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Looking For A Connection In An Infinite Jukebox

Photo illustration: Claire O'Neill/NPR. Photos via NASA and Flickr Creative Commons

There's a famous, heated scene in the 1982 film Diner in which Shrevie (Daniel Stern) has discovered that his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin) has been listening to his 1950s-era record collection, which is organized neatly by name, date, and genre. While Beth "just wants to listen to the music," for Shrevie it's extremely important to recognize his organizational process for a collection that means everything to him. "Every one of my records means something!" he screams at her. "When I listen to my records they take me back to certain points in my life, okay?" And by the scene's end it's clear that the argument has less to do with putting a record in the wrong place and more to do with the fact that Beth doesn't recognize the nostalgic and emotional powers embedded in creating a personal music library.

In 2015, someone as equally devoted to music as Shrevie might not necessarily worship at the altar of physical records. A contemporary Shrevie might file rare seven-inch rips recorded on YouTube into decade-themed playlists, make genre-specific Spotify playlists to share with friends and follow his favorite labels on Soundcloud and Bandcamp to keep up new releases. Today, more and more people are ditching their digital music collections for subscriptions to music streaming services like Spotify, thus further complicating the definition of ownership when it comes to music. Because when you've suddenly got millions of songs at your fingertips, it ultimately becomes harder to identify your own songs. And as more and more people trade personalized collections for access to an effectively infinite set of options, the idea of the music library as a signifier of personal investment in taste may be fading, but not disappearing altogether.

"I think it's almost like renting a property as opposed to owning a property," says Billy Lloyd, 21, a London-based musician and Spotify subscriber for three years. "It is yours but if you stopped paying for it or feeding into that system then you would lose it." What's clear from talking to stream-happy music listeners is that they know they don't own their music in the traditional sense of the word. "I have no problem understanding that I don't own the music I have access to; that's the trade-off for getting access to many more things," says Andy Rosenau, 51, a Rhapsody user for seven years and family friend who lost a large bulk of his physical music collection several years ago in a flood.

For decades, owning music used to be the shortcut indication to how much someone cared about an artist. But while people all essentially own equal levels of access to the same music on a streaming service, this doesn't mean every music consumer and listener on that service is the same. "Based on the insights that we have there's way more than one type of listener," says Paul Lamere, a data scientist at the now Spotify-owned company Echo Nest, which creates music software for finger-printing audio and recommendation services. "There's a larger set of more casual listeners who like music, it's part of their day ... and then there are the hardcore music fans who will scour for new music and make detailed playlists and libraries." And it's these hardcore music fans who keep track of what they like, using playlists as music libraries. Lean-back listeners, according to Spotify's data, are more apt to head to recommendation applications and seek out already-made playlists than make their own.

When it comes to actually organizing what he listens to on Spotify, Lloyd describes his method as being very "time-based." In addition to smaller, themed playlists, he keeps a running playlist where he drops current music he's listening to arranged by the date added, therefore sticking to listening at any given time to music he's just discovered. His habits mirror those of Sofia Luu, 21, who organizes the music she's interested in through her Rdio subscription with an emphasis on newness. "I create playlists to separate what I'm currently listening to as opposed to what I was listening to four months ago," she says of her method, which doesn't associate "new" with music that's being released currently, but is rather just new for her. "In a few months down the road I'll forget I even listened to it. I'm always looking for new music, period." And both of them use services like Soundcloud and Bandcamp, albeit sparingly.

In this sense, streaming services seem best suited for listening to recently discovered music, whether that music be just released or an older find. Bandcamp and Soundcloud are services better suited to finding the latest music, but the ways in which Lloyd and Luu use Spotify and Rdio suggest a preference for listening to recent music additions rather than building and subsequently revisiting a collection over time. Whereas, in years past, one's music collection represented a timeline of sorts, a mini-history of taste, with streaming it's all about what you're listening to right now.

"Having a music collection is actually pretty challenging," says Lamere, who laughs upon recognizing his bias as an employee of Spotify, but notes he has been excited about music's transition into digital format for the past decade. "You have to spend a lot of time organizing it and it turns out you never really owned [the music] anyway because every time there was a format change it became less valuable." Apart from collectors who buy vinyl records knowing they will increase in value, music ownership doesn't necessarily hinge on rate of return. Instead, the desire to own music, or to feel ownership over music, is perhaps rooted in something more personal.

On the topic of figuring out when to own music outside of her three-year old Spotify subscription, my friend Lola Pellegrino, 28, cites one of the few non-digital purchases she's made in the past five years: a Neutral Milk Hotel vinyl box set. "The sixteen-year-old fangirl was in my head when I saw the $110 box set and she was whispering, 'Buy it ... for us,'" she says of the purchase. "I think it's worth noting that when I bought it, I didn't own a record player and I still don't own one. I have never listened to it, but I don't regret buying it, either." The personal desire to connect with and claim ownership to music doesn't disappear once unlimited streaming comes into the equation. The question, then, is: In what ways do users inflect the personal onto these streaming services?

As part of The University of Oslo's musicology research project "Clouds & Concerts," which focuses on how audiences experience live music and digital music services, researcher Anja Nylund Hagen she studied the listening habits of twelve different heavy streaming users (of Spotify and WiMP) of various ages for two months. In her published paper The Playlist Experience: Personal Plays in Music Streaming Services, she found was that while users were faced with millions of songs at their disposal, her subjects still made compelling, highly individualized libraries through playlists.

"Music [ownership] being a very individual experience hasn't stopped with online streaming, even though the physical form is gone," Nylund Hagen says of her research. "Even though people don't own the music literally, they get the feeling of ownership through the effort put into the streaming services; there's the effort in making playlist, their originality and how they find their own music." Whereas in the past what you had in your music library was indicative of your personal tastes, with streaming services the personal touch of a music listener comes down to organization.

In Lamere's talk "How We Listen To Music" at this year's SXSW, he detailed how Spotify's data revealed that when it came to playlists, 17 of the top 100 playlists names are genre related, while 41 of the top 100 playlists names are context related. Just as Lloyd and Luu spoke about being more focused on new music, Spotify and even services like Soundcloud feel less suited for people who want to build large libraries of music than for people who want music for specific "contexts." The data pinpoints clearly what people reach for most when it comes to Spotify (in the moment, activity-based music that's easy to run, drive, or party to.) But its in the corners of Spotify where the sort of personal, human organizational methods that Nylund Hagen highlights in her research come to light.

"I don't have any formal 'genre' playlists at all, I stick with my own genres," says Pellegrino. "Like my playlist Bummer Jams; I went through a period where I was really into songs about ending your life to reunite yourself with a beloved." With playlists that range from simple "Starred" (songs that are in heavy rotation) to "Vetting" (a playlist of music she has heard of but hasn't listened to see if she likes it or not) to "Official Shared Playlist of the Collaborative Pellegrino-Heil Experimental Romantic Venture" (a shared playlist with her girlfriend) it's clear Pellegrino's Spotify use is deeply personal and unique.

"When I share music with people it's through playlists instead of giving them a link to one song," says Luu of her themed playlists she makes in addition to her new music-focused playlists. "I assume responsibility for what I'm listening to through the playlists because I created them." In her paper, Nylund Hagen wrote that "playlists become fixed entities in a technology defined, ultimately, by its fluidity," meaning the "fixed" nature of the playlist represents the person at the helm. "The playlist is what represents themselves or their music needs or their actual music collection in the service," she says when asked to further define what makes a playlist "fixed." "The playlist is me in this abundance."

Streaming users also create music libraries on platforms outside of where the music primarily resides. Lloyd says he often uses Tumblr as a tool to organize music he likes or finds in addition to playlists. He'll post Youtube videos on Tumblr to keep track of them or use the app Turntable.fm to turn a blog into a personal radio station of sorts. And while Tumblr's minimalist format is undoubtedly most associated with images, the reblog-happy nature of its interface makes it a platform — first and foremost — for sharing and in turn building a personal brand by digitally collecting content. "When I reblog or post a song to my Tumblr it's because I like it but I'm also subconsciously saying something about me still, because my Tumblr is an extension of my artistic persona, which is a disgusting thing to say," Lloyd says, laughing.

In this sense, the public organization of one's music collection on a streaming service like Spotify or Tumblr falls in line with the contemporary re-working of "curation." We curate our Instagrams, our Twitter feeds, our blogs, as we once did physical collections. And isn't part of the record collection's romanticism to be found in its ability to be displayed, just as books and art can be? The ever-growing social aspect of playlist (and therefore library) sharing on the Internet through streaming sites has sort of made up for the past several years in which music libraries were unseeable files on mp3 players.

Because music streaming can be tracked and displayed on websites and software that hooks up to your social media, the music library as we know it in 2015 is designed to be shared, therefore magnifying the performance of taste that was once tied to a neatly organized music collection. Though not all playlist creation and music curation via streaming services is done in public, for the public. Listening to and discovering music can still be a purely personal experience for many users. And the definition of ownership in the context of music streaming starts with this personalization: creating themed playlists, reblogging mp3s and more.

Because of how easy it can be today to access music and related media in seconds for free or for subscription fees, the act of buying and literally owning music isn't imbued with the same importance as it once was. But what you do with the music once you have access to it is where listeners stake their claim as owners, whether there are eyes looking or not. "The technology is new," says Nylund Hagen. "But the people using them are still the same."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hazel Cills
Hazel Cills is an editor at NPR Music, where she edits breaking music news, reviews, essays and interviews. Before coming to NPR in 2021, Hazel was a culture reporter at Jezebel, where she wrote about music and popular culture. She was also a writer for MTV News and a founding staff writer for the teen publication Rookie magazine.
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