I’d been waiting rather anxiously for the release of the new Phish album since the band announced its imminent arrival a few months back. It had been five years since the band’s last studio release, “Joy.” And frankly, with the collapse of the record industry, and the fact that Phish is a band that built its reputation on the concert stage, I had my doubts that there would ever be another full-blown studio album in Phish’s career.
The group released two singles from the album over the last few weeks, via iTunes. I bought them both. They got me pumped for the coming album, which is exactly what they were intended to do.
Then a little over a week prior to the release date, Phish announced that it would be streaming the entire album – dubbed “Fuego” (see my review in this issue of Gusto) – via National Public Radio’s “First Listen” series. I got home from work eager to tell my son about the advance stream. Figured we could listen together to get pumped for our coming trip to Saratoga Springs, where I grew up, to catch Phish on the first night of their three-night residency at SPAC.
My son surprised me, however, with his response.
“Dad, let’s not listen to it now. Let’s wait for the release day, and grab it on vinyl, and then really sit down and listen to it.”
I was simultaneously shocked, proud and transported straight back to a time when I was his age (almost 14) and would treat official release dates of new albums from my favorite artists as holidays. Going to the store on the day of release to buy the album was a sacred ritual to me. It was the act of going to the shop – and prior to that, of having saved up the money, made the plans to get there at 10 a.m. when the local record store opened, and making sure the schedule was cleared for the rest of that day, in order to spend time listening to it – that imbued the record itself with additional importance.
That’s gone now, for the most part. And that’s sad.
Whole forests’ worth of pages have been written on how streaming sites have destroyed the ability of recording artists to make a reasonable royalty rate for their recording efforts. I’ve written a fair amount of such pages myself, and, of course, this is a legitimate and ongoing problem that demands to be addressed.
But streaming is killing music in another, perhaps more fundamental way. It’s taking the magic out of the album as an art form. And it has transformed official release days into just one more in a potentially endless stream of regular old Tuesdays. It’s like they canceled Christmas, in my little world. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.
So why bother going to the store and spending $30 for the double vinyl, or less for a hard copy of the CD? Who needs to buy the cow when you can gorge yourself on free milk whenever you feel like it, for the price of only a few thumb clicks?
Well, I do, for one. I went to Record Theatre on Main Street Tuesday morning, and I was pumped walking in. There sat the gatefold double vinyl in a display rack right in front. I grabbed it, scoped out the artwork, felt the heft of the heavy vinyl. That artwork, interestingly enough, was partially designed by Buffalo-born Julia Mordaunt, who is Phish’s official art director.
The old record industry was certainly flawed – the greed of many within it certainly aided in its collapse. But there was something effectively democratic about the way it worked. People needed to go to the store, pick up the actual physical thing and pay for it. That meant, in many cases, something had to be very good, or at least very interesting, in order to sell.
I’d welcome a return to that system. There is simply too much music too readily available to too many people. On such an artificially leveled playing field, nothing stands out.