Observations by Lance Pauker

In 1998, I bought my first and last CD. I had received a gift card to Borders for my birthday, and, as an eight year old who thought he was too cool to read a book, I ventured into the store’s now defunct music section. I remember being oddly intimidated by the whole experience. The endless catalog of artists, the increasingly strange album covers, the people milling around with weird goatees, tattoos, earrings. The girl at the checkout counter, even now I could recall the pungent smell of cigarettes. I remember her scoffing at my choice, clearly at the age where she thought her music was better than my music. I was eight years old, but it was clear that her music was still much better than mine, and that everyone should know about it.

“$10 for one song?”

She didn’t actually say that. But if she did say that, she wouldn’t’ve been totally wrong. I had purchased Tubthumper by Chumbawamba, solely for what I had dubbed the “I get knocked down song.” The CD probably stayed in my walkman (remember those?) for over a year, and quite honestly, I could not tell you the name of any other title on that album. So if you really think about it, I had spent $10 on one song

A year later, and I was faced with pretty much the same predicament. This time though, I didn’t but a CD at Borders. Instead, I listened to my one hit wonder of choice Blue, by Eiffel 65, on my computer. Via Napster. For free.

I listened to many a song on Napster. And when Napster got shut down, I switched to Kazaa. And when Kazaa shut down, Limewire. After briefly dating a few more music sites I eventually made the switch to iTunes, but I had never paid for the overwhelming majority of the songs on my library. Paying for music, after all, just wasn’t something I was accustomed to. After my Borders experience, it just didn’t make economic sense. Ten dollars for one song? That meant if I liked 10 songs from 10 different artists, I’d be paying $100 for the equivalent of a single CD. Take into account inflation like all middle schooler obviously do, and it’d be even more.

While I was listening to music for free, something happened that, if you’re the kind of person who’s into turning abstract things into numerical things, proved to be very costly. In 2006, Tower Records, arguably the center of the music industry for decades, filed for bankruptcy. That same music section of Borders where I had bought Chumbawamba, began to shrink. This meant that my friends with the weird goatees, tattoos, and earrings were no longer flocking to that space as a hangout. With the rise in free consumption came the decline in the idea of a record store as a place where one can snidely declare, my music taste is better than your music taste.

We had access to music anytime anywhere. Yet, with the exception of a few fringe music blogs, there seemed to be no digital replication of the record store. It seemed almost ironic that in a world predicated on constant communication via instant messaging, text messaging, and eventually social media, the idea of music as a shared experience appeared to be dying a slow death.

When Youtube gained widespread popularity in the second half of the 2000’s, it seemed as if this problem was, if not fixed, somewhat bandaged. Here was a place where anyone could post, listen to, and talk about music. For aspiring musicians, YouTube became a launch pad for superstardom (or complete embarrassment). There was and there continues to be however, a problem with YouTube as a virtual record store. For one, the site’s sole purpose is not one centered on music. When we think of YouTube, we often think of other things, such as viral videos and movie clips. While someone at a record store would likely not be there if he or she did not have a vested interest in music, a YouTube user may have no interest listening to music while on the site. This detracts an element of fanhood, an element of genre-specific passion, a community-fostering intangible that is often overlooked. Secondly, while there is strong emphasis on music as both a shared experience and a conversational forum (comments, view count), there is little emphasis on individual taste. Sharing music preferences is relegated to Facebook or twitter, but this sharing only manifests itself one song at a time. YouTube does not necessarily allow a user to build out a library of custom music, and propagate it out to friends and/or fellow musicians. Again, YouTube wasn’t exactly the best place to snidely tell others, my music taste is better than your music taste. Finally, the monetary turnaround for YouTube musicians, although existent, is not exactly comparable to that of the record store, or even iTunes. Pirating music is also a huge issue here, though it must be said that the site has really cracked down on the usage of unlicensed music in recent years.

Now however, we have Spotify. An online music streaming service that legally gives it’s users access to millions of songs free of charge, Spotify appears to be the music industry equivalent of the French Revolution (minus the beheadings and the riots and that guillotine thing). Said New York Times Tech columnist David Pogue of the musical renaissance, “It’s true. For the first time in Internet history, you can now listen to any track, any album, right now, legally, no charge.” Just as importantly however, Spotify has seemingly filled the void left by the death of the record store. Spotify allows for individual customized playlists, and has a built in social sharing option. Spotify users have the option to publish playlists to friends, subscribe to popular users, and, if you want to dominate your friends’ newsfeed with your music interests, connect to Facebook. Of course, there are a few small catches (sparse ads, and offline/mobile access requires a monthly subscription), but all in all, Spotify has arguably made music pirating significantly less cool, all the while offering a new, exciting music listening and sharing experience.

It’s 2011, and it’s safe to say that Generation Y’s music experience has been a long, strange, trip. We’ve bought CDs, we’ve not bought CDs, we’ve downloaded music for free, we’ve downloaded music for $.99 (now $1.29…blasphemy!), we’ve discovered our favorite (and least favorite) songs in the darkest corners of the internet, we’ve taken our music to the gym, on vacation, and in unfortunate cases, through the washing machine. We’ve recorded covers to post to youtube, we’ve tweeted our favorite songs, and we’ve listed our top artists on our Facebook profiles. We’ve paid for music when we’ve felt like it, and we’ve listened to music when we’ve felt like it. All in all we don’t view music as a privilege; we view it as a right.

I’m still listening to the “I Get Knocked Down Song.” There is still an endless catalog of artists, increasingly odd album covers, people with weird goatees, tattoos, and earrings, and somewhere, that girl who smells like cigarettes is still telling people that her music taste is better than their music taste. Sure the arena has changed, but thirteen years later, and it seems we’ve come full circle. And suddenly, wonderfully, it feels oddly intimidating.