Nearly 15 years ago, the late, great David Bowie was asked by the New York Times how he thought the role of the musician would change in the near future.
“Music is going to become like running water or electricity,” he replied, with a shrug.
And while your taps and plug sockets might not be full of jazz and funk just yet, The Thin White Duke was certainly right – music has become an abundant, free-flowing commodity in our modern lives. Whether you use YouTube, Soundcloud, Spotify, Deezer or (don’t laugh) Tidal, the chances are you have access to a universe of music at your fingertips whenever you so desire.
You’ve woken up this morning with a hankering for some Romanian proto-djent played on spoons? Sure, here’s three albums of it and six playlists recommending similar music performed using other bits of cutlery, should it turn out that you prefer knives and forks.
On the one hand this is obviously a great thing - music is great and more music can only be better, right? Access to the widest possible spectrum of art expands our horizons and lets us explore the edges of our taste in a way previously unthinkable. Certainly a world away from the high-cash-for-limited-access days of CD and vinyl shopping that Mr Bowie knew.
But is more always more? Is access to everything eroding the emotional connection we once felt to a few things?
Forget about the financial implications of the demise of physical media on artists (although they are hugely significant). What about the impact on us, the consumers?
The opportunity cost, in real terms, of investigating a new band is so low that the incentive to be truly invested in what you are consuming is reduced to the point of insignificance.
If you have had to save up for three weeks to buy a CD then you will listen to that record – whether you really love it or not – until you can recite every note on that shiny disc from memory. When, truthfully, was the last time you listened to an entire album all the way through on Spotify and then decided to repeat it again. And again. And again.
This might seem like a relatively minor point, but the means through which we digest art are intrinsically linked to what we end up thinking about the art itself. The sense of kinship for, and ownership of, a musician that you have to work hard to seek out is, for the most part at least, greater. You ordered the vinyl from the record shop, you went to the show and picked up the support band’s first album at the merch stand, you earned it, in the same way that the musicians earned the right to be in your ears with their hours of practice and hard work.
The respect is more mutual, the connection both physical and more profound.
Having vast swathes of music placed tantalizingly in front of us - and there is so much these days - not only reduces the perceived value of what we’re listening to (when was the last time you were amazed at the water spewing from your tap?) but also abbreviates our reactions to music to the most basic responses.
With Your New Favourite Band only one motion of your index finger away, the inclination to rate music in the most black and white terms is often overwhelming. Singles are seemingly now always either ‘Brilliant!’ or ‘Terrible!’ with precious little room given to the middle ground between. Music is a vessel for emotion, and emotions are, as anyone who has ever felt one will know, often confusing and <always> painted in varying shades of grey. Kneejerk responses do not make you a careful or considered listener and having the strongest opinion first doesn’t win you any prizes.
Not everything you hear will be great, not everything you hear will be terrible, the vast majority of it will fall somewhere in the middle ground between those two furious bookends. Oh, and it’s okay to listen to an album for six months before deciding you enjoy it. Or not.
But perhaps the most damaging facet of million-songs-in-your-pocket culture, for the rock scene at least, is the divisive, fragmenting impact it has had on our community.
Sure, the joy of talking to the person behind the counter at the record store for hot recommendations is now a distant memory for most, but the extent to which genre sub-divisions are prepared to go to war with each other is an every day reality which almost beggars belief. ‘What do you mean you don’t know about <insert metalcore band I only heard for the first time five minutes ago here>? You are such an idiot.’
So what can be done about the streaming model’s propensity to devalue music in the eyes of the consumer? Well, the answer, as Bowie rightly pointed out in that same New York Times interview, is absolutely nothing.
The floodgates are open, and no amount of trying to stick Pandora back in the box will change that.
The responsibility lies with us, the fans. The revival of vinyl sales suggests that people do still remember the thrill of physical media, albeit with a hefty dose of online streaming on the side.
So how about a challenge? This week, why not try limiting your music consumption to three albums? In Rock Sound this month we are revisiting Saosin’s debut self-titled album, why not make that one of them? We’ll let you pick the other two ‘cos we’re nice like that.
Get under their skin. Listen to them front to back and then back to front. Learn the words. Pore over the artwork and research the music and the people who made it as much as you can. At the end of the week you can go back to your normal listening habits, but we bet you won’t see those select few albums you wore down to the bone the same way ever again.