In my teen years, I never left home without my music. At the time – the mid-'80s – that meant hauling a boom-box and a case of cassette tapes around to parties, bonfires and the like. More often, it meant carrying around an armful of vinyl records to be played at the home of whomever I happened to be hanging out with. Music was such a major part of my identity that I never wanted to travel anywhere without it.
So much has changed since then, to the point where I look back at that kid carting his record collection around with him and I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry. Yet, despite the abundant changes in technology over the past 30 years, that desire to carry our music with us remains. It's now taken for granted you can fit your entire music collection in your pocket and, via Bluetooth or an aux cord, you can play it pretty much anywhere.
Perhaps the precious nature of the music-listening ritual has been lost in the process. Or perhaps not. I recently polled several musicians and music-lovers in the Buffalo area to get a sense of how, where and when they listen to music these days. Some of their answers surprised me and suggested the act of listening to music still occupies a sacred space in our culture.
Whether streaming via Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal, tuning in to terrestrial radio, wiping the dust off the CD collection, or indulging in the fully immersive vinyl experience, one thing is clear among the local music-lovers I spoke with – your music matters to you as much as it ever has. Here’s my take on some of the benefits and drawbacks of the most popular listening platforms among poll respondents, with a few supporting comments from listeners.
Pat Shea, singer/songwriter: “Paid subscription Spotify in my truck. No taking an artist or writer's creative work without paying something for me! CDs or iTunes – also purchased tracks only – at home. Even though streaming services get away with paying songwriters and artists a small fraction of what they deserve, I encourage everyone I encounter to pay for their streaming service.”
Andrew J Reimers, the Rear View Ramblers/the CPX: “Spotify at work, Spotify and CDs in the car, Spotify and vinyl at home.”
Ed Koban, guitarist/band-leader: “I listen in the car and while I'm working from home. I have a love/hate relationship with Spotify. I hate how, as an artist, they (treat me). But the new killer music I have found on there has been incredible. Their algorithms that send weekly suggestions via a playlist are really, really good.”
- Benefits: You can listen to almost anything, all the time, for little or no money, virtually anywhere you might find yourself.
- Drawbacks: Artists make little money. Royalty rates are criminally low. Concert ticket prices have increased tenfold to cover the loss.
Melissa Klein, music-lover: “Spotify all day, vinyl all night.”
Drea D’Nur, singer/musician: “Apple Music in the car and straight up vinyl at home.”
Joshua Gregory, musician/host of the Hip Story podcast: “Vinyl to really listen. iPod, otherwise.”
- Benefits: With good equipment, the sound is far warmer and boasts a much broader dynamic range than digital files and streaming are capable of. Having an actual artifact with attendant artwork and design you can hold in your hand.
- Drawbacks: Can’t play it in your car. Expensive.
Stephen Mattucci, XOXO Pop Band: “Using Pandora on my iPhone has introduced me to a lot of new artists. I've bought a bunch of albums because of it, too.”
Gina Mara, music-lover: “I pay for Pandora Premium so I can download the stuff I like and listen to it on shuffle on my phone.”
Will Thompson, Space Junk: “Location is everything. In the car, it’s Spotify or Pandora, since live sets eat up massive amounts of storage space. At home, it’s the collection of live music I've amassed on my computer.”
- Benefits: The built-in algorithm, based on your thumbs-ups and downs, gives you an opportunity to explore new artists. There are various options: free, plus and premium.
- Drawbacks: Unless you are a premium subscriber, you are more or less relying on the algorithm and do not have the ability to customize specific playlists. Also, as with most streaming services, you are not necessarily exposed to any local acts you could later go out and see live.
Lynnie Durusky, singer/songwriter: “SiriusXM in the truck, Pandora on the phone and CDs at home.”
- Benefits: Variety, certainly, but also the availability of specialized stations – i.e., E Street Radio, the Grateful Dead Channel, et al – and the presence of well-informed DJs eager to share their vast knowledge.
- Drawbacks: None, unless you’re the kind of listener who likes to control their own playlists.
David Meinzer, guitarist/songwriter: “Featured CDs in the car get the most ear time. CDs and occasional old vinyl on the home stereo. Macs no longer have disc players, so Radio Paradise - and once in a while the Americana Buffalo web station, at work.”
- Benefits: Album art and liner notes, broader dynamic range in terms of audio.
- Drawbacks: I have a separate room in my house for my CD collection. ‘Nuff said.
Thomas Klostermann, music-lover: “Boom 97.3 FM out of Toronto and 97 Rock on boom-box; Apple Music and Pandora on the iPhone; Sirius in the car. But nothing beats live music.”
- Benefits: A passive experience that can offer a wide variety of sounds and styles.
- Drawbacks: Often strictly formatted playlists, overly compressed sound, and the high odds you’ll hear Bob Seger more often than the universe ever intended you to.
Courtney Ann, Buffalo Opera Unlimited: “iTunes – on my phone, in the car, in my house, when I'm doing laundry, sitting in my room, whenever!”
- Benefits: The ability to curate personal playlists and share them with like-minded listeners is a plus. Royalty rate for artists is significantly higher than streaming sites offer.
- Drawbacks: Goes against the “music should be free” notion, which is only a drawback if you selfishly believe ripping off artists is acceptable.
Vinnie DeRosa, musician/songwriter: "Apple Music has got me all in. I still keep my Spotify. Otherwise, select CDs in my car."
- Benefits: Highest royalty rate for artists of all the current streaming platforms.
- Drawbacks: You're still streaming.
Keith Perla, lawyer/music-lover: “I use the streaming service Tidal and pay extra for Hi-Fi, which is CD quality. I have not played any of my over 7,000 CDs in years. The Tidal app is on my phone, Apple TV and my car system.”
- Benefits: Vast music library for a low monthly fee, plus the option to pay a bit more for high-quality audio.
- Drawbacks: The royalty rate paid to artists is higher than Spotify’s, but it’s still low.
Kevin Gaynor, the Kevin Gaynor Experience: “I really enjoy just finding stuff I like on YouTube and then letting the auto-play take me on a small musical adventure. I've found some cool new bands that way.”
- Benefits: If you love listening to live concerts, rare recordings, and deep cuts, YouTube offers a treasure trove. Its algorithms can lead to interesting new discoveries as well. The YouTube Premium option offers an ad-free version of YouTube Music, and is not cost prohibitive.
- Drawbacks: The royalty rate paid to artists is not high.
Live and in concert
Type Relevant, hip-hop collective: "My musician side just wants to go listen to dope music live and in person."
- Benefits: Supporting the local music economy. Participating in your community.
- Drawbacks: People filming entire shows on their cell phones.