It wasn’t long ago that buying a purely digital piece of music — downloading a file rather than paying for a piece of holdable plastic — seemed terribly modern. But already I feel like an old fool when I visit Amazon or 7Digital to pay for an MP3. These days, a several-megabyte file on my computer is starting to feel as much of a burden, as much of a physical thing to cart around for the rest of my life, as a CD or a cassette or a record.
Now that I can stream, at no or little cost, most of the music I’d want from services like Spotify, why am I paying for “physical” files? What is it that I’m buying?
What is it, in fact, that I’ve already bought? I have 19,471 tracks in iTunes, something the 14 year-old me, having spent Christmas record tokens on his first two vinyl albums (No Jacket Required and Brothers in Arms, since I like to imagine you asking), would barely be able to imagine. But 19,471 tracks is nothing compared to the several million available on Spotify.
Looking at the costs objectively there’s no comparison. If each track I own is, for the sake of argument, worth 50p my music collection would cost nearly £10,000. That’s 83 years of Spotify premium membership.
If we look at Spotify as a subset of all available music, and my iTunes library as a much, much smaller subset of that, then I’ve spent thousands of pounds on nothing but a playlist.
OK, there are differences, that help make my library worth spending on.
- There are many things in my library that aren’t available on Spotify and never will be.
- There is still something important, to me, about owning the music, that particular selection of music. Barring disaster, it will be with me for the rest of my life.
- My library has history, layers, a gradual accumulation over my life. It’s not just a playlist but a timeline that in itself is important.
And there are two things here, two things about the amount of music available.
First, it’s a shame if people stop buying and downloading music and rely solely on Spotify-like streaming services. They may be choosing from a vast selection but it’s still only a commercially-available subset of all music, chosen by a company.
But, second, having said that, what I like about my music library is that it’s small. Relatively. I know my way around it. I feel daunted by having to choose between six million tracks on Spotify. Where to start? Option paralysis. My music library is a reflection of me, a reflection of my life since I bought my first CD. As I’ve grown up, the city has also grown, from hamlet to metropolis. It will keep growing, but it still carries my history within.
Which makes me think about sharing large playlists on services like Spotify. Forget lists the size of a mixtape or a radio show, TV soundtracks or festivals. I want to explore John Peel’s entire record collection, or Greil Marcus’s. Or browse every track ever broadcast by Radio 1. I think. These are big, bigger than a conventional playlist, but they’re a manageable, coherent space within all music in which to explore. I wouldn’t pay £10,000 for someone else’s record library though.