Remember when we used to run album reviews in The Reader? Whatever happened to those?
It’s like this: The way I listen to music — specifically new music — has changed, in part due to my age, but more so because of how technology has changed the media. Case in point: As a teenager, I grew up listening to vinyl records, not out of nostalgia or because I was a “collector,” but out of necessity. For music lovers, that’s all there was.
Albums were almost always considered as a whole or a half, to be consumed in one sitting, preferably with headphones to not disturb your brothers or parents when listening at high volumes. Albums were journeys with a beginning, middle and end, or more accurately, a Side One and Side Two (and in some cases, Side Three and Side Four).
As a result, when I think about albums I grew up with — such as Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” or Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” or “Aja” or Elvis Costello’s debut or Peter Gabriel’s “So” or “The Velvet Underground and Nico” or Talking Heads’ “Fear of Music” or Joni’s “Blue” —- I consider them only as a whole, with each song anticipating the next.
The erosion in listening habits began with the emergence of CDs in the mid-’80s, when I was in college and for the first time in my life, busy. Something changed, and if I didn’t get to track 12 or 13, that was OK. As a result, I don’t know if I can name by memory every track on any CD I own. That certainly wasn’t the case with my vinyl albums.
So here we are in the digital age with Spotify and playlists and other kinds of randomizers forever changing how we consume music. And while some may point to the rise of vinyl sales (and even CDs), only about 10 percent of music purchased last year was in those formats. Everything else was streamed. Which brings me to my point.
I now find that I consume albums the same way I consume films or live performances — as a whole, in one sitting, like watching a movie. And just like a movie, after I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it. Oh, I might go back and listen one more time. I make note of the songs that stood out and add them to a playlist of the year’s favorites. But by and large, the album as a whole is set aside, with a smile or a grimace.
I rarely purchase vinyl albums. When I do, I buy only those I know I’ll listen to again and again. I’m not a collector. I don’t have that kind of room in my house. And maybe most importantly, I don’t have that kind of time.
But I still listen to a lot of new music, in fact, more than at any time in my life because every song in the world is now at my fingertips. I know listening to music on Spotify provides virtually no income to the indie bands I love, but I have to believe they’d rather me listen than not listen. Right?
Album reviews were critical in the old days when the only way to listen to a full album was to pay for it (and hope for the best, because like it or not, you were stuck with the purchase). Today, instead of saving your money, album reviews only save you from wasting your time.
Maybe it’s time for artists to charge for that full-album experience instead of just giving it away on YouTube, Bandcamp and Spotify. Maybe it’s time we start paying for music the way we pay for movies. If you want access to an entire album from an artist — say, for a 24-hour period — you have to rent it like you’d rent a new movie. Or buy the download. Or buy the physical media.
Because the streaming model doesn’t work for independent artists and never will. We’ve all seen the numbers — artists get a fraction of a penny per play on streaming services. A million plays are worth maybe a thousand bucks, certainly not enough to cover the cost of the recording.
This model would work only if we could persuade the post-internet generation of consumers to value music the same way those of us who grew up paying for it do. And that might be a bridge too far.
Unless we figure out a way to value music and compensate artists for their art — for their efforts, for their vision — they’re going to go away. Because, for good or ill, we’re not going back to the way things used to be.
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.