How Streaming Ruined the Ceremony of the New Music Experience

The downside of digital abundance is a lack of novelty.
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In an effort to standardize the release of new music across the globe, several years ago, Friday became the day for new music releases in the United States.

As a hip-hop writer and general music nerd, I understand that Friday might be different for me than the average nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday clock-puncher. But while you might think I’d be overjoyed every Thursday evening at 11 PM EST, as the prospect of a whole new set of albums and singles are made available to explore, the novelty has quickly worn off.

When I was younger, new music was a physical adventure. My friends and I would hit the nearest mall and make a bee-line for FYE, the closest thing to a record store we knew about in the suburbs of Kansas City. My best friend Tyler and I would act as tastemakers for our mutual friend Robert, who always had money but wasn’t well-versed in the latest trends in music. Tyler and I would regurgitate word-of-mouth reviews and single out dope album covers, convincing Robert to purchase additions to our ever-growing booklet of CDs that soundtracked our adolescence and lived in Tyler’s shitty Honda Accord.

Buying music back then really meant something. Not just because CDs were upwards of $15 a pop, but because it involved actually traveling to a brick and mortar building and selecting music we knew little to nothing about, strictly off the strength of a friend’s opinion or captivating artwork, only to hop back into the car, roll a blunt and collectively judge our purchases.

It was a ceremony, a three-man listening session fueled by headache-inducing Mexican brick weed and gas station fountain drinks. It was through this ceremony that I discovered undisputed gems from UGK, Proof, Immortal Technique and countless others. Those trips to the mall were integral to my music tastes today. 

In 2017, that ceremony has been replaced by an almost mechanical, routine addition of music to my digital catalog. Every Friday, I open my TIDAL app—yes, I’m a proud TIDAL subscriber—and sift through the five or six new additions to the hip-hop category, making my selections available offline for later listening.

No longer are my selections based on finite financial resources or the suggestions of my fellow music nerds. I simply check off the latest releases, and my transaction is finished until I check my bank statement and see that $9.99 deduction for my monthly subscription. From a financial standpoint, the digital music revolution has afforded me access to more music than I would ever be able to purchase individually. Yet, I find myself longing for the days of $15 CDs and stuffy FYE storefronts.

Admittedly, writing about hip-hop for a living has also fundamentally changed my relationship to music. What used to be a carefree exploration of hip-hop’s latest offerings has become a constant tug-of-war between appreciation and criticism; between simply listening to the music and deciphering it in a search for readable angles. But beyond my new monetary-based relationship to hip-hop, the shift that has most affected my appreciation of new music is still that missing piece of a physical relationship to the end product of artists’ creative births.

I know for many, streaming has revolutionized the listening experience for the better. Artists who may have toiled in obscurity ad infinitum are being given a spotlight and a chance to exist in the ears of thousands who may come across their music through a curated playlist or a chance sighting in an Apple Music feature box.

I’m certainly not dispelling the power, impact, and relevancy of streaming in general, and I’m still more than capable of discovering new music strictly off the strength of an incredible album cover or per the suggestions of my fellow DJBooth scribes, but I constantly find myself wondering how much more I might be able to appreciate the actual music had I physically gone out and plucked it from a sea of cellophane-wrapped mysteries.

How much additional replay value could these projects have if I had shelled out $15 for each of them? Would my enjoyment be any purer if I had to actually go out into the world in pursuit of a record rather than having it delivered from the ether to my phone without consent or effort?

I have no definite answer to these questions, and I’ve yet to concoct a solution to bring back the novelty I once reveled in when it came to discovering new music. All I know is that I dearly miss that ceremony of the hunt for the album that would become the soundtrack for the next month, and I have a lasting and specific appreciation for the albums we ultimately chose.

The times they are a-changin’, and I can only hope that as a listening populace—as a culture—we can find a way to reinstate some of that wonder and mystery. Our appreciation of the music might depend on it.

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