Relationships with music fall flat in wake of digital age

Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion regarding Taylor Swift’s decision to pull her entire catalog from the music streaming service Spotify and what this move signifies for music as an industry and as a commodity. With the debut of the iPod in 2001, it was clear that the way people purchase, listen to and share music was changed forever. Thirteen years later, MP3 players have, for the most part, gone the way of the landline as more and more people choose to listen to music on their smartphones. The nature of music as an item to be possessed has evolved drastically, potentially altering our relationship with music in unforeseen ways. During the collective childhood of the now-college-aged generation, radio, CDs and even cassette tapes were still the main methods of listening to music. As children, many of us listened to Radio Disney and had fledgling CD collections featuring Kidz Bop, Britney Spears and maybe a boyband or two.

I remember seeing ads on TV for new albums “In Stores Now!” and hoping my mom would take me to Target to get it, so long as I could produce $12 (which was a lot of money for a third grader). By middle school, many of us received MP3 players and iPods, and likely never bought another physical CD again. This lead to a great shift in how people of all ages experienced music.

The act of going to the store and buying a CD slowly became unnecessary as digital libraries expanded and MP3 players became more and more widespread and accessible. Stores such as Barnes and Noble that used to boast expansive CD sections began to downsize and eventually remove these areas, dissociating music from other forms of entertainment: Music used to be grouped with movies, TV shows and books in retail settings, but has since become virtually absent from retail.

There are no longer huge signs in stores advertising the latest hit album or any albums at all for that matter. It’s just no longer in stores. As music loses its material status, it loses a certain meaning in people’s thoughts.

When music became widely available online, like anything, illegal downloading of music appeared. Entire albums could be downloaded for free with little to no difference in quality from a purchased version and then synced onto an iPod in just minutes. This is much different from a “fake” CD or record, which more than likely would have had to been purchased and would more frequently have errors or differences from the “real thing.”

When it comes to an MP3 download, however, there is no concern about the legitimate sleeve or case that comes with it or the appearance of the “album,” as the album is solely the music files. It is completely possible to own an album without knowing what the artwork looked like or to “know” an album under an incorrect name (trust me). With the proliferation of illegal torrents and sites such as Napster and Limewire, young people especially began to acquire most if not all of their music entirely for free. Saving up for an album, waiting in line to purchase it, and displaying it in your room or in your car seems impractical and silly when you can rip it off of YouTube or download it from a website straight onto your iPhone and listen to it as much (or as little) as you want.

With this comes a loss of connection with music—because it is not a material thing, and we value material things, it loses that meaning to us. This occurs especially when one’s entire library was acquired for free—it is not taking up space on our dresser or clogging up the passenger seats of our cars. Instead, it lives on our computers, as little file names and icons right alongside our tenth grade English papers.

There is no worry that your favorite album will get stepped on, scratched, stolen, or lost, because it is intangible and likely saved both on a harddrive and in some kind of cloud storage as well as on a device, so it becomes dispensable.

Also, because it is so intangible, we do not feel the same remorse when we download an entire discography illegally than we would if we ran out of Wal-Mart with 12 CDs stuffed in our pockets, mostly because we know we will not get caught but also because we have developed this idea that it should be free. If it is not something one can touch and hold, and may or may not even enjoy, why would someone waste money on it? The effect that this has on artists is a different debate altogether, but this ultimately has repercussions on people themselves as they grow more distant from something so personal.

With the loss of a physical form and monetary value, music can be easily thrown away. Tired of that old Hannah Montana album you bought on iTunes when you were 11? Delete it and never see, hear, or think about it again! Until, of course, it sneaks onto your new iPhone when you first sync up your iTunes account, put it on shuffle, and jump when you hear “The Best of Both Worlds” and fast forward furiously. Instead of keeping these vestiges of our old selves, we can dispose of them in an instant and replace them with whatever represents who we assume ourselves to be today.

There is no digging through your pile of CDs and discovering embarrassing old albums, putting them on and laughing. You may forget altogether that you listened to that album 100 times and lip-synched to it at many a slumber party. Music is something that we use to express ourselves, and when we toss it away and replace it constantly, it becomes less important. Because instead of purchasing an entire album and listening to it in its entirety, we download a few songs-maybe even just one—listen to it however many times we want, and forget about it or delete it, we do not develop relationships with albums or even the artists. Instead, we enjoy music on an a-la-carte basis and like a few songs from a bunch of artists and collect them all on our iPhones rather than having a stack of different albums that we have listened to entirely at least once. This does not necessarily signify a diversity in taste, rather a jack of all trades approach to music and a diminishing of the depth in which we experience different kinds of music.

Relating back to the discussion of artists and their opinions of streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and even YouTube (which has just released its own unique music streaming service), money is not the greatest thing at stake. In 30 years, we may only vaguely recall what we liked in high school and college because we streamed numerous Pandora stations while jogging and doing homework, oblivious to the names of songs and artists. Will the abundance and variety of music available to us widen our tastes or dilute our appreciation and connection? As the way we consume music continues to evolve, it will be crucial to take note of how this affects our relations with and regard of music and those who create it.

—Sophia Burns ’18 is currently undeclared.

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