The Golden Age You Could be Missing

Music geeks of my generation have lived through some interesting times. We’ve heard exciting things in music itself, to be sure. But we’ve also watched the world-changing potential of the internet rise up and clash against the intransigence and greed of an increasingly conglomeratized music industry. I suspect any one of us could recite some choice mythology about backsliding standards, backward ideas about gatekeeping in a world with eroding borders to commerce, and the RIAA’s monumental insults against the music-listening public. But a few nights ago, I was reminded that mythology has an intransigence all its own. I was using my account to stream the new Trailer Trash Tracys album, on the recommendation of a friend, meanwhile queueing up a few other new releases and old favorites to listen to, when it struck me that the moment we’re living in has, with little fanfare, changed.

I’m going to say something anathema to all of my generation’s gripes of the past decade: The state of commerce, law and technology, in service of connecting music with listeners, is the best it has ever been. …But with that said, of course, I should add that it’s never been especially good, before.

As a teenager, I lived at various times within range of Los Angeles’ KROQ and Seattle’s KNDD, and still couldn’t stand radio. It just had too many strings attached to the slow trickle of new music it provided. Like MTV, radio always felt a little too low-brow and mercenary, to me. To my limitless teenage arrogance, those were things people listened to if they didn’t know what good music sounded like.

In the first decade of widespread internet, we got some variations on music publishing. On one hand, there were promotional downloads from individual artists or labels, which were pleasantly direct, both in their appeal to the customer and in the nature of the marketing interaction: the product was counted on to advertise itself, which was a refreshing change from radio. And on the other hand, there was the phenomenon of “internet radio”, which took the traditional radio model, and returned it to the garage. Satellite radio did the same, and competed directly with traditional radio. To me, those movements tapped into the idea that radio used to be good, back in the days when it was local, focused and independent. And frankly, I wanted to believe it. But small-scale radio just never shook up the patterns that frustrated me about the medium. It was still someone else’s playlist.

The most intriguing thing to happen in those early years, though, was the rise of the file-sharing services that grew as broadband found a wide footing. Sites like Napster, and their collision with musicians and the recording industry, cast some dramatic shadows in the gaps between customers’ wishes and the industry’s faith in its own inertia. Many listeners (myself included) avoided those services because they went too far beyond the cassette-level piracy we’d all been doing for years; the scale of the disconnect between artists and their audience created both ethical and economic problems. But those sites did, irresistibly, articulate a vision of what could be. (Services like the iTunes Store, incidentally, made a killing by incorporating some of Napster’s innovations into industry-blessed sales portals.)

The modern batch of streaming music services has fundamental differences from both file-sharing and streaming radio (both of which are still going strong,) but it’s helpful to recognize that it’s the child of both. Sites like Spotify, Pandora and Grooveshark largely do away with radio’s core idea, the ‘curated playlist’, instead helping the individual listener find whatever she wants to hear in a particular moment. But unlike BitTorrent or the iTunes store, the streaming sites are primarily geared toward listening continuously and in real-time, rather than amassing a collection. So, at the present moment, we’re witnessing a surprising—and surprisingly effective—fusion of some widely-divergent ideas about music, publishing, and the technology of the 21st century.

The total product has surprising strengths. I’ve likened it to renting the world’s biggest record collection, but the breadth of the collections on offer isn’t quite as exciting as their contemporaneity; my subscription to Rdio gives me a back catalog that should make any music lover drool, but it also gives me near-instant access to new releases. Who needs the top-40 charts, after all, when you can listen to everything you’re interested to hear? That, for my money, makes for a fundamental leap forward in the long history of music and the audience searching for each other. Over here next to my stereo, it’s a golden age, these days. Hope you’re all getting in on it, too.

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