Streaming vs. Owning

Recently, I was going through an old hard drive. On the drive I found an iTunes folder filled with music that I must have downloaded between the years 2009 and 2012.

When I began cueing up songs, memories came back to me. I thought about the time of life that I was in when the songs were downloaded. I remembered downloading them, listening to them, putting them on an iPod, and carrying that iPod around with me.

It was a brief moment of nostalgia, and it felt good.

Some time around 2011, I scaled back on downloading music and began streaming more. I still have some of the earliest playlists I made on Spotify. But when I see the playlists, I am not nostalgic. So long as I have had the account, the playlists have been there. I’ve never missed them, because they’ve never been gone.

When I see friends, they often ask me what I am listening to. It’s a wonder that I never know what to tell them. Such a basic question, and I struggle to answer. Certainly, with my background writing about music, making music, working in music, entertainment, blah blah blah, I am listening to all sorts of stuff. I have music on nearly constantly.

And yet I never remember anything I am actually listening to. I cue something up on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, or some other streaming company, I play it for a bit, sometimes at my desktop, often on my phone and very often on one of the Smart Home-connected devices that I use.

But when I am done, the music is gone, and I move on with my life.

There is no nostalgia associated with this experience. I cannot look back at anything that told me I listened to the music, for there is no remnant to tell me that it actually occurred. Is this a bad thing? Am I not engaging deeply enough with the music to remember it? What does it mean when something that people give their entire lives to — like music — becomes just a digital file in the cloud that nobody ever sees, and thus is unlikely to ever be remembered? Did the music ever exist at all? I mean, I heard it. But was it ever really there?

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Paul Cantor

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.