Streaming Killed My First Love: a Eulogy for Music Downloads

My iPod was my most prized possession. It's finally time to admit the streaming wars have killed my first true love.

My brother got an iPod before I did and like any younger brother, I was insanely jealous. I used to sneak into his room at night, steal it, run back to my room and hide under the covers as the glowing orange buttons illuminated my room.

For the next 12 years, my iPod(s) would be my closest friend. My most prized possession. After all, it had my life on it. Music has always been much more than a time passer for me, it’s been a time tracker. Through songs, playlists, and albums I can quite literally record my life like postcards or photos. When I listen to a song I get taken back to a time, place or a feeling. Sometimes it’s great—I still think I have the greatest Lil Wayne playlist ever—and sometimes, like when your girlfriend dumps you, it’s a painful but good to remember in a bittersweet sort of way.

For a long time, I tried so hard to be like everyone else, to be what everyone else expected me to be, but I couldn’t do it when it came to music. Though I had seemingly endless storage space, I took careful consideration into what goes into my collection. If you wanted into my musical library, you had to earn it. Song after song would come to the pearly gates, but only a select few (22,578, to be exact) would see the gates open up. Through my newfound obsession with collecting music, my library became an extension of myself. My iPod was my shelter in a storm of uncertainty, external pressures and expectations. I didn’t do it for other people, I didn’t do it to show other people who I was, I did it for me. As a result, my iPod, my iTunes library, has been my personal time capsule. It’s what’s held all these special memories and feelings, keeping them fresher than a tightly sealed mason jar. It was often the only place I felt like I could really be myself. There are photos, stories, class projects, and Facebook posts that all keep a record of Lucas Garrison, but if you really want to know him, you have to scroll through the music.

But what do you do when you have to change the very thing that’s tracked your life? 

As the streaming wars escalated, I’ve tried to remain Sweden. Neutral. I’ve tried to be a passive observer, watching the battle from afar in the security of my iTunes bubble, safe from any collateral damage and still happily downloading, but now it seems like the fight has been brought to my doorstep. Like some sort of less racist, musically inclined Clint Eastwood character, I’ve been watching the streaming services move in and set up shop all around my decrepit, rotting house. I’ve been hesitant to sign what feels like my life away to JAY-Z, Eddy Cue or whoever the Spotify guy is because I'm worried I’ll lose that ability to track myself. I know downloading something off iTunes or Audiomack (or I'm not proud of it but let's be honest, Zippyshare) is not as romantic, not as historic as something like collecting vinyl, but for such a large and important part of my life, it’s been the only way I’ve connected with music. 

When I downloaded something and put it into iTunes, I felt a sense of ownership, possession. Sure it was just one digital copy of the sometimes literally millions out there, but once that blue bar reached one hundred percent, it was mine and nobody could take it from me. There was an excitement I would get from having a song added to a playlist, from bumping in the car or the walk to that 8 AM class. Technology has changed music so much, but that feeling of ownership, that feeling of something being yours, that collection has remained unchanged. Until now.

My biggest apprehension about joining a streaming service is losing just that, the ability to collect. When I can stream any song I want ever, anytime, when all the music ever-forever is at my disposal, I’ll have no need to be selective. I’ll have no need to dive into albums and songs that I would have otherwise forgotten about because, well, I’ll forget about them. They will become drops in an ocean. I won't feel like I did any work. I won't feel like I’m buying or endorsing but renting. I’ll lose my ability to co-sign something to myself. It feels borrowed, it feels handed to me. I can be force-fed music by JAY-Z and survive, but how will I dig for new gems until 3:30 AM? Will I wake up exhausted but excited because I have a new song to experience? Will I have to search for a break-up song (which is part of the catharsis) or will I have it handed to me in a clean, packaged playlist? If I lose my ability to collect, I feel like I’ll lose myself. Music has been my way of recording and remembering but I’m scared because it seems like the future has no care for the past.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Apple Music or the rapidly streaming future will eventually give me the same feeling. After all, Vinyl, cassette, and CD collectors were probably afraid of the same thing, downloading, that I'm not nostalgic for, but I can’t help but feel like we are in the midst of a culture change, a paradigm shift in how we understand and access music. The method I know is becoming antiquated by the second. With each and every user that signs up, I can see my iPod fading away and I have no choice but to let it go. With the arms race growing it won’t be long until the services start dropping bombs—Drake albums, Beyonce videos, even the reintroduction of albums past—and I’ll have no choice but to gear up. Bury my beloved mp3s once and for all. 

But before I unwillingly step into the future of music, I want to take one last second to look back at an era that will likely be forgotten. The iPod era might not be that special in the grand scheme of things, but I downloaded it. It was mine and I loved it.