What Streaming Music Can Be

One gift that I won’t be giving to loved ones this holiday season is music, sadly. In the age of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, music has become so readily available that it’s lost its thingness, that meaning and scarcity that makes wrapping it up and stashing it under a tree special. I know it’s possible to give a subscription to Spotify, say, as a gift, but somehow that’s not the same as a record or compact disc that has been sought out and acquired and then becomes owned, an object to be kept and identified with oneself.

Physical media’s ship has sailed though, and I’m certainly not making a case for its restoration. Streaming music is clearly here to stay. But when I think about Spotify, which I subscribe to currently, and Rdio, which I’ve subscribed to in the past, I wonder what it is that prevents me from feeling that sense of ownership over the music that these services make available so readily?

Is it streaming music’s lack of physicality, the absence of actual discs and packaging? Actually, no. When I look back at my old collections of vinyl and CDs, my stomach churns a bit. I spent all of that money on all of those albums, and now they occupy a greater share of the real estate in my home than I can reasonably justify, like old chests full of sunk costs. In truth, I don’t miss records as objects at all, and don’t aspire to own any more of them.

What I find is really absent from streaming music is everything that complements the act of listening to music. It’s the very thing that digital music, more even than records and CDs, should excel at: meta data.

Who produced that debut album from Lorde? Who played on it? Where was it recorded, and when? Does Lorde thank God, her parents, and/or her cat for making the record possible? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, because I’ve only ever experienced Lorde’s music via Spotify.

This is all trivia, to be sure, but this the kind of stuff that used to be such a meaningful part of owning a record — and that makes one a fan for life. Having it in your collection meant that you could spend time poring over its liner notes: familiarizing yourself with the names of musicians, producers, engineers and managers; memorizing lyrics; and studying photos musicians’ faces, stances and attire. These were the intangible qualities that made music more than just a service, but something to be collected.

Still, merely replicating this information would amount to no more than aping the physical world. Streaming music can do so much more.

The interesting thing about a copy of an album on a streaming service is that one doesn’t have to think about it as a copy of an album at all. It can be the canonical version of the album, a centralized, networked experience that pulls together its own audience, a gateway into supplemental experiences. All sorts of DVD extras-style content start to make sense then: music videos, remixes, alternate takes, commentary and more, all housed exactly where the album ‘lives’ on these services. Even better, the album can become a hub for those listening: it can host blogs, tweets, Instagram posts, discussions between fans and artists — or even better between fans and other fans, and it can show us who is listening, and where, when and what else they’re listening to.

There is a faint glimmer of this on the streaming services as they exist today, but they are so far away from reaching the potential of what they could be. The major services seem more focused on helping users discover new music at the greatest rate possible, and while some of what I’ve described here will improve the experience of finding new artists and albums, what I’m more interested in is deepening the connection I feel with music.

I come across countless new artists and albums on Spotify and listen to them just once, never to return to them again, in part because the connection I make with them is so superficial and fleeting. Even if the streaming services never find the energy to build all of the admittedly complex, content-rich meta features that I’ve listed here, there are at least a few things that they can do with the data they already have to make those interactions even more powerful.

There is a world of possibility in telling me more about my own listening habits. If I could choose only one feature to add to Spotify, it would be play histories — when was the the first time I played a song? When was the last? When did I first add an album to my collection? How many times have I played it? Given my listening history, how likely am I to like a new album? How often do people with similar histories play a given album? How long did it take me to play one album twenty-five times in comparison to the last album I played that often?

Since the service has my Facebook information, why not tell me what else was going on in my life during a given milestone? Tell me when I shared a song on Facebook, or discussed an artist, or who I friended that same week. If Spotify can show me the photos I took (even better if they’re selfies) when I first encountered an artist who later became a favorite, that would add a new dimension of meaning to what are essentially database records. Giving a listener the opportunity to recognize their own stories and their own selves in music is what turns people into lifelong fans.

It’s true that we’ll probably never get back to a time when music makes a suitable holiday gift. But if we believe that music is a net positive in our lives, that it adds something that nothing else can quite match, then I think we should look at the streaming services we have today more critically. They’re still young, and we are still enamored by the breadth of their catalogs and the novelty of our access to those catalogs. But they are not letting us form the kinds of connections to music that has always been possible in analog media, and, ironically, is even more possible in digital media.