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.
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.
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.