Streaming music services – like Rdio, Spotify and Deezer – tend to bill themselves as the technology that will save the ailing music industry. Proof of that hasn't yet shown up in their balance sheets, but the services have already accomplished a different, possibly more significant, feat: they've levelled the music-listening playing field.
For the first time, legal music discovery is fully in the hands of the listener, democratizing a process that, for decades, largely fell to business interests. In doing so, it's become easier than ever to connect with others over the music you love.
Last Tuesday, I went a concert at the Horseshoe Tavern. This is not an out-of-place thing for me to do, but it is important for two reasons: it was a King Tuff concert, and with me were two friends named Sebastian and Adam.
The three of us met this year through mutual friends, and bonded very quickly over a common taste for noisy, fuzzy bands – Sonic Youth, Bass Drum of Death, the aforementioned King Tuff – as we commandeered stereos at parties. I probably wouldn't have been at that concert, and I probably wouldn't have so easily earned Sebastian and Adam's friendship, had I not discovered King Tuff on Rdio while prowling for new music a few years ago.
This newfound ease of music discovery is not, it appears, pleasing to everyone. In last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, writer Dan Brooks argued that, as streaming becomes the consumption of choice for more and more listeners, "we've made it a little more difficult to find new people." His essay, titled "Streaming Music Has Left Me Adrift," is a meandering argument that reasonably priced access to millions of songs ruins the discovery process, and, in turn, ruins the connections borne of that process.
Let's fall down the rabbit hole with this aging critic lamenting the technological usurping of his – and it is almost always a man's, rarely a woman's – identity. Mr. Brooks worries that he may never again feel the rush he felt upon seeing a Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks CD at a poetry professor's house, and fears the next time he meets a fan of The Slits that they may also be a fan of Ke$ha – and that, as a result, the connection he forms that person may have "lost meaning." He laments: "My record collection is no longer a lifestyle, a biography, a status."
Mr. Brooks seems to prefer that music only be discovered and consumed within the oligarchy of cool within which he, and others he anoints, should exist. This brand of music elitism, with self-perceived coolness as currency, has for too long kept many potential fans from being comfortable in certain music scenes.
This us-versus-them posturing gets the "them" wrong as it shoves away the majority of music fans in favour of the tastemaking elite. And so as uberfans like Mr. Brooks position themselves as underdogs versus major-label fat-cats, they get caught up in the very aura of exclusivity they claim to want to dismantle on a major-label level. Instead of nurturing new connections, then, Mr. Brooks prefers to squander the few he has.
For the rest of us, though, streaming technology is only making those connections easier. In past years, the investment required to keep up with new, exciting music was enormous. Unless you had a great college radio station or music scene in town, or felt like staying up all night to listen to CBC's Brave New Waves, exposure to new, especially independent music – and like-minded fans – was a difficult ordeal. File-sharing services opened the field up, but in less-than-legal ways. Today, hearing new music doesn't have to be doesn't have to be difficult or illegal.
Since Mr. Brooks's argument is mostly framed with personal anecdotes, I'm happy to build a response around my own experience: My own music universe has expanded exponentially since I started subscribing to streaming services. I'd never heard of King Tuff, for instance, before I clicked through a half-dozen similar bands and fell upon their self-titled album two years ago.
I can name a dozen, if not dozens, more bands that I've since discovered and come to love by being able to affordably, legally and instantly hear what they sound like. For example, the Bay Area's Warm Soda, Montreal's Solids, Long Island's Iron Chic and England's Joanna Gruesome. My taste has become more refined as I learn what I like, giving me more to share with others and make connections with new friends, like Sebastian and Adam.
Perhaps more importantly, streaming technology has removed the socioeconomic barriers music fans used to need to roll with the tastemakers. You no longer have to shell out $25 for a CD to be able to make conversation about Kraftwerk; you can now say with authority that you respect their influence on contemporary electronica but don't much care for Trans-Europe Express. Vitally, you don't have to pay Mumford & Sons any money to confirm their second album is just as overwrought with twee as their first. These are good things, not bad.
Services like Spotify, Rdio and Deezer have made sharing the joy we get from music easier than any other time in human history. Complaining about that amounts to nothing. If navel-gazing elitists want to rise up against something, it should be these services' inability to turn a profit, or their complicity in the decades-old music industry financial structure that prevents most revenue from ever reaching artists. If Mr. Brooks feels lost and alone in the stream, it's his own fault – he's probably been lost and alone all along.