Over on the Twitter, there’s been a flurry of discussion as to whether Spotify is an improvement over illegally downloaded music or if it’s basically the same thing. I’d like to propose a third stream: that the problem we face is not one of economics, but of the spiritual nature of how consume music. That is to say: what Spotify and illegally downloaded music have in common is that they both spiritually devalue music by making a surfeit of it too accessible. With the proliferation of sites/apps like Spotify comes the demise of curation as it applies to one’s music collection. What irritates me is not that people steal music, but that they steal so much of it that they don’t listen to any of it. If someone ripped my CD because they couldn’t afford it, I would feel cheated, but not as cheated as I do knowing that the value of a carefully curated collection of CDs, tapes, records, what-have-you—- has gone to zip thanks to the gluttony of 21st-century consumers who don’t know when to stop downloading and start listening.
And the fundamental problem, as I see it, is that we as a society have gradually (d)evolved to the notion that universal access qua quantity is axiomatically good. As Butthead once queried Beavis, “if nothing ever sucked, how would you know if something was cool?” By the same logic, how are we to assign value to any music if we have access to all of it?
There is another problem, which has to do with the common defense of Spotify that argues that its service allows people to “check out” music and then decide if it’s worth purchasing. This would be all well and good, except it seems to me this puts music that may require several listenings in order to get under one’s skin at a real disadvantage. In the “old days”, if we bought a CD and didn’t take to it immediately, there was an economic imperative of sorts to grow to like it, i.e. “I paid $15 bucks for this record, so I better give it a second spin to see if it takes”. Nowadays, the only records that people seem to give second chances after an initial reaction of indifference or dislike are those given the stamp of approval by select tastemakers in the blogosphere, i.e. “Umm, I don’t really get this BadgerDance record, but Pitchspoon gave it a 9.7317 so it is good and therefore I will listen to it until I understand the music slash find it relatable.”
So I imagine a near future wherein Spotify has become ubiquitous, and the listeners of the world simply bounce around from one immediately satisfying songlet to another, and anything that is truly visionary/difficult/new will probably get tossed aside.
All of which is to say: if someone wants to use Spotify the way he or hse once approached the purchase of physical albums, I’m in full support. But if it’s just a means of sampling music at a surface level, folks might as well just download illegally, because the damage to serious listening has already been done.