I grew up with 45s and LPs, not having my first cassette tape until I was in the seventh grade (which was either Van Halen’s 5150 or Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry). I didn’t have anything close to an “MP3” — that would have been a dream come true. You could argue that the audio quality from a record is vastly superior to that of the average compressed audio file, but I don’t think that anybody would suggest that grooved discs are portable or capable of surviving an hour in the back seat of your car during summer. Every single delivery format has its benefits and drawbacks.
When I first heard of Napster, I didn’t quite get it. Here sat a veritable treasure trove of downloadable music — but it didn’t really cost anything to get. When I was in college, I had to scrimp and save and sell old cassette tapes to buy new CDs. I knew the value of an album, as dictated by storefronts, artists, and the industry. What once cost me $15 to attain simply couldn’t be free today. The value of a classic set of songs from the ’70s hadn’t shifted, right?
I’ve certainly spent a fair amount of money on music formats over the years.
I’d soon catch wind of nightmare-inducing digital music organizational issues: mistagged files, inconsistent bit rates, haphazard directory hierarchies. Whether attained from external sources or ripped locally, keeping those files in order just didn’t seem like a very productive use of time. Gaining access to them at any given moment wasn’t exactly easy to do back then, either. It’s difficult to imagine a day when we didn’t have near-ubiquitous wireless Internet access, isn’t it? Even if you had your digital music on a single player, you were still largely limited by capacity.
When the iTunes music store first launched, I didn’t think much about the idea. The convenience was there if you were starting from scratch and wanting to live in Apple’s world — but I wasn’t, and I didn’t. Why would I care to be tied to a certain set of computers and devices? It was still easier for me to walk across the room and pick up a physical item to spin. That wasn’t convenient, either. Nirvana, to me, would be a music subscription service that would allow me to listen to whatever music I wanted to listen to whenever I wanted to listen to it — pre-organized, accessible, and legal. Nevermind?
I was truly elated when Microsoft (in conjunction with MTV) announced Urge through the freshly-launched Windows Media Player store. Despite DRM integration, at least I didn’t have to jump over hurdles to get it to work with my various PCs or portable media player of choice (not an iPod). I could listen to pretty much every album I wanted to hear — point, click, play. Yeah, I was quite content to pay a reasonable monthly subscription fee for this service. It was like buying one new album every month and getting access to hundreds. I’m a huge music subscription service fan.
Urge melted into Rhapsody after Microsoft dropped the ball with its strategy (in the Zune timeframe), and my account migrated. I continued to pay the company — on top of paying a satellite radio provider for easy, quality, serendipitous content access away from home. Pandora slipped onto the scene, and… worked well enough on the desktop. I didn’t pay for a Pandora One account until it seemed I needed to do so in order to get the service to work with a dedicated Internet radio device.
When I started leasing my current vehicle, Bluetooth audio was finally a possibility — and, in conjunction with my iPhone, associated apps, and wireless 3G connection to the Internet, I was finally able to listen to darn near anything I wanted to listen to (darned near anywhere). It was good enough. So, why was I paying for satellite radio service if I already had something similar enough in my pocket? Earlier this year, I dumped XM — and it’s been begging me to come back ever since.
Then, I realized I didn’t need to pay for a Pandora account to gain access to its music library. Sure, I’d have to sit through a spoken ad or two, but that didn’t seem like too much of a trade-off. Lower audio quality? I don’t think my ears could ever hear the difference.
Then, Spotify launched. I had a three-month trial. Why was I paying Rhapsody, again? Exactly. It was a frictionless switch for me — given that I didn’t generate any reasonable number of playlists with my Rhapsody account. When my premium Spotify trial lapsed, I fell back onto the free service — which works much like Pandora does. From the desktop, I can listen to almost any album I care about (so long as I’m willing to put up with an advertisement or two). Hey, if that’s the company’s business model, and the music companies are playing in tune… who am I to argue?
I still have a few MP3s somewhere on an NAS system at home, but I rarely ever look. I use either Spotify or Pandora from the desktop for free, or Pandora for free on the go. I’m not paying anything to listen to my favorite music tracks or genres anymore. I don’t need to, and I don’t feel guilty about it because parts of the industry are playing along. Is the experience a perfect one? No, but it never was for me. Do I still buy albums? Rarely. Will I go back to paying for access? Possibly.
You might wonder why I didn’t bother to bring up YouTube in all of this? Well, because it wasn’t always on the up-and-up. I like playing by the rules. It’s not just about doing what’s convenient — it’s about doing what’s right. You pay someone for their work if they’re asking to be paid in some capacity. I’m giving up my time in exchange for ad impressions, much like you’re giving up your attention to read this article that’s being supported by advertisers on our site.
I’m not paying for access to music that I’d like to hear today. It’s legal, it’s expedient, and it’s everywhere.