Full disclosure: I quite recently became old. I’m 41. At this point it’s practically impossible to be hip in any realistic sense – to the extent that I just used the word, “hip,” as though it’s current. But I do try hard to resist the sense of smug self-satisfaction that has set in rather alarmingly among many of my peers. I mean the way that, at a certain point in life, people begin to believe that anything new makes life worse, and that the shitty things we had to put up with when we were young and full of hope were the reason for being young and full of hope.
And yes, I do have a vinyl collection. There were some good things about big-ass discs – number one being the large surface area for cover art and album notes that you could pore over as you listened. Every medium besides cassette tapes had its pros and cons (cassettes were just rubbish. The only thing of value that they created was the mix-tape).
But in 2017, this old asshole was finally convinced by younger friends to get on board the streaming rocket. It was an immediate revelation. For a start, Neil Young can just fuck off. I’m very sorry to that dear old crusty rocker, but I doubt that one in a million listeners could tell the difference between the high quality streaming mp3 format and a master tape played in the studio control room in a blind test.
Because I am an old bastard, my listening set up in commensurately old-fashioned. I have a 1980s NAD stereo amplifier running into a pair of early ’70s Goodman speakers with 12″ main drivers. I just couldn’t get the room filling sound experience from the supposedly magical modern book-case speakers. So I just went looking for the same loudspeakers my old man has and am very happy with them (the whole rig cost me less than R3,000 – about $215). I got a little Phillips bluetooth box that let’s me suck sound out of a library of thirty million songs or something and send it into an amplifier that was built while Thatcher was in Downing street, and blows it out of speakers that were built when Led Zeppelin were in their prime.
Do I have a point? After I turned 40 I mysteriously began to ramble tediously. But yes. My point is that I’m not listening on some tiny phone or laptop speakers. I’ve got a pretty ass kicking system, and the sound, streamed over wifi and sent to the system by bluetooth sounds fucking amazing. Don’t believe for a second that you have to sacrifice sound quality for the convenience of streaming.
But so much for how streaming measures up to other formats. How is it different? The most essential difference is the freedom to explore. Unlike the TV streaming services that are shit because they each have their exclusives – meaning you’d have to subscribe to all of them to be able to catch all the shows you want to see – the music streaming services pretty much all have everything. If you’re not fighting off the curtaining off of your perception that comes with age, this means that your entire collection is already available – in multiple formats. No more being relentlessly conned into re-buying your entire Pink Floyd collection every few years. Each new ultra-deluxe, now-with-a-recording-of-David-Gilmour-discussing-his-royalty-cheque-with-his-manager-included, is available almost as soon as it’s released.
Even for those people, looking for nothing new on Earth, there are things to explore. I’ve found myself listening to a great many live records from artists I know well. Before streaming, it’d be a bit of a risk spending you hard-earned monies on a live record. You could read reviews of course. But music journalists, being among the most bewilderingly fanciful species of observers in the world, don’t offer a very firm foundation. Even for those disgusting fiends willing to deprive be-suited record company executives of the fruit of their immense labours by pirating the record, you still had to take the time and sacrifice the hard-drive space. But now the only exertion I need make is one of curiosity. There are misses, of course, but also some astonishingly good live performances of which I was previously completely unaware.
And then there’s new music. And by new music, I include old music that I’d never encountered before. I threw myself into an exploration psychedelic folk music, new and old. Some of these records, like Mark Fry’s 1972 record, were produced in such tiny numbers that they were largely forgotten even by their creators until record collectors began to pay extraordinary sums to be able to hear them. Now that record is as easy to hear as the fucking Dark Side Of The Moon. Artists so obscure that no one you’d speak to in given week would ever have heard of them are available at the end of a search to listen to in their full glory – such as the romantically named, B’eirth, the eccentric singer-songwriter and instrument-maker behind In Gowan Ring and Birch Book. No commitment is required. You’ve already paid your modest dues, so you can explore their work without decision fatigue.
Arabic folk-dances? Ethiopian jazz? It’s all there whenever you have a notion to hear it. And it’s there at a quality that only studio engineers got to hear before digital music became available. And that reflects on another of my generation’s favourite whinging points…
Pop music is now irrelevant. If you’re in the streaming world there is no reason whatsoever to have any idea who Justin Beiber is or whether his music measures up to your standards. He simply has zero impact on what’s going on in our musical worlds. I don’t need to rail against what he or any of these other commercial hacks are up to because I’m not 12 years old and what they do is totally irrelevant. When you still needed radio and TV to help you discover new music, you were at the mercy of the human garbage in charge of record companies in terms of what you were exposed to. Now you expose yourself to music. It’s all up to you. And I can absolutely guarantee everybody over 38: there is literally more great music being made every year than has ever been made before.
When I hear my peers beat their little fists and wail about how soulless and untalented today’s music makers are compared to a carefully selected list of the greatest musicians of their youth, I snort – yes snort – haughtily – in contempt. If you think that today’s music is some heavily promoted pop musician, you’re doing today wrong. On the streaming services, that little group that delights audiences in their home-town of Zagreb, Croatia is exactly as accessible as whatever munchkin Buzzfeed has been paid to heap hyperbole upon. That young saxophone player who’s been honing his chops in the jazz clubs of London and spinning in a creative vortex is just as easy to find as whatever corporate ear-sugar your twelve year old is listening to through his phone speakers.
Streaming is just marvellous. Pretty much all the music ever seriously recorded by humans at your finger tips. And the more obscure they are, the more likely you’re contributing to the artist’s living and ability to make more. There’s a bit of a secret to the big artists complaining about streaming revenues. It’s that their traditional record companies are taking the lion’s share of it. Independent artists are not doing too badly at all. With this in mind, I actually find myself tending to avoid putting really big artists on my playlists – knowing that each play for a small, independent artist is a meaningful contribution. That’s just me, obviously, but it’s still an interesting effect of the medium.
Most services – besides Apple Music (being an organisation that abhors democratically selected options) – allow people to create public playlists that can be followed as they are updated. What this means, gentle reader, is that you can discover someone whose taste you admire, and let them do the hard work of discovering new music. Apple Music does have professionally curated playlists – but at that point you may as well be listening to radio DJs spin the discs by whoever dropped the largest bag of cocaine in their laps. Services like Spotify and Deezer in particular allegedly prioritise the use of community playlists. Yes, many will be by people who listen to rubbish. But once you discover someone with whom you’re sympatico, you have your own selected DJ. If you’re on Google Play Music, you can subscribe to my surf guitar music taster if that floats your war canoe.
To my fellow salt-and-pepper haired Gen Xers, I say: do it. Do it now. Don’t look back.