What does it mean to “own” music in 2012? 

What does it mean to “own” music in 2012? 

The Roots released Undun, their 10th solo studio album, in 2011. Hip-hop labels are notoriously loath to send promo copies ahead of high-profile releases, so The A.V. Club didn’t get Undun before it came out on December 2. By then, our “best music of 2011” feature had already closed. Even though The Roots have been on my best-of list since I started making them, I wasn’t going to include an album I hadn’t heard. 

By the time Undun dropped, I’d been subscribing to Spotify for months, though it still took a while for me to realize I could just use the service to get the album. I joined as a premium subscriber, kicking down $10 a month for the option to use Spotify on my phone and download songs. So I went into Spotify, and using its unnecessarily complicated playlist system, downloaded Undun. As expected, it became one of my favorite albums of the year (I could listen to “One Time” on repeat for hours), and I was able to get it on my Pazz & Jop ballot.

But the Spotify process felt anticlimactic. Yes, I had Undun, but I didn’t really have it. Some lower-quality DRM tracks on my phone and computer and a thumbnail of the album cover are a far cry from the—here it comes—tactile experience of physical media, with its discs and liner notes I always read. 

Then it occurred to me: Does it even matter?

I don’t have Steve Albini’s ears, so those sub-CD-quality tracks still sound good on my noise-canceling headphones. (I’m enough of a snob to avoid earbuds because of their lack of low end.) Assuming I bought the CD, I would’ve ripped it (at a higher bit rate than Spotify), uploaded the tracks to my phone and Frankenpod (an iPod I upgraded with a 300-gig hard drive), then filed the disc away in one of the Case Logic sleeves on my bookshelf. Joining them there would be the liner notes I read once or twice. 

I only listen to a small portion of my music on my home stereo (though I’ve been trying to increase it), so any CDs or vinyl I buy can generally look forward to long, long periods of inactivity. The layer of dust atop some of those Case Logic sleeves grows less fine by the day. And seven months later, I still don’t own a physical copy of Undun, though my Facebook timeline shows the album has received plenty of attention from me.

Since December, I’ve repeated the Spotify process to download Passive Me, Aggressive You by The Naked And Famous, Neck Of The Woods by Silversun Pickups, and as I was walking to work the other day, Synthetica by Metric

Psyched as I was to get a physical copy of Celebration Rock by Japandroids, which could well be my album of the year, the CD didn’t sound all that different in my car than when I played it wirelessly from my phone. I haven’t read the liner notes yet. I’m due for another Case Logic purchase, so right now, that Japandroids CD and others are just stacking up at my place, many of them waiting for when I eventually get around to them. As much as I enjoy vinyl, it presents a bigger problem, literally: The last thing I need is more of it. CDs I can condense, but vinyl just takes up space. Considering my unborn daughter will soon share a room with my stereo, I have even less space for it—and less of a time window to listen to it, unless I move the stereo somewhere else in our small apartment.

Like any good member of Gen X or Gen Y or whatever I am—Bicentennial Baby?—I greeted the arrival of iTunes with a vow that the tactile musical experience would remain of paramount importance to me. I didn’t own an iPod until 2005, and even then, it was a first-generation scroll-wheeler that I traded a pal Pixies tickets for. I brought home albums from work even if I only had a moderate interest in them, because hey, you never know. Now, even bands I’ve really liked, such as Tenacious D, haven’t graduated to a Spotify playlist. (I’ll give that album another shot eventually.) 

After a friend of mine joined Spotify premium, she mentioned she’s not sure she’ll ever buy music again. That’s optimistic, considering Spotify’s catalogue has plenty of holes. There’s also the bigger issue of how to support the musicians I like properly. Because of my job, I’m fortunate enough to receive most of my music free. I don’t actually spend a ton of money on records, and most of what I do spend goes toward used ones. That itself could be problematic for an artist, too; used record stores were the “killing the music industry” crisis of the ’90s, because artists don’t make money from resales. Garth Brooks forbade Capitol Records from shipping 1993’s In Pieces to retailers who also sold used music until antitrust lawsuits made his label and others reverse course. A shortsighted analysis could equate used records with piracy, because artists make money from neither, but that loses veracity as you add more albums: Buying all 10 albums in the Roots discography used wouldn’t be cheap, but torrenting has no such economic barriers. Buying used is more honest—and hey, bands like The Roots benefit from record stores staying open. 

Because I rarely buy a brand-spankin’-new album, The Roots would make more money off my repeat plays on Spotify than if I bought Undun used. Of course, they don’t make much from Spotify and Rdio. By one measure, I’d need to listen to Undun 246 times for The Roots to make $1—roughly what they’d make from one CD sale if they have a good deal with Def Jam. (At a $.30 royalty rate for every CD, I’d only have to listen to Undun 73 times, which actually sounds doable.) Back in 2009, Spotify endured some bad press for paying Lady Gaga only $167 for 1 million plays of “Poker Face.”  The service was in its infancy at the time—that pay period only covered the first five months after Spotify launched in October of 2008—but the criticism hasn’t abated. That same analysis by Information Is Beautiful speculates that an artist needs 4,053,110 plays on Spotify per month to earn minimum wage. 

Spotify’s defense to artists and labels basically boils down to “Something is better than the nothing you’d make off piracy,” and the company always leans on versions of this statement: “We have paid over $100 million to labels and publishers, who, in turn, pass this on to the artists, composers, and authors they represent.” That’s shrewd, because it breaks the link between Spotify and paying artists; the deals publishers and labels have with artists ultimately decide how much they make, not Spotify. 

But it hasn’t stopped labels—particularly indie labels, some of whom claim Spotify cannibalizes sales—from pulling their catalogues from streaming services. And it hasn’t stopped me from feeling lame for limiting Undun to a playlist on my phone. I’m forking over $120 a year for that right, but it still feels a little sketchy to a guy who grew up on the DIY boosterism of punk rock. 

Not so much for a 21-year-old college student who grew up in the post-Napster world. Emily White, an NPR intern, accidentally became the poster child of the entitlement generation last week when she published a blog post about how she only paid for a fraction of the music contained on her 11,000-song iTunes library. What really triggered the web jihad against her was her seeming unwillingness to pay for music unless the process were more “convenient”—which, Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker frontman David Lowery quickly dismissed as a smokescreen in a long, long rebuttal: What’s more convenient than the “buy” button on iTunes?

One of the first full albums I bought on iTunes was Kanye West’s The College Dropout, which I also burned onto disc and deposited into one of my sleeves. This was before iTunes and Amazon had digital booklets with the liner notes that accompanied the purchase, so it felt especially weird to burn a disc of something I bought. It’s the same feeling I have now, looking at that Undun playlist: “Something doesn’t feel right.” I got over the iTunes issue and eventually just skipped that disc-burning step altogether. For years, I paid for the “normal” versions of the albums I really wanted, but even that fell away eventually. Captain Tactile Musical Experience is fine with just having that Silversun Pickups record on Spotify, thanks.

I’m fine with it because I’m not that into Neck Of The Woods. I really like Passive Me, Aggressive You, but The Naked And Famous is a new band for me, so I’m less engaged with it than other bands I’ve known for a while. What bugs me about that Undun playlist is how much I love that album. And maybe that’s what owning music means now: only buying what you really love, and streaming the rest. To wit, I’m finally breaking down and buying Undun, even if it means having a philosophical debate with myself about buying it new or used, locally or, guiltily, on Amazon.

I have 14 CD sleeves on my bookshelf, each with more than 100 CDs and liner notes, adding up to more than 100 pounds of music. Underneath it is the overflow vinyl that won’t fit in the antique record cabinet I have in another room. This is the legacy of a collector, of a guy who needed that tactile experience. It needs to be dusted.