How We Consume Our Music As Record Store Day Approaches

Written by Jason Chastain

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It used to be a lot harder to get your music out into the world if you were a fledgling musician. If you were lucky, you’d play a bunch of shows in grimy bars and clubs, peddle merchandise shamelessly and hope that you got good enough word of mouth to maybe attract the interest of a record label who would be willing to put money into you to get your music recorded and distributed. That’s not the case anymore.

The wide availability of the internet and the proliferation of technology has made recording and releasing music incredibly simple. Likewise, the ways in which music is distributed have largely changed, with a huge shift to digital distribution taking place within the last ten years. iTunes, Amazon MP3 and others have made picking up your new favorite song easier than going to your local McDonald’s. A song you hear on the radio can be on your mobile device in a matter of seconds, yours to own forever.

Even now, though, the idea of actually owning the music in your collection is coming under question with services like Spotify, Rdio and Beats Music all leveraging the concept of access over ownership, giving you access to more music than you could possibly listen to for a flat monthly rate. It’s that idea of “more music that you could possibly listen to” that has had me concerned in the past several years. With music so easily accessible, are we taking the time to really listen to anything anymore?

I remember a time when I could only afford to buy one album at a time and it would be a good long time before I would be able to buy another. So I really dove into every album I bought: I read the liner notes front to back, I looked at all the pictures, memorized song names and interesting parts in every song. Even if the songs weren’t the best, and they weren’t always the best, I spent enough time with them that I found something to like in every one.

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The advent of the iPod and the iTunes store brought about a change in how we all listened to music. Now, instead of buying the entire album because you liked the singles you could just buy the singles, often for less than the cost of a cup of coffee. Why take a chance on an album you might not like for $9.99 when you can just buy the songs you already know you like for $0.99 a pop? It’s hard to ignore the logic there, but it means that a lot of great music may not be getting heard.

Even if you are one of the few still buying full albums when you shop on iTunes, you aren’t getting the same experience that you used to. There was something almost magical about sitting around listening to your new LP or CD and reading the liner notes or looking over the sleeve that it came in. There have been attempts to recreate this experience with the “iTunes LP,” which comes with a digital booklet you can look at while listening to your new mp3s, but honestly, it’s just not the same.  That feeling of being able to hold music in your hands and truly analyze the whole medium; it’s something special and it’s getting lost in the digital shuffle.

Puluche does a great job of incorporating the overall album packaging into its album review rubric analysis, in an effort to convey the entire experience of the album along with its music.

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The lack of album continuity hurts artists, too. We once had grand ideas like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, albums that were meant to be listened to front to back and were considered one work that was meant to be taken in as a whole. It’s hard to say if those albums would do half as well as they have if they were released in the era of picking and choosing what you want to buy. Certainly “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” would sell a lot of copies, but would “Lovely Rita,” or “She’s Coming Home?” I would argue these songs are better than “Lucy,” but if you never heard them, how would you know? Of course, that’s assuming you actually bought any of the songs at all, as we see this shift away from owning the music you listen to.

Services like Spotify, Rdio and Beats offer all-you-can-hear access to extensive libraries of millions of songs from pretty much any artist you can think of for a nominal fee (free with ads, or around $9.99 a month for the ability to stream on your phone). You don’t actually own the music you’re listening to, but you can carry it around with you anywhere, provided you have a data connection on your phone or an internet connection of some sort. For the casual fan, it’s the perfect solution, and it’s somehow even easier to use than iTunes. You simply log in, search for what you want and, provided they have it, and start listening.

It’s about as far away from the days of sitting around with those liner notes in your hand as you can get. No longer do you even have to worry about organizing mp3s and making sure they’re correctly labeled. Music in this case becomes less of a thoughtful purchase and more of a casual commodity that can be accessed at will and with little thought. I know many people who base their listening habits solely around what’s on the top of the Spotify charts, meaning that they are most assuredly not doing much “deep listening” as it were, and I fear this is not an isolated trend.

So what does this all mean for the artist? So far we’ve looked at how the shift from physical to digital has affected the way people consume music, but how does it affect those out there who produce it? Are artists going to put as much effort into producing a cohesive work that tells a story from beginning to end, or will they focus on creating songs that grab attention and beg for your $0.99? Are they going to spend time creating album art that compliments the music, or will they throw together something in Photoshop because they know the only time most people will see it is when they scroll through the songs on their phone or mp3 player? Will they even bother to create at all?

A recent Time article shows that the average song stream on Spotify generates between $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream in royalty payments. The argument here is that, for big name artists, it adds up quickly over time, but what if you’re not Lady Gaga? What if you’re a burgeoning singer/songwriter just trying to get their music out there? You surely can’t live on less than a penny per stream, which begs an entirely new question: Is music even a viable living anymore? If you’re Lady Gaga, it certainly is, but most artists make music in their spare time while holding down a regular job and hoping that they can someday make enough from their music to stop doing the 9-5 thing. They find themselves having put their music on Spotify, though, because that’s where a lot of people will first go to check them out. It’s not much money, but it’s more than nothing, and that’s where a lot of artists seem to be conflicted. One on hand, it’s better to be heard by any medium than not at all, but they can’t survive on streams alone, and so they have to hope that they’ll attract fans devoted enough to actually purchase their songs or see them at a live show.

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What can we do about this, you might be asking at this point. Well, for starters, Record Store Day is April 19th this year. For many record stores, what few are left, this is the busiest they’ll be all year, and likely one of the only times that they’ll see many of the people who stop in. Go check out your local record store! Even if you’re not into the whole vinyl thing, buy a CD, or just thumb around and show support. Talk to the clerk at the store and ask their recommendations for music. That’s something you can’t get from iTunes, Spotify or anywhere else: a real person who will stand there and talk shop with you, though it may be an eye-opener what they know or don’t know. Check out one of those “experience” albums: grab Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Kind of Blue, Tommy or Ziggy Stardust. Listening to music is a wholly unique experience, and the more we start fully experiencing our music again, the better off we’ll all be. 

 

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How We Consume Our Music As Record Store Day Approaches
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That feeling of being able to hold music in your hands and truly analyze the whole medium; it’s something special and it’s getting lost in the digital shuffle.

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