Remember When We Were Pirates?

The launch of Apple Music is yet another nail in the coffin of online music piracy. Is that a good thing?
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(Photo: 360b/Shutterstock)

(Photo: 360b/Shutterstock)

Streaming music online, whether to Web browser, desktop app, or smartphone, is nothing new. Even Spotify has existed since 2008. But things hit a breaking point recently with Apple’s entrance into the increasingly crowded market. Apple has two big streaming products: the Spotify-like Apple Music player and the Beats 1 radio station (named after the headphone brand the company acquired). Together, they form streaming’s current apogee: an on-demand music system that exists natively on the world’s most recognizable devices.

The all-encompassing package has been receiving mostly positive reviews so far, both for its design and its recommendation offerings. It’s not so different from Spotify. Users pay a monthly subscription fee for ad-free music, money that trickles down to record labels and artists, dependent on how many plays a song gets. Based on your listens and preferences, the Apple platform will build playlists and make recommendations. Apple Music will cost $9.99 a month after a three-month free trial; Spotify Premium currently costs $0.99 for three months and then the same $9.99 afterward.

In the rush to embrace cloud services and curation, we’ve also lost touch with our proud history of less polished music consumption. We used to be pirates.

The dream of streaming music online has come true. We have access to the majority of commercially produced music ever made instantly, all the time. So why does the victory feel somehow hollow? Maybe it’s because in the rush to embrace cloud services and curation, we’ve also lost touch with our proud history of less polished music consumption. We used to be pirates.

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My music taste was formed on the Internet, but it wasn’t by paying for subscriptions or robotic suggestions. It was through digital piracy communities. The piracy art form was perfected in the '90s for MP3s, but is now reserved chiefly for Game of Thrones episodes. Browsing through Napster, trying to figure out which files were real and which were fake on Kazaa, waiting for arduously slow BitTorrent files to transfer to my drive—these experiences defined finding and listening to music for me.

I possessed the MP3s I had on my computer, even if I hadn’t necessarily bought them. They were there, ethereally, in similarly non-physical folders that I arranged according to my desires. I had to choose which piece of software to use to play them: WinAmp for its creative custom interfaces, VLC for high-resolution file formats, and another application that I don’t remember except for its ability to create playlists in real time. iTunes didn’t figure into the equation until much later.

Though there were no CD jewel cases or lyric pamphlets, these files still constituted a collection. I hoarded "rare" recordings of live concerts or fan-made compilations of b-sides. Though Spotify encourages a kind of voyeurism watching others listen to their favorite songs, as Paul Ford describes in the New Republic, it doesn’t reward the slow gathering of favorites. There are no MP3s to cling to. In Apple’s world, your music collection might seem collected and customized, but it doesn’t belong to anyone but the company. As soon as your subscription ends or business falters, it’s gone.

Imperfect algorithms have a mainstreaming effect. If you liked Taylor Swift, you’ll probably like Beyonce, right? The strongest links are between the most popular material. But arguably the biggest advantage of piracy is that it was a space in which obscurity was embraced. As long as there were a few other people willing to spend their bandwidth uploading something they’re interested in, it continued to thrive. This meant that even the roughest noise music and least popular guy-and-guitar acts could cultivate a fan base. Not so with streaming, where discovery is limited to labels that the tech company has a contract with.

In Apple’s world, your music collection might seem collected and customized, but it doesn’t belong to anyone but the company.

It numbs curiosity, proscribing users to a gated digital paddock where nothing is too surprising. "You find that you’re no longer a music fan; you’re a jukebox aficionado," as technology critic Nicholas Carr recently put it. Flip through the options, and you’re bound to find something you like. But don’t expect it to teach you about anything beyond its pre-selected options.

Apple’s radio station, Beats 1, does call back to an earlier era of music consumption, when late-night DJs existed to play weird stuff (my radio equivalent of digital obscurity was the local independent station, where the DJs included an elderly woman who, every Saturday night, would spend hours dedicating blues songs to prison inmates). Yet Beats 1 is already repeating its programming.

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Not to go all Kids-These-Days, but piracy in its prime was a very intentional way to be a cultural consumer. While it made material less accessible in some ways, raising a barrier of technological know-how that doesn’t exist for smartphone apps, it also encouraged downloaders to think about what they were getting. That intentionality is being displaced by convenience.

Of course, nostalgia is dangerous. But the proliferation of streaming platforms suggests that, one day soon, MP3s will become obsolete. Having files stored on a drive will be pointless. Via a small subscription fee, the market has found a way to offer a good-enough alternative to cultivating your own collection. It’s already happening, in fact. Hunting around my old haunts, it’s hard to find even a popular 2000s indie band on offer. (To risk hipsterhood: Perhaps seek out Destroyer’s earlier work, Soul Coughing, or live shows from The Roots.)

Tech companies and labels may have won this round, but pirates are always lurking somewhere. I expect it won’t be long until we see hacked, cracked, and plundered streaming services as well.

Disruptions is Kyle Chayka's weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.

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