Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

What Will Happen to Music Libraries When Streaming Services Die?

Joe Pinsker, the Atlantic:

The first time I remember shopping for music was at a Best Buy one day in 2001. I came home with two CDs: the Baha Men’s Who Let the Dogs Out and the pop compilation Now That’s What I Call Music! 5.

Each of those albums cost more than a month of streaming does today, which reflects all that happened to music listening in the intervening 20 years — Napster and LimeWire, iPods and iPhones, Spotify and TikTok. Every decade I’ve been alive, a new format has ascended. Tapes were displaced in the 1990s by CDs, which were displaced in the 2000s by mp3s, which were displaced in the 2010s by streaming. Now, instead of buying music, people rent it.

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The music I’ve salvaged from earlier times is now part of my collection on Spotify, which I’ve been using since it launched in the United States, 10 years ago this month. But as I look back on the churn of the past couple of decades, I feel uneasy about the hundreds of playlists I’ve taken the time to compile on the company’s platform: 10 or 20 years from now, will I be able to access the music I care about today, and all the places, people, and times it evokes?

I still have the very first CD I remember buying, in a particularly luxe A&B Sound location in 2003 now occupied by a gym. I cannot remember when I last put that disc into a player. According to Music, the MP3s I ripped from that CD were most recently listened to in 2010, but I streamed that same record just a few weeks ago. That raises some interesting questions: Am I likely to ever play the MP3s I created all those years ago? Will they work next time I try? What am I most likely to do when I want to listen to that record and find that it has, for example, been pulled from streaming services? What new format will emerge in a decade’s time, and will it have that album on it?

In some sense, we have never stored music recordings in a permanent way. Vinyl records degrade with time and on playback. Manufacturers promised that CDs would last hundreds of years, but their actual lifespan is entirely variable. Hard drives degrade, and music streaming is an unproven business model with an oddly stagnant price point. Even so, transitioning so much of our listening to a deliberately temporary model seems short-sighted. We have replaced our hope of permanence with the more honest promise of ephemerality, which is perhaps more honest, but places all control and trust over our very personal attachment to art in the hands of big companies. I’m not sure about you, but that seems like a mistake.

There is some good news. Ed Christman, Billboard:

Here’s a simple way to put the explosion of vinyl record sales in perspective: Pressing plants around the globe have the capacity to manufacture 160 million albums a year, according to the estimate of one executive with decades of experience in physical formats. But, he explains, the current “extraordinary” demand for vinyl looks to be more than double that: somewhere between 320 million and 400 million units.

We still want physical versions of many records even though much of our casual listening has been moved to a rental model. They may not last forever, but they cannot be removed from our shelves if a record label and a streaming service have a legal dispute.