I Am a Product of the Streaming Age

At the beginning of February of this year, I decided that I would henceforth sample all of the new music being released each week for the remainder of the year via Spotify. As a musician and an avid fan of music as a narrative art medium, I thought it would be a fun experiment that would help me find new content to listen to, talk about, and recommend to others, and for a long time it was just that. Early on I discovered a wide range of new music spanning across an endless sea of genres and subgenres for my listening pleasure. For months, this exercise proved to be exceedingly fruitful, accomplishing exactly what I had hoped it would.

However, somewhere along the line my attitude towards the exercise began to shift. No longer did I wake up every Friday morning excited to see what the industry had to offer me. Over time I grew tired of the genres that just months earlier had been plentiful sources of artistic inspiration. All of the music I consumed began to take on a certain sameness. This phenomenon began on a micro level. Every new indie rock band seemed to have the same aesthetic and tone. Every thrash metal song seemed to have the same basic structure. In my mind, pop music was reduced to reiterations of the same lyrical themes and number of chords on different scales and in different sequences. All rap artists started to blend together until I was unable to differentiate one from another. It got to the point where it would take something especially unique to make me feel that sense of wonder and excitement that I constantly crave. There were a few albums that provided me with that experience (DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar, Volcanoes by Temples, 3 by tricot, etc.), but as time went on these beacons of inspiration began to grow few and far between. Eventually, even albums that I had been looking forward to became a chore to listen to. Next, on a macro level, I began to experience something that terrified me: all the music I was consuming began to sound the same.

 

Put another way: I stopped paying attention. I was no longer able to focus myself onto what I was listening to. Music began to take the form of white noise, just something to have running in the background to stave off the eerie sense of loneliness that can sometimes overtake those who spend a large portion of their time working alone in front of a computer. I had lost the passion for discovery and inspiration that had consumed me at the beginning of the year. I was no longer able to distinguish between the numerous songs, artists and genres I was listening to. It’s not that I ceased to experience musical inspiration during this period. In fact, during these last two months I’ve written more original songs than I had during the previous six months combined (album eventually?). Rather, I had become completely apathetic towards music consumption, specifically, and the cause of this phenomenon is just as depressing to me as its effect.

I am a product of the streaming age.

We live in an era in which a vast expanse of media and art is available at the touch of a button for free (and without ads for ten dollars a month), in which nearly every song, television series and film can be consumed on a select few platforms; an era in which there’s no longer a need for physical media at all.

I was born in the late nineties, so I have some memories of the tail end of the era of physical media. Some of my most prominent childhood memories are of watching cartoons and Disney movies on VCRs and my amazement when we bought our first DVD. Memories such as these are remnants from another era whose death I lived through as I grew up. When I finally got onto the internet and discovered I could stream music on Youtube, my life was forever changed. Later I would discover Spotify in my search for an alternative to Youtube since our internet wouldn’t load videos fast enough for me to listen to them comfortably (but Spotify worked fine for some reason—go figure). I got into watching television and later anime through my Netflix account, which inevitably led to my current hobby as a media analyst. I remember the age of physical media, but it was not the era that defined me. My love for music, animation, television and film were allowed to flourish and mature under the tender loving care of the increasingly popular streaming services that would soon revolutionize the way our society consumed media.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I recognize that I’m among the most privileged people alive, both in this era and all that came before. Additionally, I have little doubt that my love for storytelling and writing would have taken a completely different form had I been born a decade earlier, so I’m certainly not one to complain. I’m thankful that I’m able to consume the plentiful amount media that I do with the simple click of a mouse or tap of a screen. However, with this gratefulness and humility, based on my experiences this year I’ve come to believe there may be cause for concern.

Essentially, I think it comes down to a generational difference in how people consume media. Last week, I asked my dad to retell an old story about the Summer of 1975. He was sixteen years old and for two years had been eagerly awaiting the next Black Sabbath album. The British acid rock band had released five albums between 1970 and 1973 (Source), but suddenly there was an extended gap of silence, wherein the band’s current activities and plans for the future were completely unknown to him. Finally, the day came when word reached him that the new album was in the local record store. He recounted how he ecstatically rushed down to the shop, purchased the record Sabotage, then immediately went home and set the vinyl on the player in his room. As the needle dropped and the speaker began to crackle, the anticipation was palpable. This was the first fans had heard out of the band in two years. That gap of time fostered an apprehension that the new record would fail to live up to what the band had previously put out. He explained that during that era you had to invest in the bands and artists you enjoyed. You couldn’t listen to music en masse, you had to pick and choose who to spend your money on, and with that investment there was always the risk that they would fail to deliver. However, as the opening riff to Hole in the Sky began to play, he recalls the waves of excitement that rushed through him as it became evident that Black Sabbath was as good as they ever had been.

That’s how my parent’s generation consumed music. You had to carefully choose who and what you became a fan of, and there was a risk involved with each investment. Each new record signified a tremendous amount of worth going far beyond that of monetary value. My dad sometimes recalls how few entertainment mediums were available to him growing up apart from music. He would sometimes go to the cinema, but the selection was far more limited than it is today, and television consisted of only three stations, the best shows being The Brady Bunch and the like. Music was his primary source of entertainment, and what would later inspire him to become a professional bassist, and as such, its perceived worth transcended its price tag.

In contrast, when Black Sabbath’s 13 was released in 2013, all my generation had to do in order to listen to it was briefly look it up on any one of the numerous streaming services. I remember listening to about three minutes of End of the Beginning before moving onto something else with the confidence that I could return to it at any point in the future should I ever desire to hear more (not a bad song or album by any stretch, by the way, I just wasn’t feeling it at the time). Put simply, I perceived it as only being worth three minutes of my time, and given that I was listening on Spotify, it cost me virtually nothing to consume. If I had lived during the 70s and wanted to hear the new Sabbath album, I would have had to take a risk and purchase it (this risk may have been lessened if their songs were regularly played on the radio, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case for most of their discography throughout the decade). Depending on whether or not my desire to hear it warranted the purchase, I may have opted to spend my money on another band instead. These contrasting mentalities regarding media consumption created by the technology available to each generation is telling of just how much more music was valued by the cultures of previous decades.

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13 by Black Sabbath

I’m not saying that listening to music on vinyls makes for a better experience than streaming or that they illicit a more potent emotional response. Last year I streamed Relient K’s latest album Air For Free on Spotify the day it was released, an album that I had been anticipating for three years and was ecstatic to finally listen to and still rate very highly, but it’s not as if there was any risk involved in doing so. I probably streamed it over twenty-five times before finally buying the physical album (which, for the record, was only released a month after the digital and vinyl versions [Source], an interesting sign of how the streaming age is changing marketing methods, but that’s a whole other discussion for another time). Additionally, any sense of apprehension was nonexistent since they released several singles prior to the album’s full release, and having listened to them I was confident that at the very least it wouldn’t be a major disappointment.

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Air for Free by Relient K

There are clearly monumental differences in how my generation and my dad’s consumed music, and I can’t help but feel that there’s something mine has lost without ever having had the chance to fully experience. All we have left of the dominantly physical era of media are memories and shadows of memories, and those born shortly after the turn of the millennium don’t even have that much.

I don’t necessarily think there’s a correlation between the physicality of media and its perceived value. After all, its not as if physical media is dead. CDs, Blu-Rays and vinyls still sell well enough to continue to be produced, although how long that will continue to be the case is anyone’s guess. Rather, I think the answer lies in the lack of an alternative. Physical media once had an increased perceived worth because there was no other way to consume it. Now, however, our culture no longer has any need for physicality. It’s economics; in previous eras, because of the lack of adequate alternative entertainment mediums and the risk involved in making investments in bands and artists, music increased in value. In this new age, the inverse has become true.

And I am the product of this mass cultural movement.

Have I become so lost in the consumerist “on demand” mentality that pervades this technologically advanced culture that I’ve lost my passion for the things I love the most? Am I beyond hope? Are the children of the streaming age forever doomed to struggle with this overabundance of media until we are so desensitized to it that it becomes the background noise of our busy society and nothing more?

Okay, that was a little over dramatic, but this is the shit that keeps me up at night.

Originally I intended for this observational essay to have a more optimistic conclusion, but while conceptualizing it over the past several weeks I’ve been unable to answer the questions I’ve asked myself. I don’t want my thesis to be misunderstood, this is only intended to be a broad generalization of a cultural phenomenon that I’ve observed in my own life and culture. I know many people from my generation, both musicians and consumers, who value music as a narrative art medium on the same level that previous generations did, and I expect their unique ideas to push the medium into its next form, whatever that may be. However, on a broader scale, I can’t help but feel as if this generation has lost something crucial, and I’m not sure how to regain it. While I continue to struggle with this idea for myself, please tell me about your experiences with generational media consumption. I focused on music specifically for this post, but the same idea could easily apply to film, television and anime as well. Do you feel our culture sees narrative media as less valuable than previous generations due to its increasing quantity and accessibility, or are you more optimistic about the sociological and economical impacts of the streaming age? I’d love to hear your thoughts and hope the discussion will lead us to a better understanding of how to improve the way we experience and consume media for the next generation.

Scattered Thoughts on Multiple Narrative Perspectives in Scum’s Wish

One of the things that I find most interesting about Scum’s Wish is its structure of having multiple narrative perspectives. In the first couple episodes Hanabi immediately seemed to take on the role of the protagonist, the character whom we would vicariously live through as the story unfolded, experiencing her feelings and thoughts exclusively. However, the series didn’t waste very much time before taking a sharp turn in its narrative and character progression and perspective, proving this original assumption to not be the case. It begins to shift in episode two, which ends in Ecchan’s point of view, and from then on it slowly but steadily breaks free from convention altogether. Half of episode three is seen from Mugi’s point of view, followed by episode four being told from four different perspectives, and it only grows more sporadic from there. As the series goes on entire episodes are devoted to exploring the individual stories of what in any other series would be considered “side characters”, making any semblance of narrative consistency completely non existent.

It’s hardly unusual for a series to devote entire episodes to developing the personalities and backgrounds of their side characters. In fact, amongst critics who hold concepts such as character development in high esteem, it’s intrinsically required for a show to do so in order to be considered to be of high quality.However, narrative consistency is also a crucial factor for many of these same critics. Background characters should be developed, but also shouldn’t distract from the central narrative.

Scum’s Wish blatantly defies these critical standards. What we would think of as being the show’s “side characters” aren’t simply given a momentary place in the spotlight before being pushed aside to return to the established narrative perspective. Most series featuring large casts of characters among whom it would be difficult to distinguish a single protagonist generally take a much broader narrative approach, telling the story from the perspective of an outsider looking in rather directly from the character’s point of view. However, in Scum’s Wish, so long as they’re given focus, the story becomes about them exclusively. They become the protagonists of the series, blurring traditional character roles altogether.

While being one of the show’s most audacious ventures from a narrative standpoint, for many viewers it also became its downfall. When the story required the viewer to separate Hanabi from the role of the protagonist to allow the perspective to shift to the other characters, it understandably created some confusion and ambivalence amongst some viewers. According to the MAL statistics, this aspect of the show’s structure wasn’t overly detrimental to the majority of its viewership, but as the show entered its second half I started noticing people becoming more vocal about their criticisms of the series. The story begins and ends with Hanabi, which, for many of these viewers, made her inseparable from the role of the protagonist regardless of how the perspective would change throughout the series, and seeing the writers temporarily put her development and exploration on the sidelines to examine the worldviews and perspectives of completely different characters, for lack of a better term, feels wrong, and even without sharing this sentiment it’s not difficult to understand why some viewers would feel this way. It’s partially because it provides us with little time to get to know and care about each of the characters individually, but perhaps more fundamentally because it’s radically different from how we’re used to experiencing every day life.

As people, we are only able to see the world through a singular lens, that of our own. We’re incapable of fully understanding what the world looks like through the eyes of others, which is why the best stories focus on creating a protagonist that general audiences can easily relate to and root for, and perhaps most importantly, that they can vicariously live through. By removing the role of the protagonist, Scum’s Wish created a void in its narrative structure that is difficult to fill and justify with plot and characterization.

I might as well just get it out there; I wasn’t a big fan of Scum’s Wish, primarily because I don’t relate to or connect with any of the characters personally like some viewers are able to, and its multiple narrative perspectives certainly didn’t help in this regard. I understand that the characters aren’t necessarily supposed to be likable, but none of them were focused on long enough for me to become attached to their personalities and individual stories. It’s not that I can’t become invested in or enjoy a show with unlikable characters, it’s that it didn’t give me the time needed to become invested in them. With that in mind, I can actually agree with many of the criticisms I see of the show and understand from my own experience how it left some viewers unable to relate to it.

Despite its narrative perspective being the source of my disconnect with the series, I think this unique style of storytelling reflects and enhances the interpersonal nature of its conclusion. Thanks to the show’s multiple perspectives, throughout the series we explored how each character saw themselves as the protagonists of their stories. Each had their unique individual goals and wanted to experience a traditional “heroes journey” to achieve them. However, by the end of the show, none of the characters were able to accomplish their goals, or at the very least didn’t gain the result that they would have preferred. But their stories didn’t end just because they didn’t get the happy ending they wanted. In the final episode, each character prepares to move on with their lives with all of the emotional baggage that they picked up along the way, and in this moment I was finally able to make an emotional connection with them. They all seemed to say, “Yeah, we made some mistakes, and now we have to carry their weight, but that’s okay. We’ll live on”, and the show’s structure of having no protagonist allowed me to understand what this realization meant to each of the characters individually, making the conclusion to the story feel almost personal, something I can’t say for most of the show.

Maybe I’m being too romantic about all of this, given I was more than happy to put the series to rest when it finally concluded. However, paradoxically, the part of Scum’s Wish that has caused me to feel so indifferent towards it as a whole is the very same thing that intrigues me about it the most. Its multiple narrative perspectives exemplify a fascinating and audacious style of storytelling that I rarely encounter outside of the literary field, and despite some of my critiques of its application within this particular series, I’d really like to it see done again. If this storytelling method was able to keep me engaged in a series as personally unmoving as this one, then I’d be interested in seeing how I would respond to a show with a similar structure featuring characters that are a little bit easier for me to connect with and relate to.

Occultic;Nine: The Struggles of an Ambitious Creator

     With today’s anime industry cranking out more shows per season than ever before, many of which instantly forgettable due to lazy writing, sub par production and generic characters and stories, the fan community is quick to jump at any show that differentiates itself from the norm, praising these rule breakers for being inventive, creative, subversive and even deconstructive in their methods of storytelling. In late 2015, the show was One Punch Man. In Winter 2016, it was Konosuba and Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. More recently in Fall 2016, it was Flip Flappers. This season, it looks like it’s Kuzo No Honkai. However, while many fans consider shows like these to be fresh and inventive, there are an equal amount of people ready to jump on them from the opposing point of view, accusing them of being pretentious or pointless. Often, the most hotly debated shows within the community are the ones that are doing things differently, for better or worse.

     In the Fall 2016 anime season, no show was more divisive than Occultic;Nine. As a member of the Science Adventure series originally written by Chiyomaru Shikura, the creator of Steins;Gate, it attracted a lot of high expectations prior to its airing. However, after the first episode aired the general reaction seemed to be, more or less, confusion. Structurally speaking, Occultic;Nine is the opposite of Steins;Gate in almost every way. It’s extremely fast paced, its characters are all fairly stereotypical and don’t develop very much throughout the course of the show, and the dialogue is constantly exaggerated, almost to the point of being ridiculous. Most viewers walked away from the first episode with mixed feelings, some dropping it right away and moving on, criticizing it for being pretentious or simply bad.

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Yuri!!! On Ice: The Power of Delivering to Your Audience

Introduction:

Ask yourself: what do you you want to get out of your entertainment? If someone were to ask you to make a detailed outline of everything you want to see in any television show, movie, game, book, album, or other form of media, what would be on your list? Not what type of genres, settings, characters or stories you would prefer, but what themes, qualities and values would you look for? When you go into a movie theater, pick up a book, put a disc into a console or reach for the remote, what is it you hope to come away with?

One thing I’ve noticed from personal experience and from spending time with other fans is that sometimes recognizing everything we want in entertainment is difficult to do. We might prioritize things like good writing, representation, a unique concept or a story that wraps up all it’s threads, but all of those things can be present in a piece of entertainment and still leave us underwhelmed. In cases like this we often discover that we have more expectations for entertainment than we originally thought. While we receive everything we thought we wanted, we walk away disappointed because it wasn’t everything we internally craved.

There are some critics who have large, specific lists of things they look for in media, but generally, that’s not the case for most casual fans of entertainment and storytelling. Our mental list of things we want out of a story is constantly changing as we grow and develop as people and as society changes around us. If we knew what we wanted to see all of the time, we’d never get excited or surprised or disappointed by anything. We’d never have that inexpressible feeling that leaves us with nothing else to say except for, “I don’t know what I just witnessed, but I loved it.” We may not be able to point out everything that needs to be included in a story for us to feel satisfied, but when we receive something that speaks to and connects with us in a surprising and personal way, we realize that it’s exactly what we’ve wanted all along.

It turns out it’s just as difficult for creators to understand what their audience wants to see as it is for fans. While a lot of entertainment is about creating art for the sake of art and telling our stories through media, it’s also an industry in which creators hope to appeal to general audiences to make a profit, which is a lot harder than it might seem. We see tropes and trends in entertainment that people are generally dissatisfied with and bored of, but we don’t see them disappearing. At least not quickly, because its just as difficult for creators to recognize the growing trends and wishes of their audience as it is for the audience to recognize their ever changing expectations.

Hayao Miyazaki, the critically acclaimed anime director and founder of Studio Ghilbi, recently made some bold complaints about Japan’s current anime industry. “Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves. Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people…it’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans.” (Source) While Miyazaki takes a very cynical approach, I think he may be onto something concerning how many creators, not just in anime, but in all entertainment mediums, don’t seem to know how to connect with their audience.

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