, music lover, audiophiles,... maybe this could be the case.

One of those Men just passed away.

He left us a great amount of science about music, audio and acoustics. Starting from the clever L(inkwitz)R2 filter to an incredible amount of (mostly hand written) whitepapers.

R.I.P. Eng. S. Linkwitz,

we will miss You all.

All the Best

dc_bruce's picture

All the best, indeed. As one who has been dealing with prostate cancer for 10 years, I am amazed and inspired that Dr. Linkwitz managed to live with it for 17 years.

dc_bruce's picture

I can empathize with some of the sentiments in your excellent column. However, in the "days of the giants" we were not all audiophiles or music aficionados. Some just wanted music for dancing, and others just wanted music that would be the descant to their lives, playing along in the car radio as they went cruising along with a special person.

It does seem true that, beginning with the revival of pop music that started in the early 1960s, the coincidence of high fidelity stereo FM radio, LPs, and decent-sounding playback equipment at reasonable prices, a virtuous circle was created, yielding ever-more creative and interesting pop music, appreciated by an expanding audience.

Or, maybe the whole thing was just demographics.

But, here's the reality of it, revealed in a conversation with a friend who is, give or take a few years, a contemporary of mine. She was extolling the wonders of Amazon's Alexa-empowered sound system. "just say, 'Play some jazz, and there it is!'," she exclaimed. Knowing that I was an audiophile, she was somewhat crestfallen when I didn't share her enthusiasm. Although I love jazz, I didn't want to be a snot and say something like, "yeah, and out comes Kenny G." What I did say was that, for us who "pay the big bucks" for a sound system, the activity of listening to music is considered a primary activity, like watching a movie, not something that is going in the background while we cook dinner. I further explained that, for us, listening to music is something we sit down to do, and when we do it, we want a sense that the performance is "present" in the room with us in a way that seems palpable.

Although I don't now have streaming audio capability, I probably will get it. But I don't intend to use it like we used FM radio in our cars back in the day. Rather, it's simply a way of accessing a music library bigger than my own.

Continuous (more or less) music in the background has been available since the dawn of the LP. Remember record changers? Then there were CD changers that followed. Then there were cassettes that would play for 45 minutes unattended. Remember "mix tapes"?

But these are all tools, whose merit (or lack thereof) is entirely dependent on how you use them.

At our age, nostalgia is a tempting narcotic we should avoid. Rather, we should embrace the new tools and figure out how to use them to serve us.

dalethorn's picture

That's a good contrast between someone in a discovery phase and someone who's been there - more than once even. Each perspective has its usefulness, and we do well to understand those perspectives, so we don't throw in with a new (and possibly restrictive) paradigm too hastily.

fetuso's picture

I would get so upset as a child when thanksgiving dinner interrupted the broadcast of king kong. If only we had pause back then. But then again, if we could pause or record, I'm certain that I would not have had the same special feelings for that movie. Nothing that is immediately available and accessible can hold the same sense of mystery as something you can't control.

tonykaz's picture

Mr. Dudley reads like sarcasm ( anger ) with Bar Stool at "Last Call" vulgar expressions like "turn the f#@k off" .

Phew, how did this make it thru the Editorial Gauntlet ?

Recorded Music Discs began before Electricity, we've had the Black things for far too long or certainly long enough.

This next generation will create something wonderful with or without us Old Vinyl Geezers who can still purchase a $53,000 Swiss Tonearm to play all their vast collections of Vinyls.

Vinyl is outrageously expensive, housing vinyl requires vast Bricks & Mortar infrastructures and discretionary incomes that might find higher purpose in Rolex investing or a widening range of attractive financial possibilities .

Music, however, is a childhood friend that stays loyal and travels thru life with us, it goes everywhere with us.

Vinyl, it seems, is a Religious Shrine, a place of fastidious attention and a good measure of devotions.

I'll be traveling the Inland Waterways of England with a good supply of our lovely music which I'll sing accompaniment and share with any and all, all from a tiny Player thru Class D Active Loudspeakers.

Bon Vivant,

Tony in Michigan ( not ever apologizing for our Lions giving those Jets 48 points, phew )

dalethorn's picture

It's good to water the flora under that religious shrine now and then.

2_channel_ears's picture

In the first 6 months I subscribed to Tidal I discovered more new music than in 6 years before. I would look up the artist (how to do that a la 1970's?) and find out if they were touring in my area and go see concerts when I could. Good times.

I watch a movie and hear the soundtrack. I look the artist in Tidal and punch play. Yes instant gratification, enjoyment, and... discovery.

Through Tidal I dove into the music of Philip Glass. The pounding, sometimes repetitive rhythms circling in my brain, driving deep thoughts and culminating in hearing the maestro himself on his 80th anniversary tour.

The other day a friend of mine sent me an album recommendation, piano music of Gounod, neither of us, classical aficionados of sorts I'll say, had never heard. Marvelous relaxing music.

I take it it with me everywhere, over a 1000 albums on my phone. With a decent enough bluetooth speakers it's been instant party with friends far from home and across continents.

I bought a new car and bought into the Sirius XM subscription. Along came the Springsteen channel, amongst others. My favorite all-time artist, I was entranced by these concert performances where he reinvents the songs I have worn multiple discs out on. I listen deeply, intently, at the lyrics, at the sound, at his voice, the instruments. OK, I change the channel too but I keep the streaming going.

Anton's picture

I can flip and flop on this type of discussion.

Your post was perfect.

Christian Goergen's picture

..whether the new opportunities of streaming are problems or solutions.
Convenience and choices like never before.
More than sufficient quality for most of us.
Low costs.
Diminishing meaning of the record collection and the record collector as well.
Nearly infinite options to share music.
If it's gone, it's gone.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Streaming allows for access to any artist/group/album/song (track)/composer/conductor/orchestra, 24/7 ........ Streaming allows for access to any internet broadcast anywhere on the planet for music and other things, 24/7 ............ Streaming allows for access by any internet enabled device, 24/7 ......... Streaming allows for access to millions and millions of songs (tracks), 24/7 ......... Streaming is here to stay and growing exponentially ........... So, lets all get used to streaming ........ Let the good times roll :-) .........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Let the Good Times Roll" ........... Ray Charles :-) ............

dalethorn's picture

Sure, as long as.....

1. The power is on.
2. The Internet is working.
3. The ISP is delivering.
4. The streaming service is functioning and not overloaded, or cutting their budget, or changing their business model (secretly of course).
5. (next hundred excuses)

Bogolu Haranath's picture

What happened to you? ......... Did you take the .........

"Midnight Train to Georgia"? ........... Gladys Knight :-) .............

You look different ......... Had any plastic surgery? :-) ............

dalethorn's picture

"What we do is secret" -- The Germs, GI album ca. 1980.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Secrets" ......... OneRepublic :-) ...........

dalethorn's picture

"It's soft" -- Vince Edwards, Deal of the Century.

mns3dhm's picture

Spotify is a great place to listen to musicians I am unfamiliar with before plunking down cash.

worldofsteveUK's picture

I’ve invested more money in vinyl replay than streaming but I find Tidal a useful way to check out new music, if I like something, The National’s last album for example I’ll add it favourites and stream it occasionally, if I really like it, LCD Soundsystem after streaming, I’ll seek it out on vinyl.

tonykaz's picture

Just today,

Your Mr.HR gets an "at-bat" on Steve Guttenberg's Daily Video Show and "Hits one outa the Park".

His parallel philosophical "As We See It" combined with his ever widening capability of Phrasing seem to be positioning him as Audio's "something special".

Stereophile is becoming something of a honest Philosophical Powerhouse, right up there with Bob Woodward and a few others. Phew

Of course, the widening freedom comes at the price of a taboo "expression" finding it's way onto the Printing Press. ( the price of greatness )

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

Woodward is still blaming the hurricane on human emotion.

Topher's picture

something that Mr. Dudley once wrote has really stuck with me. "I've always tried to keep listening special." I always think of this when I see my peers studying to music, driving to music, cooking to music, shopping to music, drinking to music, running errands to music, i.e. doing just about anything except actually sitting down and listening to music. Music is the soundtrack to our lives, but it's rarely an activity that has it's own real estate, as it were, the way books and movies and sports and friends do. We don't make time for music, but (or because) it's always there.

Sometimes I try to imagine what it was like to go to a classical music concert in the days before radio. That sound! For months on end to hear nothing but noise. Horses, factories, steam engines, people calling out in the street. Or the rural sounds of wind, rain, birds, and just silence. And then to hear a Beethoven symphony or a Bach mass. It would be like a religious experience! (Which, of course, is what it was expressing in some cases.)

Is there this ratio then, between quantity and quality? I think there must be. To that end, and with Mr. Dudley's maxim in mind, I try to avoid just putting on music because I can. In the car I play audiobooks. I take my coffee outside of the café at a table on the sidewalk. I listen to one record per day downloaded from Tidal, from beginning to end, and I listen lying down on my bed, tethered to my DAC by headphones so I can't get up and check Twitter. Others may listen listen to more, but I bet they don't *hear* more.

Anton's picture

My time in the car each day is my "alone time."

I have 9-11 minutes of solitude.

I love listening to music in the car and get just as much enjoyment out of it as I do from my Hi Fi. heck, I sing along much better in the car than at home!

I have yet to meet an audiophile who, upon hearing a favorite song come on the car stereo, turn if off and say, "When I get home, I am going to really enjoy that song."

My own theory is that we audiophiles have a defect that prevents us from fully enjoying a piece of music if it isn't part of our Hi Fi fetish gear ritual.

My wife loves music as much as I do, and she is happy with a boom box on the deck. We can't claim we "enjoy" music more than 'civilians,' We just need our gear to get us off when most people get off without such shrines to Hi Fi.

My analogy is: I can enjoy 'romance' without needing to visualize the cervix in fine detail or have a certain type of shoe involved.

dalethorn's picture

Agree that music is best when it's special. While I don't disagree with casual or background music play, when it's quiet at night and I'm relaxed and play some good music on my audiophile system, I hear more - I feel more - the experience is much greater. I suppose each experience - casual or intimate - has value unto itself, but there's a special satisfaction I have as an audiophile that applies only to the intimate undisturbed listening session at home when all is quiet.

Anton's picture

As Jim Austin is fond of mentioning, wine and auio are a nice pair...

“A lot of pleasure resides in the expectations we have that can come from the weight of the bottle, the type of closure and the music playing in the background,” he says. “All these other factors [can] typically elevate the experience.”

They work wine into the discussion, but I find it true that a fine wine can also enhance music, as music enhances the wine.

Symbiosis, baby!

It also points out how our expectations biases are an integral part of Hi Fi. Wine has a bottle, label, enclosure, etc...that alter perceptions.

Hi Fi has brushed aluminum, audio jewelry, etc..that also enhances our experience. It's a bummer there are audiophiles who think that they are most invariable part of their Hi Fi hobby.

Lars Bo's picture

Most of the time I think:

Art, meet circuses. Beholder, meet convenience.

In the stupid economy, bread met greed a long time ago.

On a particularly gloomy day, I only see heavy, clumsy wine and light, clumsy stereo.

Doctor Fine's picture

I have banished the televisions to far away rooms in our home.
The Stereo takes pride of place in our concert hall (ne: "living room") where it looks and sounds quite smashing.
Every peep from our set is a magic moment to be treasured and it never gets old.
You guys must be doing something wrong.
I quite enjoy the ability to time travel all over the last 100 years or more of recorded musical performances.
I thrill to the constant discovery of new music and artists and the occasional brilliant performance.
You will have to pry my stereo from my cold dead hands one of these days.
It is never gloomy over at our listening room.
I would strongly suggest you get rid of all televisions anywhere near your listening room .
This will better preserve the proper mind set of reverence whilst you traipse around the musical universe on your golden ear-ed steed Bucephalus.
Just like Alexander the Great, there are entire worlds to conquer.
Be not afraid.
Good music is part of being intoxicated with life.
It is to be savored and treasured.
Go forth my little ones...
Stand on the broad shoulders of all those that came before you.
And be grateful as hell.

Anton's picture

As John Prine sings in "Spanish Pipe Dream:"

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"When I Get to Heaven" .......... John Prine:-) ..........

ok's picture

..till I'm finally streamed upon some killer track I would otherwise never have heard (of) and let the music speak for itself.

stalepie's picture

I find it hard to remember streaming material. Especially with Spotify, there's little to go on besides track titles and artist names. I end up building a long list of cool tracks I've found and then forget about it as the months pass. No memories formed. At least with YouTube and Soundcloud there are comments and likes/dislikes and other associations to form little extra bits of memory to go along with it.

dalethorn's picture

There will likely never be another Napster (circa 1999-2001). Not for downloading BTW, but for finding someone who shares a taste and you can sample their collection, talk to them at length, etc.

wozwoz's picture

What a punchy article! The world of diminishing marginal returns. The solution is that: less is more. IN particular, to dump streaming (other than as a search/research tool), and buy SACDs. They are sufficiently expensive and rare to make each wunder disc a treasure in every sense, and comes close to something of the excitement of listening to LPs in earlier times.