I often don’t feel very hopeful.
Call it my nature, my upbringing, or just being an observant member of the human species, but the world at large doesn’t give us a lot to be hopeful about. Between wars and famine and debt and racism and sexism and ignorance and the new Battleship movie, I find it very difficult to maintain any sort of long-term optimism regarding life on this rock. But if I was like that all the time, I would have packed it in a long, long time ago.
Instead, there are moments of respite, little pockets of time where the world seems to be going somewhat right. And when those periods occur, I celebrate them with all my might. And right now, in my tiny, insignificant corner of the universe, there’s cause for a gay old time. No, I don’t think people around me will ever get better, nor do I think that the planet will ever stop trying to get rid of us like some sort of viral infection. Rather, the thing I love the most – no, dear readers, the thing we ALL love most – is on an upswing. Yes, to me at this very meaningless point in history, the music industry seems to be making enough improvements to make me forget about the big bad monster that is reality waiting just beyond my headphones. At least until my new girlfriend leaves me or I see a bee somewhere.
Perhaps I may get some (well-deserved) grief from this, but Spotify’s recent arrival to North America has me as giddy as can be. To preface that credibility-annihilating statement, I’d like to say that I am fully aware of the program’s limitations, of its all-out flaws, and of its lackluster opinion amongst some folks within the biz. With that said, though, I still find myself incapable of not being excited by the very talk of a program like this. Whether or not it’s good or whether it will have an impact in the long run, there’s no denying that there’s tons of hype and attention being paid to the international phenomenon at this very moment. And, if I wasn’t clear before, that’s all we can ever ask for.
From the rate at which invites spread downward based on industry inclusion to its interface and affordable prices, and of course the depth of its catalog and cloud-based operating model, Spotify is a shining beacon of hope in the music industry that the dinosaur will finally open its heart and evolve to meet the preferences and desires of the only people that truly matter: listeners.
Whether that will continue or, as it inevitably does, blow up in our faces, there’s no changing the fact that this program comes as a shot in the arm to many feeling the ails of the music game. When all we want is access and ease of use, Spotify delivers. However, perhaps we are just in a phase, like some romantic relationships we’ve all been in, where we ignore the obvious flaws in favor of a kind of myopic puppy love. But if that’s the case, why does it matter? In an industry where cynicism is clearly king, it’s nice to have even a couple of months of happiness, even if it’s a passing fad with a shelf life less than that of a jar of pickles.
We live in a world where everything from new music to tour dates to boatloads of freebies and constant communication from artists is not only expected, it’s demanded. That attitude, though a step forward in the balance of power between artists, fans, and labels, kills the childlike excitement we all experience when we first got into music. Spotify does its best to instill that back into a public who is increasingly out of touch with the very sentiment music is meant to deliver: a feeling of overjoyed interconnectedness. If that spark lasts just a few moments, it’s clearly worth it for some much-needed perspective and to keep alive the notion that music really can change the world.
Whether Spotify Fever lasts a week more or if it becomes the modern-day equivalent of the radio is up in the air, but that’s another alluring aspect of it: We just don’t know what will happen, and uncertainty is intoxicating. But for those looking for a more definitive and concrete boost, turn no further than a recent report by Nielsen Soundscan that shows that record sales are up for the first time since 2004. Yes, in the first six months of 2011, 155.5 million albums were sold, compared to a mere 153.9 million albums sold at this same time last year. For those not doing the math, that’s a one percent sales increase. Or, fudge the numbers a bit and include single-track downloads, which yields a total of 221.5 million albums sold for a 3.6% hike. As has been the standard narrative for the last few years, those sales were bolstered by digital albums. Over 660.8 million digital units were sold in the first half of 2011, an 11% increase from the first half of 2010. If you’re a numbers geek, your mind is undoubtedly racing with near-orgasmic delight; the rest of us are assuredly unphased. However, this is big news for a number of reasons.
In the current grim sales landscape, any good news, no matter how insignificant that news may be, should be celebrated because it means something is happening with the current model. As much as illegal downloads and torrents are clearly superior in terms of the best ways to get your music and keep your cash, people still want to pay for things. Whether they’re paying for mainstream music or indie offerings, regardless of the benefits for the latter, is almost moot; people are spending money, and that can only be a good thing. It also means that labels, those aforementioned prehistoric artifacts, have something to celebrate. And if they’re happy with the results of this new model, then they’re more likely to continue to be open to new ideas and concepts as long as they can tout minor victories like this. And as ass-backwards-sounding as that concept is, it’s a minor step like it that will continually renew faith that the music industry can maintain some semblance of being a business.
It’s almost a guarantee that this feeling swelling in my heart simply won’t last. Perhaps disappointment won’t set in, but things will get worse, eventually, for certain. But that’s the point, it seems. We can’t recognize the good if we don’t weather the storm a little bit. And that’s not to get all Hallmark on you, but I think that sentiment speaks to my larger point. As invested as we all are in the health and well-being of the music business as a whole, there are going to be a lot of times when things don’t always look so bright. If music listening in its entirety, from how that music is dispersed to your own opinions on each song and artist, is going to be a successful process as the landscape changes, we’ll have to endure hardships. But when a tiny sliver of light emerges from the big, dark cloud, that’s cause enough to cheer.
In the end, it’s kind of like putting on a new album for the first time. You don’t know what you’ll get, but you hope there will be songs you enjoy or songs that make you feel something. Maybe you’ll have to deal with something you can’t stand or maybe just heaps of filler. But when that last note ends and your player of choice stops, there’s one thing that’s universally certain: It was worth it all just to take the chance and be hopeful for even a second.