Listening to Great Music in the Era of Streaming

The ability to instantly access music digitally on our mobile devices with just a few clicks is terrific, but it can also lead us to reduce our favorite artists to their “greatest hits” or other songs we particularly like and ignore much of their other work.

Last week (Sep 28) was the 40th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life. After I had seen a related Rolling Stone post on my Facebook, my first thought was, ‘cool, that’s the album with Sir Duke,’ which has been an instant favorite since I heard the tune for the first time in the late 70s or early 80s.

My knee jerk reaction was to immediately pull up the album in my music streaming service to play Sir Duke and see which other songs I instantly recognized. Isn’t She Lovely and I Wish came up. As I was about to skip over the other tunes to play these two songs, I stopped and said to myself, ‘what a minute, that’s not a very good way to commemorate such a great album.’

So I deliberately decided to “force” myself to start from the beginning of the album with Love’s in Need of Love Today and listen all the way to the last song, Another Star. I was glad I did! And, yes, given it’s a double album, it took some time to listen through all songs. But it was worth every minute.

This little anecdote got me thinking. In the era of vinyl records and turntables getting and listening to music selectively was a lot more complicated. If you really wanted to have a song, at a bare minimum you had to get the single. And if the tune wasn’t available as a single, you had to get the entire album. If you ended up buying the album, sooner or later you would listen to all of the songs – and oftentimes discover gems in addition to the tune that was the initial reason you bought the record!

This situation started to change as music cassettes and tape recorders became broadly affordable. Now you had to find somebody who had the music you wanted on vinyl and was willing to give you the record, so you could tape it. Alternatively, if you had a radio, you could tune in to the shows that would play the type of music you liked and tape it from there  – and get frustrated when the DJs would fade out your songs at the three-minute mark or talk over the music. I still vividly remember how angry this made me!

Still, I spent countless hours taping music from radio programs in addition to records. Today’s equivalent would be to stream the songs you like or purchase digital downloads. Admittedly, I’ve extensively done this as well for many years. My digital library now includes a few thousand songs from hundreds of artists. And while for someone like me who has a fairly broad, eclectic taste this approach of purchasing or streaming select songs clearly has its advantages, in many cases it doesn’t do justice to the artists – not to mention what this approach does to album sales and the livelihood of many artists these days.

Fortunately, the majority of my rock & roll heroes became successful (and probably fairly rich) during a time when the music industry was still selling many records. Getting gold certification in the U.S. from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) used to require one million units sold for a single and one million dollars in sales for an album (at wholesale value). Nowadays, the requirement for both is 500,000 units sold, including records, tapes or compact discs.

But there is far more at stake here than music sales and making sure your favorite artists can earn a reasonable living with their craft. It’s about fully appreciating their work and realizing it goes beyond just the hits. Listening to Songs in the Key of Life in its entirety really drove home this point for me.

While I realize not every album is comparable to Stevie Wonder’s gem from 1976, it has given me new impetus to approach listening to music in a different way. I’m not saying we should only listen to entire albums. In fact, doing so in a meaningful way requires the right mindset and the time to do so. Rather it’s a great complementary approach to the selective listening most of us do most of the time.

A great way to start exploring entire records are the albums on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. To make this a less daunting undertaking, I’m going to focus on the top 50, at least initially.

I’m happy to report I already listened to a good number of these albums in their entirety several times before coming up with my plan. Examples that come to mind are Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd), Hotel California (The Eagles), Tapestry (Carole King), Rumours (Fleetwood Mac), Thriller (Michael Jackson) and of course all Beatles albums in this top 50 tier, including Please Please Me, Abbey Road, The White Album, Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

This still leaves me with many albums to listen to in their entirety, and I’m looking forward it. I imagine I’m going to cover some of them in future posts as part of the “What I’ve Been Listening to” category.

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