Streaming Music Down the Drain

I hate streaming music services. I hate them as a listener, I hate what they’re doing to music, and I hate their business models. I believe these services are harmful to listeners as well as musicians, and that music lovers should not spend money on these services any more than food lovers should go to McDonald’s.

People are generally surprised by my vehemence on this topic, and I generally let it go rather than have an argument. But I am not only surprised, but somewhat horrified, by what I see as a staggering level of carelessness and thoughtlessness in how we consume our music. Why don’t we consider our principles when we spend our music dollar, the same way we do when we spend our food or clothing or reading dollars?

In short, you should cancel your streaming music subscriptions and find better ways to spend your money.

Streaming services hurt musicians

Do I really need to explain this? These services are evil. Just like Walmart sells you cheap clothing by abusing and underpaying their workers, and using overseas sweatshops, streaming music services offer you the ability to enjoy all the music you want for a very low price by paying essentially nothing to the musicians you love. Why are you participating in this abuse? Poor families buy clothes at Walmart because sweatshop goods are all they can afford, and the kids have to have clothes to go to school. What’s your excuse?

It’s hard not to support corporate abuse nowadays. We all do it sometimes, whether by ordering from FreshDirect, buying iPhones, or buying those cheap clothes. But don’t we at least consider alternatives? Don’t we try to make better choices when you can? And isn’t it easier to make the right choice when buying a non-necessity like music than when buying food or clothes? If you cancel your streaming service, you’ll have enough money to tip ten subway musicians a month. And you can listen to better music, chosen by real people who will challenge and surprise and delight you in a way that your streaming service never will, simply by listening to free online feeds from the dozens of good radio stations online. And perhaps the money you’re giving to the streaming pirates would be better spent on a membership for one of those radio stations.

If you hate music so much that you’re willing to participate in this abuse, why are you paying to listen to it at all?

Streaming services are bad for listeners

You think you have access to all the music in the world, but that’s almost the same as having access to nothing. How can you possibly choose what to listen to? Nobody listens to streaming music with intention; these services are the modern equivalent of Muzak. They provide a continuing stream of enjoyable and inoffensive music that requires no work, no participation and no thought on the part of the listener. I would not have thought it was possible to create something even more mindless and damaging than top 40 radio, but the streaming services have done so.

Yes, you get new music recommended to you based on what you listen to. But has anyone ever seen an algorithmically created recommendation list that wasn’t laughably off-base? Have you looked at your “recommended for you” list on Amazon lately? Or the ludicrous list of “Pages you might like” on Facebook? What makes you think the streaming services do any better? The only reason they don’t offend you as often as Facebook or Amazon is that they have a larger pool to choose from, and therefore can make safer (i.e., unchallenging and uninteresting) recommendations. They eliminate the possibility of howlers by eliminating the possibility of delight or surprise.

And do you really think these companies spend vast amounts of money to surprise and interest you with new music? Or are they feeding you the music they’re paid to feed you (or, as with Youtube’s recent action against independent record labels, withholding music unless they’re paid)?

Sure, you can build playlists of the artist you like and only listen to them, just as you would if you had bought their music. But you didn’t. And if everyone did what you’re doing, the music you’re enjoying would not exist. Sure, successful artists don’t need your money, but unless you want to live in a world where all of your music is created by corporations according to a business plan, you had better start supporting musicians so they can become successful.

Streaming services are a lie

“Why buy music?” you ask. “What’s the difference between owning a song and listening to it online? Either way I have it whenever I want.” Never mind the question of economics, you don’t have what you think you have. If a song is banned, if an album is pulled because of a lawsuit, if controversial lyrics are removed from a song, the streaming services will immediately remove or change that music, and you will no longer have what you thought you had. Albums routinely go out of print because of contractual problems or label disputes. Digital releases are sometimes travesties of the originals (for example, the butchering of ZZ Top’s first six albums for CD release, finally made available in their original form last year in an expensive boxed set; the troubled CD release (and withdrawal) of David Bowie’s catalog, the delayed and erratic handling of the Beatles’ music in digital form).

In short, why on earth would you trust Amazon or the major record labels to decide what you have a right to hear? When the next generation’s Prince decides to rebel against the system, what are the odds that Amazon will quietly remove his or her music from their service, or ensure that it never comess up in playlist or recommendations? What happens the next time a band like the Dixie Chicks stands up against an unpopular war, and thousands of people pressure these services to remove their music? You think you’ll still own that music then? Or that it won’t be quietly dumped it down or censored before you even realize it? Is anyone going to circulate lists of music soon to disappear, the way Reddit readers do for Netflix?

Streaming services rob the future

What would the world be like if we only had the music judged important by powerful record industry executives at the time? Would 60s music be the same without Jimi Hendrix? What about 70s music without the Ramones, the Velvet Underground? What about 80s music without old-school hip-hop? What about the entire careers of the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and all the other folk revivalists, if record collectors have not been able to find forgotten music in attics and basements across the South?

With streaming services, you own nothing. Forgotten music is just gone. You have nothing to pass down to your children, or to look back on. You have nothing for another generation to rummage through, sample, and rediscover. Sure, that music is all available online (maybe, or maybe not) but your music, your taste, the things you discovered and loved, are gone. No one will ever find anything beautiful in your attic.

Eat real music

Stop buying processed corporate music that sounds like crap and won’t last. By real music from real musicians. Buy less, listen more. Listen consciously. Read album credits, learn who you are listening to, find out who they listen to. That’s how you find new music. Talk to your friends and listen to their music. Go see live music.

In the 1950s, people welcomed sliced white bread and canned vegetables and TV dinners. They were cheap and quick and convenient; you wouldn’t have to spend all day baking bread like your mother did. As a result, the health and ecology of the entire country has been suffering for more than a generation, and people now devote themselves to rediscovering the value of slow food, home cooking and local ingredients.

Do you want future generations to mock you the way we mock those sitcom mothers and fathers? Or does music matter enough to you that you will spend a little more, and work a little harder, to have the real thing instead of the processed substitute? Do you want the Velveeta, or do you want the Parmesan Reggiano? Surely a generation that spends $5 or more for a good cup of coffee can spend more than $10 a month on good music.

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