In the age of streaming
Ryan Israel | Wednesday, December 4, 2019
A lot — and I mean a lot — of good music was released in the 2010s. Genres were blended, stars were born and social media gave us all an up-close view of the action. But the decade also saw a massive shift in the way we consume music. With the rise of services such as Spotify and Apple Music, streaming has taken over as the most popular way to listen to tunes. This shift isn’t isolated; it comes as the next step in a decades-long process that has slowly but surely transformed music.
In 1979, as the already-revolutionary ‘70s wound to a close, Sony changed the game by introducing the Soundabout, a handheld playback machine that allowed people to listen to their favorite cassettes on the move. The Soundabout (and its later iteration, the Walkman) revolutionized music consumption. Up until then, listening to music had been a stationary activity. Vinyl discs and the record player, introduced in the 1950s, were the most common way to consume music for three decades, but physical size limited their mobility. And before the record player, of course, you had to have an instrument to enjoy some tunes.
Throughout the early ‘80s, cassette tapes and players replaced vinyl and record players as the standards for music consumption. By 1986, 350 million cassettes were sold, as opposed to only 110 million LPs. Thus, the process of rationalization was set into motion. The term “rationalization,” coined by thinker Max Weber, refers to the systematization of ideas and leads to the development and supremacy of purely pragmatic, means-end calculations, much like those Weber saw in modern capitalism.
Rationalization dominates the way we consume music. Each technological change since the ‘80s, from the cassette to the CD, the CD to the MP3 and the MP3 to streaming, has been centered around rational choices aimed at making music easier to consume. Considerations about the other implications of such changes have been pushed to the wayside due to a “laser focus” on maximizing convenience and efficiency.
This rationalization has radically affected our relationship with music, as well as both the length of songs and the interplay between music and art. Now that we’ve arrived at streaming, there’s no physical music “object.” You could hold a vinyl record in your hands and feel the grooves on the disc. You had to go to a store to buy a CD. An iPod needed to be plugged into a computer and MP3s needed to be downloaded. With streaming, music exists in “the cloud,” accessible on phones alongside text messages, Snapchats and social media. A subscription to Apple Music or Spotify gives a person access to millions of songs; an internet connection provides even more variety. With only two taps, music plays.
The unprecedented and relatively unlimited ability to listen to any song at any time means that people no longer feel that they have “ownership” of their music. When you pay for a Spotify subscription, you’re not buying one album or song but, rather, access to every album and song. Buying a vinyl record is an experience. You find the perfect album, take it home and display it among your collection. You can keep it forever. You can put your CDs in a giant binder and flip through pages of discs. Adding an album to your “Library” on Spotify is just not the same. That “Library” exists only in the land of ones and zeros. It’s not your album.
The music that artists make is informed and limited by the dominant form of music consumption at the time. With streaming, artists are paid per play, incentivizing them to release more tracks with shorter lengths. Dan Kopf’s analysis of albums and song lengths from the most popular artists of today reveals a trend towards shorter songs. In 2019, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” with a length of only 1:53, became the shortest number one song on the Billboard charts in over 53 years and the fifth shortest song to ever reach the number one spot. The Billy Ray remix of the track, only 40 seconds longer, reached the number one spot and stayed there for a record-breaking 19 straight weeks. At the same time, albums are getting longer — see Drake’s “Scorpion” or Migos’ “Culture II.”
The trend of rationalization in music consumption has also changed the nature of album art. Cover art was a key feature on the LP sleeve cover, which offered a 12” square canvas for artistic expression and was often put on display or hung on a wall. Back covers and liner notes added depth to the experience of listening. But the CD provided a smaller space for album art, and the MP3 and streaming took it all away. Now, album art is a tiny digital image on your phone— and you can barely zoom in. There’s no back cover and no stylized track list. Some more recent covers — Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” or Tame Impala’s “Currents” — will go down in our collective memory, but will they ever reach the ubiquity of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” or the Beatles’ “Abbey Road?”
Next time you open your phone and play a tune, consider what things were like 50, 30 or even just 10 years ago. Consider how the rationalization of music consumption has informed the way you experience music. Or just enjoy the music instead.