Track three: remembering tangible music

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In two decades we went from ‘it is cool to own a CD player’ to ‘you are not cool if you know what a CD player is.’ Lee Lim

Streaming services try to be efficient with music, but why be efficient with art?

by will spencer, contributor

Do you remember what your first CD was? I do: Linkin Park’s Meteora. I cherished that disc and played it so many times that the data became inscrutable to any laser. Then came my dalliance with Modest Mouse and their plethora of albums. The first I owned was We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. It was also the album that induced my passion for them; particularly track three, Fire it Up, with its infectious and inundating bass line coupled with the soft voice of Isaac Brock. It is still a personal favourite to this day, almost two decades later (17 years, to be exact).

And I still have my entire CD collection, which used to be alphabetized, in a clunky, black, zip-up case. When I flick through those CDs — a rare occurrence, I’ll admit — it is a literal time machine, transmuting me through time and space to no-longer-extant places: CD Plus, where I got many random CDs based purely upon album art and band name (Architecture in Helsinki, Dr. Dog, and Vampire Weekend were some of the choice finds from this ad hoc method); HMV, where I have a lost treasure trove of points never to be redeemed; my erstwhile friend’s house, now demolished awaiting a new building to be erected, where we listened to the two Hawksley Workman albums, Meat and Milk, that had been released within three months of each other.

This is all to say, I think something is lost when music-listeners merely interact with music via a streaming service, be it YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, what-have-you. Obviously the sensory modality of touch, the entire tactile experience, is gone, truncated to a simple gesture of the thumb. So, too, are the oddities of lyric books, band art and photos, secret posters, and hidden tracks: I recall the first one I found — it was on a k-os album — and it brought me such glee to have stumbled upon it because I was simply too lazy to hit next.

The comfort of perfect curation is also jettisoned. With an album, one is confronted with an ostensibly well-planned and produced album, one that merited the use of physical resources to be wrought and sold to the masses; on Spotify (I speak of it because I, too, use it), unless you create your own playlists, which I’m sure many do, you are confronted with a barrage of algorithmic garbage that suggests what it believes you’ll enjoy.

However, I find that my taste can’t be limited to, as Tara Johnson for Tinuiti.com wrote: “Spotify’s algorithm [that] analyzes three main features when determining [how] to recommend content: lyrical content and language, song features, and past listening habits.” I’ve found the algorithm importunate and poor at its intended function. There is no way to synthesize the disparities between Frederic Chopin, Yung Gravy, and Feist.

 Then, to sift beyond the front page of “curated” playlists is like navigating in a foreign city: there is some way to get what you want, yet you lack the ability to know exactly how amidst the tangles of the internet. The lethargy and paralysis induced by such a wall is difficult to overcome.

I, too, regret the loss of choice, which sounds ridiculous when we are presented with an infinitude of choices via the panoply of streaming services available. Yet, how many times have you opened Netflix or Spotify with the desire to consume novel material and it results in either a 30-minute meander through the wireless void or a default to the familiar? At times, it can be a comfort to be constricted in choice. Soon I’ll go and grab Modest Mouse, pop it in the car, and skip to track three, letting the bass and tangibility wash over me.

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