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Pounding on the Celestial Jukebox

For better or worse, online music streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and Grooveshark are here to stay. Metroland writers reflect on how their listening habits have been affected

by Ali Hibbs on November 1, 2012

Stream Like You’re Naked

When I bought my new computer, Apple gave me a $100 gift card to the App store or iTunes. In lieu of Angry Birds or some other distraction device (Fantasy Football and Brazilian fart porn work just fine for me, thank you) I used all $100 on music. I made a list of albums that seemed to be glaring absences in my collection and waited until I had a complete list before downloading a single megabyte. At the time, I was going through an R&B and soul phase. D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Brown Sugar were at the top of the list, then came several Funkadelic records and Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On.

I was sticking to the list and using all of my willpower not to deviate from it, until I had a flashback to a house party in Rochester. The host was the type of guy who collected music compulsively and without love. I made the mistake of telling him I wrote music reviews.

Every other sentence began with “Have you heard . . .” not unlike the “Have you read . . .” Portlandia sketch. One song stood out from the barrage of questionable tastes: “At the End of the Day” by Lee Fields, an ’80s slo-jam with Teddy Pendergrass written all over it. Before I could hear the rest of the record, it was on to the next band he wanted to hip me to.

Lee Fields and the Expressions’ album My World is one my favorite records and, on the strength of that, I decided to buy the album “At the End of the Day” appeared on, titled Treacherous. It haunts me to this day. Treacherous turned out to be Lee Fields, sans the Expressions, shouting over ’90s house music à la MTV’s The Grind and contained a song called “Dance Like You’re Naked.”

Moral of the story: Listen before you buy! It’s not hard. That shit’s all up on Spotify to screen at your leisure. Even the lazy man can float over to YouTube and know at the first auto-tuned chorus of Fields’ “Man Hunt” that house-party guy got it wrong. Hell, you can probably even stream some of that fart porn if you search hard enough.

–Raurri Jennings

Online Boombox

When Spotify first washed up on American cyber shores last year (after growing to European prominence from its headquarters in Stockholm), I scrambled to download the service like I had once scrambled to my boombox in Junior High, eager to hit record on the cassette deck and snag that Toadies single off the radio. Free music! What could be better, right? I already did most of my music listening on my laptop, so Spotify’s free online streaming service (with some admittedly annoying commercial interruption) promised to deliver a sizable back catalog and enough new releases to render my iTunes library obsolete.

I’d be lying if I said I never illegally downloaded music, but the stuff I’ve shamelessly lifted is usually the stuff I don’t know well and wouldn’t otherwise drop money on. Spotify promised to solve this ethical quandry with a try-before-you-buy kind of format that industry folks insisted would become the dominant revenue stream for artists (despite some significant naysaying from said artists). I figured I’d sample something new and then buy the record on iTunes if I really wanted it on my iPhone or iPod, directing my limited funds toward the artists I felt an ethical affinity with and kicking a pittance-per-click to those I had browsed.

To an extent, this is how it has worked out. I’ll read a review somewhere, listen to some tracks through the service and then buy through iTunes, feeling good about myself and the world. But, as more artists withold their music from the service, and my greed for all things free grows deeper, the system has begun to feel cumbersome. The logical solution would be to pay for the monthly “Unlimited” or “Premium” services (I have a Netflix account after all), and get that shizz on my other devices, but, like the 12-year-old ripping mixtapes from the radio, I find myself still trying to cut corners. I’ve still not downloaded some of my favorite records from the year (learning to expect the maddening commercials within the track sequence) and bit-torrented others that haven’t become available on free streaming services. Meanwhile, novelty has driven my habits to SoundCloud, where more new music is being debuted on the artists’ terms and the social-networking interface makes it feel like I’m getting some private first-listen.

I don’t espouse or aspire to be in the vanguard with this stuff. If anything, I’m a step behind, but, as digital music infrastructure changes, along with its ethical parameters, the same lust for access remains. Whatever comes along next, I’m still going to make sure my car has a cassette deck.

–Josh Potter

Getting to Know Me

I’m driving in my car, I turn on the radio . . . and damn, disappointed again. Over the years, even my favorite radio stations sometimes sounded as if they’d been hijacked by the guy in the next apartment who always managed to blare music that made me want to pull my hair out. I’m sure we’ve all had this experience, especially in the days before iPods and streaming services—and we still sometimes do, when we listen to the radio. I love you EXT, but really—Steve Miller?

I’m always a little behind the technological curve, and no, I can’t figure out what my 16-year-old is doing when he fiddles with his iPhone. But a friend was listening to Pandora in the coffee shop one day, and I suddenly took interest as she explained how she created her “own” radio station by feeding it info about artists and songs she liked. I was a little skeptical—I immediately recalled Blockbuster Video and those awful “If you liked this, you’ll like this” recommendations, and also a conversation I once had with a former music editor who suggested, to my horror, that the band Live had a lot in common with U2 (“Not even on the same planet,” I said over and over, shaking my head). But then, if Pandora’s complex algorithms really did work, it could be the best of two worlds: being your own DJ and also having your own personal DJ, someone who can hear your prayers and turn you on to new music you’ll love.

So I created my station (“In Between Years”) and told Pandora who I liked: my favorite ’80s bands (the Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order, you get the idea) and tried to broaden the base with some stuff from the middle and more recent years: Radiohead, Death Cab, Kathleen Edwards, Florence + the Machine, Of Monsters and Men (I wondered if the latter would send my station into occasional spasms of Icelandic weirdness, but to this day, it hasn’t even played me the Sugarcubes).

Wow, as I write, it’s playing an MGMT song I love, and I’m not sure how it extrapolated that from the Cure, Radiohead, Florence, etc. Sometimes it’s as predictable as the ’80s Night set of the aforementioned British bands leading up to Joy Division’s iconic “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Other times it does find good stuff I wasn’t familiar with (Thirteen Senses, Band of Horses) or plays bands I know and like but hadn’t told Pandora about (the Killers, the Strokes). But once in a while . . . Oh, Pandora, we still need to talk.

I know you’re trying to please me, but never, ever play A Flock of Seagulls on my station again.

–Stephen Leon