Sunday 11 October 2015

Has Streaming Changed The Way We Listen To Albums?

Over this weekend, conversation, as it often does with us, turned to music, and the fact we’re getting towards the end of the year, which means the inevitable best of / favourite lists that those of us who like to obsess over such things will be compiling and comparing.

“What are your favourite albums of 2015 so far?” we asked.

“Probably the Sleater-Kinney and Julia Holter records,” our friend stated, before adding “mind you I’ve only heard each one twice, so I might change my mind.”

It was the moment we jolted and knocked our cup of coffee over in shock.

“Twice? TWICE? How can you even make a judgement that they come anywhere near being your favourite if you’ve only heard them twice?”

“Well, put it this way, what are your favourite films of 2015?”

“Erm, possibly Selma, or The Theory of Everything, wait…was that even 2015. We quite enjoyed Unfriended as well - not that that's going to be on any end of year lists. ”

“And how many times have you seen them?”

“Just once, at the cinema.”

“Exactly, you’ve only seen them once but you know they are your favourites, so the same applies to albums.”

It’s a strong argument, but it left a nagging feeling with us. Why do we feel so cross that someone can define an album as being one of their favourites having spent so little time with it and yet it’s fine for us to do exactly the same with a film? It’s something we’re struggling with. It might be something to do with a film having a narrative that once known has a lesser impact on subsequent views, whereas generally albums don’t, although interestingly small children love to read the same book over and over even though they know what’s going to happen. Also, it would be very expensive to see the same newly released film many times at the cinema, because unlike albums we have to pay per play.

In the pre-streaming age and assuming you weren’t illegally downloading, it wasn’t possible to listen to every album ever released. In any one year we might buy and listen to maybe 30 albums (far more than most of the people we knew) and hear a few more from friends. But with each purchase, we’d play it many times, even the duff ones. Why? Because we’d invested money in these things, so we were bloody well going to try and find something we liked – even if it was the fact that the NWA record had a LOT of swearing in it and therefore offended our parents.

But now there’s streaming. Spotify has changed everything. Every album, anyplace, anytime; and if it’s no good we can just move on. This sounds amazing! This is awesome! Our listening can diversify like we never imagined! In fact screw albums, now we can just listen to playlists created by curators with supposedly great taste and skip the crap completely. Maybe 2015 will be the year when nobody publishes a favourite albums list and everyone just publishes their top 10 playlists? 

Except we still find this all a little bit sad. Because with listeners jumping from one thing to the next, not spending time with anything, there’s no deeper emotional investment. Everything has turned into a series of musical one night stands and emotionless sonic fucks, with everyone comparing notes at the end of the year about which was the best. 

So what about us?

We’ve analysed our own listening habits:

When we’ve published our own end of year album list on the blog in the past we’ve tried to quantify what we think a ‘favourite’ is. That is, rather than just a qualitative decision made at one snapshot in time, we’ve defined it as being the records we’ve listened to the most in that year. To ensure accuracy we’ve kept a tally of how many times we’ve played albums released in that particular year. 

Now we fully understand the arguments that if you call a record your favourite you don’t have to have played it the most – sometimes you reserve things for special moments.  One of our favourite drinks is a great glass of red wine, but we drink far more water than wine. Although that’s a silly analogy really, because if red wine didn’t give us a hangover we might well drink more of it. 

However, our point is that if just like any relationship, if you like something a lot, you’ll probably want to spend a lot of time with it. 

And as we’ve geekily noted down and added up virtually every single album we listen to (including part plays), and since we now listen to more music through streaming than any other form, we’ve come to the following conclusions:

1. We still spend about the same amount of time listening to music that we always have done. We also still listen to mainly albums. Playlists are something we dive into a little, but we still prefer radio for that additional human element when mixing different artists together, in particular to give context and information. We find playlist a little dry.

2. Although we spend about the same amount of time, we listen to a greater variety of music than ever before. The internet can enable you to bury down amongst your own narrow tunnnels or it can enable you to expand and experience the widest of scopes, We've chosen the second route.

3.. By virtue of 1 and 2 above this means we are listening to many records far fewer times than we used to. In fact there are a multitude of albums this year that we’ve only played once. If they didn’t grab us first time we moved on. There’s always something else demanding to be heard and Spotify allows us to do that. It’s a bit like Tinder with music. First impressions count more than ever.

You’d think that increasing our diversity of listening has made life even better, but here's the killer - it doesn’t. It makes us feel like a musical slag, constantly with our knickers down, allowing anybody and anyone to penetrate us. There's less love. Less depth. Less connection. This is a pretty sorry state of affairs. 

After all the first time we heard Radiohead’s brilliant OK Computer (pre-streaming) we just thought it was OK-ish. But not as good as The Bends. Or even Pablo Honey. But because we’d purchased it and that was all we could afford to buy for a while, we stuck with it, immersed ourselves in it and slowly realised its staggering power. If we’d heard it for the first time now, we’d have probably moved on and never returned.

Having said that, we’re still listening to a lot of records a lot of times. It’s why we think they’re our favourites. You want stats? OK here’s some examples. The Staves released their record If I Was in January. We’ve listened to that 42 times this year so far. Public Service Broadcasting’s Race For Space 38.33 times. Lana Del Rey’s Honeymoon (released just a few weeks ago) 15 times. So whilst Spotify has enabled us to listen to more and more, we’re still valuing that complete listening experience – those records that given the time you can find more and more in. But inevitably, with this new way of listening some that don’t grab us instantly will be lost, and that’s a big shame.

Which reminds us, we only listened to that Sleater-Kinney album a couple of times. Maybe it's time to give that another go?

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