Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Art in the Age of Digital Subscription

Maddy Myers, Kotaku:

I feel like I actually have started to devalue a lot of pieces of media in ways that I didn’t do when I was growing up in the ’90s. I used to go to Blockbuster and spend a couple of bucks on renting a movie. But nowadays, I don’t want to spend 5 dollars on “renting” a movie from iTunes. I just don’t. I’d rather watch a different movie on a subscription service that I pay for than pay not that much more money to rent a movie. Why is that? That’s interesting. That’s clearly a mental change in me that I’ve observed.

Matt Birchler:

This resonates with me a ton. There is more amazing content out there today that ever before, whether it be video games or movies or TV shows, but I think I cherish less of it than I used to. As a consumer, streaming music is an incredible deal. I get to listen to basically every song ever made, everything new this week, and everything coming out in the future for $9.99 per month. That’s less than buying a single album every month, which is just insane.

But while this is wonderful, I do get the feeling that I appreciate individual things less. Spending $15 on an album meant I was invested in giving it a serious listen. Now it costs me what feels like nothing to hear everything and it’s super easy to bounce off albums and try something else. Again, this could be considered a benefit as I keep seeking out the best things, but I find I know fewer albums from start to finish than before streaming.

I empathize with both Myers’ and Birchler’s perspectives, but I feel a little differently about this when it comes to music.

To generalize, most people like music, a few monsters actively dislike the entire idea of it, and some people love everything about music to the point where it’s obsessive. I’m in the latter category. There are few genres I don’t listen to, and nothing I won’t take a chance on. I hoard records — physical and digital, alike.

If you also love music and have somewhat flexible morals, you’re probably familiar with early 2000s music blogs. You could visit these sites, often hosted on Blogspot, multiple times every day and discover something unfamiliar. It could be a brand new record, a classic album you recognize but never listened to, a deep cut from an artist you’ve heard of, or something in a language you don’t understand. On every post, there would be a Rapidshare link for you to download the full record — just below a reminder to pay for the album.

Of course, this is morally- and legally-dubious. I’m not going to defend that. However, they were also remarkably well-curated places to discover bands and artists you’d likely never find on your own. And, of course, free downloads meant that there was no risk to trying something unexpected. Again, I offer no counterargument to depriving artists of earnings, except to note that multiple studies suggest that people who download music illegally also tend to buy the most music. That’s probably because these people are simply the biggest fans of music and want to listen to as much of it as they possibly can.

Streaming services allow the same kind of risk-free exploration without the guilt and legal jeopardy of music blogs. You can still use music blogs and other discovery mechanisms to find new music, but you can listen to it with Apple Music or Spotify instead.

One more thing: I’ve never found CDs or cassette tapes to be particularly valued ways of listening to music. CDs, in particular, are a brittle delivery mechanism for music that sounds basically the same as what you’d get from iTunes. This is only a smidge less corny than talking about the warmth of vinyl and the way it friggin breathes; but, for me, a vinyl record is a fantastic way of expressing the personal value of an album.

There’s a great piece of writing at the top of the Nine Inch Nails online store that mirrors my thoughts in hard-to-read small uppercase text:

Vinyl has returned to being a priority for us – not just for the warmth of the sound, but the interaction it demands from the listener. The canvas of artwork, the weight of the record, the smell of the vinyl, the dropping of the needle, the difficulty of skipping tracks, the changing of sides, the secrets hidden within, and having a physical object that exists in the real world with you… all part of the experience and magic.

I get why this makes people roll their eyes, but it’s exactly how I feel. Putting on a record is a completely different experience. It’s more whole, somehow; more fulfilling.

An Apple Music subscription and a turntable — that’s how I listen to music. And I feel like I value music no less than when I was buying CDs every week.1


  1. I was trying to find a link for this piece and I stumbled across a 1995 issue of Billboard in which Ed Christman argues that CD subscription clubs were devaluing music. ↩︎