Spotify and the long lost experiences of music discovery

In 2000 I started earning my own money for the first time. Through some obscure connection of a family friend I landed a plum job as a porter at Bournemouth’s Durley Hall, a shit-to-middling seaside hotel where wedding receptions were hosted every Saturday and I nearly lost a finger.

Jamie Dench via Unsplash

My team – each of us in a blue waistcoat and black bow tie – consisted of me, a gnarled but funny and affable Scot, a Frenchman with a heart of gold and a succession of nameless young Portuguese men, none of whom I recall seeing twice.

We all had our reasons to be there. I don’t know theirs. Mine was music.

I’d been cultivating a collection of compact discs for years. I took music seriously at an early age, pocket money spent on singles gradually evolving into a strict policy that any and all pounds and pennies in birthday cards were to be spent on albums.

And that’s what happened. My collection grew a little every November and December, and music became the defining aspect of my identity. I was and am a metalhead. I took that seriously at a young age, too, thanks to the early influence of my uncle and a good deal of chiselling and refinement with my friends Cal and Dom.

My first job supercharged my musical discovery like hitting the hyperspeed button in an old video game. In those days it was possible to unearth new favourites through various online sources including the infamous Napster, but the art of being a music fan hadn’t materially changed all that much since the tape trading era that buoyed the bands I later adored in the early 1980s.

Before the Durley Hall the going was slow. Now, in possession of a sweaty little plastic envelope holding £21 for seven hours of stacking chairs, fancy-folding tablecloths and pouring hundreds of glasses of Buck’s Fizz, my world changed in an afternoon.

Cash pocketed, I marched back through the town centre to catch the bus home. By the time I sat down at the front of the top deck of the number three back to Moordown I’d spent the lot. Rewind and repeat, week after week after week.

My CD collection bloomed. I listened like there was no tomorrow. I read liner notes. I watched videos and bought magazines and I binged and gorged and devoured it all.

I had a few jobs as a teenager. From the hotel I moved to Bournemouth Super Bowl, then to TK Maxx, then out to Bowlplex in Branksome and back into town to Sharkey’s, which was exactly what it sounds like. I took exams, made friends, lost friends, started drinking, passed my driving test, stopped playing football – all the while it was music that mattered most.

More specifically, it was absorbing music that mattered most. Building my collection was an act of self-education. It was an obsession in the most positive sense. It broadened my horizons and that’s enriched my life in more ways than I can count. Music meant and means the world to me, and even as recently as 2000 feeding that obsession required effort.

It’s not just the work that had to go into becoming a music fan that I miss. It’s not the loss of the physical artefact, which for most of my adult life has been what I’ve assumed to be the reason the modern music industry left me cold. The level of access we have now has reinvigorated my own love of new music and I wouldn’t deny the next generation that just because I didn’t have it.

But the age of frictionless consumption has surely robbed young music fans of the rewards that came with the immersive necessities of simply getting into music. It’s hard not to mourn that when it brought such love into my experience.

I think about this every time I hear a song from Faith No More’s 1992 album, Angel Dust. The very sound of that album takes me back to the time when I bought it with my own money at Essential Records. I was already a fan of the band but there was no question of hearing their whole discography at the click of a button.

Faith No More being Faith No More, I had no idea what to expect from Angel Dust. Hearing it for the first time wasn’t just exciting – it was energising. That’s why I can go right back there today within a few notes of ‘Caffeine’, and that’s the feeling I fear we’re denying new music fans today.

Spotify is the dirty word thus far unspoken. First Neil Young and then Joni Mitchell recently made a stand against the platform’s relative silence about one of their most despicable, dangerous podcast assets. There will be others after them and there were many before them.

Artists I respect have long criticised Spotify for the disgracefully paltry compensation on offer for musicians whose music keeps it afloat. It is with no little guilt that I use and indeed pay for Spotify as the keystone of my music listening and have done for some time. I support those bands by buying merchandise and music – millions of others do not.

I’m not innocent or in a position to flame other music fans for their passive enjoyment of art. I am complicit. I am flawed. But I try to do my bit to make up for that. I aim to make a Spotify-neutral contribution to the bands I love. Ethical net-zero.

Yet I feel justified in lamenting what I believe younger music fans have lost. Even today, Angel Dust fills me with the mysterious wonder it had when I first listened to it in full. It’s far from alone.

Superunknown, Soundgarden’s masterpiece, wouldn’t have had the same impact if I’d just tapped a mouse to hear it. The genesis of my thrash metal collection – Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth, Exodus, even my beloved Metallica – was the fruit of a methodical and romantic process of purchase and play.

Mati Mango via Pexels

Those albums take me back not to the time they were released but to my own first encounters with them, often decades later.

To Essential Records, tucked away off Bournemouth Square, where so many of the albums that shaped my taste were dropped onto the counter in stacks of five or six after meticulously clack-clacking through the racks in search of greatness, weirdness or obscurity.

To HMV, where collection-fillers and box-tickers were loaded up through cut-price bundle deals and an embarrassingly intimate knowledge of a metal section that shrank and shrank until my visits became motivated more by hope than expectation.

To MVC, which disappeared from Westover Road as quickly as it appeared but never went undisturbed when I passed by en route to the cinema or Sega World or Burger King or all three. I still have no idea whether that little card was worthwhile.

I lugged these bags of CDs home on the bus and span them to death. What else could I do? I’d spent all my wages on them. If it turned out I didn’t like one I wore the damned thing out until I did. There were exceptions, of course, but the point is this: my discovery and experience of music, even in this century, was defined by effort and reward.

Therein lies the real cultural death of music. Where I brought myself up to get out of music what I put in, the commodification of albums (insofar as people even care about albums, now) has left us with a low-effort and low-reward music culture.

Worse still, the vast majority of artists still work themselves to the bone, still pour their heart and soul into their music, just to be a part of this cycle of easy clicks and peanuts payments. I don’t know why they do it but I thank the gods every day of my life that they do.

The cultural cauldron into which they introduce their ideas is different to the one I knew when I was in my formative years as a music fan. It has plenty in its favour; advantages I enjoy all the time. It offers access, ease and convenience. For the dedicated discoverer these are undeniable positives, but they come at a cost.

So many of the albums we bought twenty years ago, old or new, have something intangible in between the notes. Sometimes it’s hewn from mystery and memory and a real, tactile, meaningful exchange. Sometimes it stems from the discovery of something by accident that lives with us forever. Sometimes it’s as simple as people and time and place recalled in an instant.

I worry that these intangibles have been lost forever. Or, to put it another way, that they’ve been taken away from potentially active and engaged music fans by pandering to a dominant class of passive listeners. Such richness will they miss.