For six years, I’ve been a model citizen of the streaming music business.
I was never a Spotify freeloader. Instead, I paid $10 every month for a subscription to Rdio. That money gave me a seemingly infinite catalog of music to enjoy on smartphones, tablets, computers, and televisions, while giving the music industry a guaranteed source of monthly revenue. The business model of streaming music relies on people like me, and even artists who speak out against free streaming (such as Taylor Swift) have admitted that subscription services are cool.
They just lost one subscriber, though. On Saturday, when my Rdio membership expired, I gave up subscription-based streaming music for good and went back to owning every song.
My reasoning may be atypical. I’m not fed up with the gaps in Rdio’s catalog (though they are a nuisance) or the fragility of online services (see: Grooveshark). I’m not religiously opposed to renting digital content either: I cheerfully pay for Netflix. My true motivation is the damage that on-demand streaming has done to my appreciation of music.
When I first signed up for Napster–the post-piracy, Best Buy-owned version–in 2009, I actually thought it would help me appreciate music more. For less than the cost of one CD per month, I could satisfy any whim and start filling all the gaps in my musical knowledge.
For a while, that’s what happened. My musical horizons expanded, and I enjoyed the freedom of not having an MP3 collection to deal with. I would sing the praises of subscription services like MOG and Rdio to friends and family, long before Spotify went mainstream through its freemium hook.
But over time, my passion for on-demand streaming eroded. What once was a tremendous benefit became a burden, as I would routinely add albums to my collection without knowing if I’d ever listen to them. Having a backlog isn’t necessarily a problem, but as the size of my collection grew, the value of it all seemed to cheapen. I used to cherish my music collection; now I can barely keep track of what’s in it.
A wake-up call of sorts came last summer, when Phish released a new studio album. I don’t obsess over the band like I did in college, but it’s still special to me–or so I thought, until I effortlessly dropped Fuego into my Rdio collection. The addition was as unceremonious as any other album, soon buried under countless other options. Nearly a year later, I still haven’t given the album the thorough listen it deserves.
There’s a significance, I’ve realized, that comes with spending money on a particular song or album. It becomes an investment, which in turn demands your attention. I used to savor new tunes, listening to them over and over to identify their nuances. Services like Spotify and Rdio make the music feel disposable.
The excitement of a new album from a favorite artist isn’t the only thing I’ve missed. By giving myself wholly to an endless on-demand catalog, I’ve also robbed myself of the thrill that comes from acquiring music in unexpected ways.
I first noticed this a couple of years ago, while I was visiting friends in Los Angeles. We were waiting for a table at a restaurant in Hollywood, and decided to kill time at Amoeba Music, a legendary record store with a massive used CD selection. In previous visits, I’d found it impossible not to walk out with a stack of cheap discs. This time was different. Why bother spending the money when the same albums were just a few taps away?
This scenario played out in other ways, like the merch table at a concert, a trip to the library, sales on Amazon, and even the odd MP3 giveaway from Starbucks. All of these things ceased to matter when I could just open an app instead.
Of course, nothing was stopping me from buying new music outside of Rdio. But picking up too many stray tunes leaves you with a bifurcated collection, some of it streaming, some requiring a different app or music player. Over time, subscription streaming conditioned me to avoid paying for anything else–even music that wasn’t part of the on-demand catalog. If it wasn’t on Rdio, I would simply live without it.
That attitude carried over to other music services, as I tried to minimize my time in apps like Pandora, Songza, and TuneIn. The nagging feeling that I had to get my money’s worth from Rdio took over, even though other apps do a better job with music discovery and mood-based listening.
All of these factors conspired to take the joy out of music, at a time when there’s never been more ways to discover and enjoy music. For me, extreme convenience is no longer worth the trade-off.
Making this decision has been easier than I expected, largely because researching, discovering, and accessing music is easier than it was six years ago. I’ll still use free on-demand services such as Spotify and YouTube to sample new music before making a purchase–sorry, Taylor–and will turn to radio-style services such as Pandora when I’m not looking for something specific. As for my collection, the plan is to stream from my computer through Plex, or from the cloud with Google Play Music so I don’t have to manage MP3 files on every device. Neither of these services existed when my subscriptions began.
That’s not to say the switch will be effortless. In an attempt to modernize my catalog, I’ve already spent over $90 on new music–more than the cost of Rdio for the rest of the year–and sunk several hours into re-ripping my old CDs.
But even this process is better than I remember. I’ve found some great software that rips to MP3 and ultra-high-quality FLAC (for archival purposes) at the same time, and several online sources of lossless audio, including Murfie and Bandcamp. I can even buy used CDs on the cheap through countless online sources (including Amoeba).
And so far, rebuilding the collection has been rewarding in its own way. Going through my old discs brought back some fond memories, and shopping for new music has already made me more excited to actually listen to it all. Music, to me, isn’t just a product to be served on demand. It’s an experience, and I’ve been missing out for too long.