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It has become something of a self-congratulatory truism to sorrowfully declare that the practice of listening to full albums has been destroyed by the shuffle friendly instant gratification of music streaming services such as Spotify, in much the same way that Netflix has seemingly robbed us of the ability to watch films at the cinema, turning us instead into TV binging, slack-jawed drones. However, while the decline of the album is a cliché, I have certainly noticed that at least in my own listening habits, there is more than a kernel of truth to it.
Since submitting to the rule of Spotify in 2016 I have listened to full albums less and less, generally gravitating towards eclectic playlists or just skipping around its vast resources, sampling one or two songs each from a huge array of artists. This is not to say that one cannot listen to full albums on Spotify. It is just that all too often I have tried settling down to listen to an album that I am not already familiar with, that requires some concentration and consideration beyond gut-instinct enjoyment or dislike, only to find myself skipping to the next track only 10 seconds into any song with the temerity not to offer instantly recognisable satisfaction. The internet does not encourage patience.
This is not to suggest that ‘streaming=BAD’, ‘CDs=GOOD’. In many ways Spotify has expanded my listening habits far beyond what they would have been if I still had to buy or borrow all the music I listen to in physical form. The fact that we can access for free pretty much everything made since the dawn of music recording is incredible, and has a great capacity to expand the canon of popular music and turn us all into digital crate-diggers, unearthing music by brilliant and important artists who might otherwise have been forgotten, and by emerging artists trying something new who would normally evade commercial and critical attention.
Nevertheless, there is something irreplaceable in the act of settling down to absorb yourself in a full album, beginning to end, in the order that it was originally intended to be listened to. It allows you to inhabit the album and commit yourself for its complete run time to wherever it is taking you, making for a coherent and immersive experience. However, rather than giving up the album for dead, accepting its slide into the exclusive clutches of odiously trendy- ‘you’ve never really heard Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue until you’ve heard it in its original analogue form’- vinyl owning tossers, we should perhaps instead consider the ways in which music streaming has the capacity to enhance our album listening in a way that would simply not be as easy in a physical format.
A drawback of having to actually shell out cash or request to borrow something every time you want to listen to a new album is that you are less likely to stray from the tried and tested paths. Growing up, I relentlessly raided my dad’s formidable CD collection. However, while this gave me a great grounding in many classics: Sergeant Pepper’s; Ziggy Stardust; The Score; a comprehensive education in the works of the intensely 1980s Norwegian pop-legends A-ha, I still found that artists’ lesser known, less anthologised or less universally acclaimed works were often harder to get hold of. When I got to album buying age myself the issue persisted. Why dish out my hard-earned pocket money on something I have never heard of, which bears an element of risk, when I could go for an acknowledged classic that everyone seems to like? In my early teens I fell hard for Kate Bush’s phantasmagorical banshee sound, but instead of opting for her experimental 1983 album The Dreaming which has a reputation for denseness and for dividing opinion upon its release, I instead chose her masterful and universally acclaimed classic Hounds of Love.
Streaming removes this dilemma of where best to cash one’s chips. Once we choose to venture beyond the artist’s most streamed songs list, their entire discography is free to explore. For some reason, during the increasingly swampy and blatantly mismanaged period of lockdown, I have found myself listening to far more complete albums on Spotify than I usually would. Perhaps it is because delving into albums that I have never heard before prevents me from listening to my previous repertoire and wistfully yearning after that lost age of a few months ago when you could breathe carefree within a two metre radius of a stranger without fearing that you are unwittingly subjecting them to a dose of potentially lethal virus. It is probably also because I have been mired in dissertation writing lately, and as a result have been near-permanently plugged into my laptop and therefore Spotify. For whatever reason, I have found that one of the few pleasures afforded by this lockdown has been the opportunity to really embrace listening to full albums again, more than I have in years.
Fear not though, this is no ‘This is how I have improved myself in lockdown and how you should too’. I am getting increasingly sick of the slew of self-righteous, peppy articles pointing out the many opportunities which we ought to be taking to make ourselves better people. The optimistic early-lockdown me who was on course to teach herself Italian, read James Joyce’s Ulysses and finally master the devilishly difficult art of winged eyeliner has been replaced by a bleary-eyed, tracksuit-bottom wearing, monolingual slob, still shamefully ignorant of the works of James Joyce. Of course, being magnanimously informed that it is ok not to do anything has fast become an irritating trend of its own, one which I am possibly guilty of feeding into here. Nevertheless, it is still important to remember that no one is going to emerge from this like a butterfly from a cocoon, metamorphosed into a vastly improved specimen. It is enough to simply focus on getting through, and to savour whatever we are able to enjoy during lockdown.
If you are someone who has found yourself regretting that you do not listen to as many full albums as you might like, I can definitely recommend using this lockdown and its complete upending of all our usual habits as an opportunity to view music streaming as an opportunity to go beyond the usual cautious toe-dipping that so many of us practice when it comes to albums nowadays, and to indulge instead in a refreshing plunge. And not only in the old favourites and canonical classics, but taking full advantage of the many overlooked and lesser known albums which hold great riches but which would have passed under the radar without the help of streaming services. Or not. If that doesn’t appeal to you, that’s completely fine. It all comes down to whatever floats your lockdown boat.