The Art and Musings of Felix Quinonez Jr.

Is Music Streaming Killing the Album Experience?


Felix Quinonez Jr.

There is no doubt that streaming has become an important tool in listening to music. And by legally giving listeners access to millions of songs at the click of a button it has reshaped the industry. But does the instrument we use to listen impact how we listen to music?

It might have taken a while to be embraced, but these days, streaming has become one of the most popular ways to listen to music. Streaming has become so prominent that the RIAA finally decided they could no longer ignore it. Streaming is now counted towards album sales.

And when the streaming data is included, it changes the whole picture. If one compares the pure album sales chart with the sales plus streaming chart, it’s not uncommon to see the rankings rearranged. Artists who are popular with streaming usually end up at the top of the charts.

Technology has always had a big impact on the music industry. There was a time when cassettes were going to bring the whole house down. The belief was that people would just record songs off the radio and never pay for music again.

But a more recent and relevant example is the Internet. It wasn’t that long ago that Napster and its like were unleashed on the world. And the impact is impossible to overstate. Suddenly people could just download the songs they wanted instead of buying a whole album or buying anything at all. Album sales plummeted, high-speed Internet services thrived and the industry acted predictably. They became doomsayers that, again, stated that the death of the music business was imminent.

Napster Logo

Napster Logo

And instead of trying to adapt to the changing times or embrace the new technology, Record Labels tried to dig their heels into the ground and hold on to the old ways that had made so many people so rich. But the cat was out of the bag and no amount of lawsuits would put it back inside.

For years record sales steadily plummeted. And it seemed like there was no way to correct the ship. But in hindsight, the answer seems, if not obvious, at least logical. The way to combat piracy wasn’t to threaten fans with lawsuits but to offer an alternative that was even easier than downloading.

While it’s true that services like Napster did allow listeners to download whatever they wanted. There were always drawbacks too. Download speeds weren’t always reliable. The songs themselves were often low quality. Sometimes they were mislabeled so you thought you were downloading a certain song only to get something completely different. There was also always the threat of getting viruses. And the files themselves would eat up a lot of space on your hard drive.

But the fact is that we as listeners and shoppers like things to be easy. It took a while but eventually, people in the industry realized this. And they used this information to find a way to give fans a new way to listen to music.

Streaming services give us access to millions of songs and allow us to listen to those songs pretty much everywhere we want to. But even so, one the biggest asset of streaming is the fact that it just makes things easier for the listener. You pay $10 a month and can listen to whatever you want. You can find new artists without spending any extra money on something you’re not sure you will enjoy. If your favorite band puts something new out, you can just save it to your library and be done with it. And of course you can be comfortable knowing that the quality of the songs will be top notch without worrying about viruses. And if you still want your music to be free you can listen to ads.

And it’s that ease that has led to millions of people signing up for streaming services like Spotify. But does that ease come at a price? Are we sacrificing an integral part of the listening experience? Listening to new music can often be challenging and it can upend our expectations. But that challenge is part of what makes it so special. Great art makes us think and see things, and ourselves, in different ways. And that’s part of what makes discovering a new album so enjoyable.

Listening to a new album is like taking a journey. It can seem daunting at first. There are times when we feel lost or even frustrated. Sometimes we just want to give up but eventually we reach our destination. And sometimes an album that seemed off putting at first can become a personal favorite.

Great albums and artists challenge our expectations. A great album can make us see an artist in a new way. It can change what we expect from an artist or even a genre. It can even change us as listeners and change what we look for in music. It can introduce us to new artists/genres/styles. But often times we have to get past the initial shock, confusion, or even disappointment and choose to go on the journey with the band.

Because like anything else an album does not exist in a vacuum. It is received, viewed and ultimately experienced through the context of many external circumstances. The artists’ body of work shapes our expectations and also serve as a sort of measuring stick by which we judge their new work.

Lead singles also shape our expectations. In an ideal world a lead single would not only be a great way to introduce the album but it would also encapsulate what the album was about and its sound. Unfortunately that is not always the case. The fact is that lead singles are meant to sell albums.

Sometimes that means a catchy lead single was put out not because it represents the album but because it can help move units. And because of this, the lead single is often misleading in terms of what the rest of the album sounds like. This can give us false expectations of what we will get when buying an album. That’s why to really listen to an album and to appreciate it, you have to take time and give it a chance. You have to let it grow on you.

Getting something different than what we were expecting or hoping to hear can be initially disappointing. But a lot of times after getting over the initial disappointment we realize that the album is perhaps something even better than we were hoping for. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was initially put off by an album that eventually went on to grow on me and become one of my favorites.

And aside from that, sometimes we need to give songs multiple listens before we can really make up our minds about it. Sometimes it’s because the artists take a new direction in sound or style. But the fact is that not every album or song hooks you instantly but that doesn’t mean they are not worth listening to and sometimes they are worth giving a chance.

But the immediacy in which streaming services offer music leads people away from putting in the effort needed to really listen to an album. Streaming promotes a sort of instant gratification to listening to music. And because of that, we become less attentive as listeners but also more impatient.

And because it’s so easy to pick from millions of songs we can always listen to something we already know and love. And this makes the prospect of listening to something that doesn’t immediately grab us seem less enticing. We are less inclined to put in the work required to listening to a new album.

Plus when we have so many options so readily available it makes us more distracted. And it makes it harder for things to hold our attention. A song could remind us of another one. And we suddenly we think about that song for a second. But because the songs are so easy to get when streaming, that second is enough time to get us to switch to the song we know and love as opposed to investing time into an album that’s still unfamiliar to us.

Because it’s so easy to listen to whatever song we think about, we don’t stay on one for as long as we might if we were listening to a cd of vinyl. If you’re listening to an album on vinyl it takes relatively more effort to change or skip a song. And because of that we listen to an album all the way through more often.

There’s no denying that streaming has plenty of benefits. Having instant access to millions of songs and being able to take it with you anywhere is nothing short of miraculous. But it’s that same ease that might lead us to give up on an album before it has the chance to become one of our favorites.