The things we love are shaped by the containers in which they come.
I’m thinking about music — this week, at least — and how signing up for a Spotify subscription a year ago has transformed not only how I listen to popular music but what kinds of music and what sorts of artists I listen to, and, indeed, my entire understanding of how music functions in our lives. In the process, I’ve been forced to think about the many shapes in which our most-loved music have come to us over the decades, and how those changes have changed us.
Remember, music was for millennia more luxury than birthright. Before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph cylinder in 1877 — the first commercially available system for recording and playing back sound — song and instrumentation was the province of the wealthy and the church, or it was what you did when the day’s work was done.
The arrival in the 20th century of a middle class, a consumer society, the concept of leisure time, and the mass medium of radio democratized music and made it truly “popular” in all its infinite varieties. These developments also helped create the idea of ownership — that you could purchase music, listen to it repeatedly, and somehow make it yours. Another new idea: The music you owned reflected and served as an expression of you, of an inner soundtrack that helped you negotiate the outer world.
In practice, that meant my mother’s 78s of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and boogie-woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis defined who she was as a young woman, as much as her LPs of Dave Brubeck and Percy Faith defined her later years. It meant my older sisters and I, as children of the 1960s, were ruled by the 45 single — a format derived from radio play and diner jukeboxes that quickly became the close-and-play background to our cultural coming of age.
My first real consciousness of popular music, then, is yoked to the AM radio and my sisters’ 45s, the latter carried to sleepovers in plastic cases with embossed flowers. All the early Beatles hits, Top 40 earworms like “Red Rubber Ball” and “Build Me Up Buttercup,” grand ephemera with titles like “Spooky,” “Stormy,” “Windy,” and “Brandy.” The first 45 I bought with my own allowance was the Turtles’ “Happy Together,” and if you’re around my age, you doubtless remember your first, too. That ownership (and the fact that I had it and my sisters didn’t) was critical. The song was mine, or part of me. Whoever that was.
The first LP I bought, in 1966, was the Byrds’ “Fifth Dimension,” and you know that meant something different. Not just one song (although “Eight Miles High” was the hit single, the hook) but a collection of songs, united — as the Beatles and Bob Dylan were pointing the way toward — by a sensibility that it was the listener’s duty to absorb, adopt, maybe solve. (I’m listening to the album on Spotify right now and having an embarrassing Proustian moment.)
The long-playing album became a quintessential talisman of adolescence — the thing you could hold, touch, pore over, pass around to your friends. It was part of the mystery. It also promoted the idea of collectability, of owning everything a particular artist or group did, as did CDs when they arrived in the mid-’80s.
By then, though, the introduction of the cassette tape had already changed the game. Suddenly you could copy songs from different albums onto one playback format, which meant you could curate, which meant that the tape was not only an expression of the artists on it but an expression of you. (We will not speak of the cultural aberration known as — ka-CHUNK — the 8-track tape.)
The cassette and the CD also meant portability: You could play them in your car, your Walkman, and, soon enough, your Discman. The era of 24-7 music was upon us, and the notion that you could wall yourself off from the world in your inner soundscape whenever you walked to the grocery store. Or you could blast it to the world through a boombox. Music was no longer a luxury. It had become our plumage and our armor.
Then came the MP3 and the physical attributes of recorded music were instantly rendered obsolete. No more album art, no more album covers, nothing you could touch. No more albums, really, since the format emphasized the single over the collection of songs. It was as if we were back in the 45 rpm era, just without the spindles.
But you could still pile the bits and bytes to the theoretical ceiling. I have a 500 gig hard drive on my wheezy old Mac laptop. Half of it is taken up with digitized music files, much of which I no longer listen to now that I’m paying $14.99 for a monthly Spotify family membership.
For that price, the service promises you every recorded everything — not close, in fact, but close enough — available to be piped through whatever device you want. You can use the service to listen the way you always have, homing in on favorite songs, eras, genres, artists.
But what has changed the way I consume music (and this seems true of many fellow Spotify subscribers, including my wife and college-age kids) is the Discover Weekly playlist, a 30-song dump that arrives every Monday morning and consists of songs the service thinks I will like, based on headache-inducing algorithms derived from what I do listen to.
Then came the MP3 and the physical attributes of recorded music were instantly rendered obsolete.
Some weeks the Discover playlist is great. Other weeks it’s one long dud. The point is that it’s on target enough that I listen to it regularly now, throughout the week. And in the process I’m listening regularly to artists I’ve never heard of, in a way I never did before.
Look, everyone knows you fall off the back of the pop-culture express at a certain point in your life, at which point it zooms off down the highway without you. This usually happens when you have children, and the cozy library in your brain that stores your encyclopedic knowledge of music and movies and TV (as well as all the jokes) gets turned into a nursery.
Discover Weekly turns that room back into a library — or, rather, it obliterates the need for a library in the first place, since every era and every genre becomes a level playing field in which the only qualification is that you might possibly enjoy what you’re hearing.
This is similar to what Pandora radio does but on steroids, and it has immensely broadened my personal soundtrack. Suddenly I’m listening to musicians I had no idea existed: rootsy rockers like Blake Mills and Willy Mason and Jake Xerxes Fussell, blue-eyed British soulsters like Honne, singer-songwriters like Eric Bachmann and Laura Veirs, lost flame-outs like Judee Sill or Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia, lounge chillers like Desmond Cheese, head-nodding popsters like Richard in Your Mind, arbiters of moody minimalism like Bing & Ruth, back-porch pickers like Phil Cook, rappers like Noname. And on and on and on.
Some of these artists I dive further into, maybe search to see when they’re coming to town. Others I immediately forget. Some of them I share with friends and family. All of them deserve to earn a larger piece of the Spotify royalties pie than they do — subject for a later column. Most often I rearrange the jewels the service serves up into playlists that encapsulate an attitude more than a genre — a soundtrack of the month I just had and the emotions and memories that came with it.
This is no longer about curating one’s own inner soundscape. It’s about letting one form as you move forward.
It’s not artist-centered listening anymore, certainly, but at the same time it has introduced me to more musical artists than I had remembered existed. Sound recording technology has evolved to the point where we no longer have anything to touch — no cylinder or platter or shiny CD or even packaging. Now it’s only about what, and who, touches us.
What gets lost this way and what gets newly discovered? We’re on the way to finding out.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@tyburr.