By Marc Ruxin
I was six when I first fell for music. I raided my parent’s record collection, skipped the classical records, didn’t quite understand jazz or blues, but fell hard for The Beatles. Although it was the music that made me smile, it was also the act of pulling the record from the sleeve, admiring the art, reading the song titles, cleaning the vinyl, and dropping the needle on the record that was very much part of the fun.
As it turned out, this was not a passing phase. I’d listen to the radio to fall asleep. It was the mid-70’s so the commercial music on the radio was what we now describe as classic rock, with a heavy dose of disco. By the time I was 12, I would begin to spend my hard earned allowance on records. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, Styx, Foreigner, Wings, Billy Squire, The Police, The Who, Ozzy Osborne - it was pretty obvious stuff I suppose, even though some of it didn’t endure the test of time. In the 7th grade, a buddy with cool older brothers, played me a cassette called “This Are Two Tone.” My mind was blown initially by the stark black and white mod cover art, but then I listened to the music. It was on that tape that I discovered The Specials, The Selector, Madness and finally The English Beat. My life was changed by rock and roll. The next day I raided my piggy bank and bought all the records I could find by the artists on the compilation.
I was hooked. I begged my parents to get me a subscription to Rolling Stone, and then Spin, and a few years later Option Magazine. I clipped out album reviews, band photos, and hung them on the cork wall in my bedroom next to the posters that came from the various albums: Devo, Wings, Rush. The first thing I did when I turned 16 and got my drivers license was drive to Cleveland to buy records. For the next 20 years I frittered away most of my allowance or paychecks, and much of my free time, milling through bins of records and CDs building a massive collection of life-changing music.
But at some point in the early 2000’s I started buying digital albums, primarily from eMusic and then eventually from Amazon or directly from artist sites. I never liked the DRM on iTunes, and so I steered clear of Apple as a music store. I stopped going to Amoeba Music music every weekend, Kim’s Video in NYC closed, and slowly but surely a huge part of my lifelong obsession collecting physical music ended. Option Magazine was long gone, Rolling Stone had become a magazine about politics and celebrity photos, and Spin had long lost its focus. I now bought external hard-drives and spent an ungodly amount of time digitizing CDs, scrubbing the messy metadata and multiple copies of albums digitized at various bit rates. Then Napster happened, and the music business was turned on its head. It became easier to steal music than to buy it. I never bought into file sharing, because after all if artists couldn’t make a living making music, there wouldn’t be as many artists trying to make music. I was trying to do my part in a very small way, so I continued as a small patron buying tracks and albums.
There were no more beautiful double albums, liner notes, and song lyrics. There was no more flipping of albums, browsing through walls of CDs in search of the perfect album. It was more about accumulating digital bits on increasingly small and slick drives. But then came the iPod. The Walkman and headphone culture had been largely dead for eons, but these digital files could now be consumed on these small sleek devices. Tiny white headphones became a fashion accessory, and collecting music started to get interesting again.
But then something amazing happened. Online music services started to emerge. There was Pandora, Rhapsody, Mog, iMeem and eventually Spotify, Soundcloud and Rdio. Initially they were web services because mobile devices weren’t sophisticated enough to handle the software, and there wasn’t enough storage to take advantage of the promise of “renting” infinite amounts of music. Broadband signals were weak so streaming was often challenging. But then came the iPhone and the app store, and the companies that survived built apps, and the labels started to allow for the legal streaming of music to phones and computers. Companies like Sonos made it easy to stream files from central archives, and eventually blue tooth devices like the Jambox made it easy to push music over Bluetooth to compact devices.
The magazines of old were replaced by wonderful blogs like Pitchfork, Brooklyn Vegan, Aquarium Drunkard, and Hipster Runoff. Artists could now release singles, covers and EPs immediately, and ride the hype cycle into instant stardom. Distribution was becoming increasingly influenced by artists, and these new platforms made being a music collector so much more immediate, accessible and inexpensive.
In the old days, you needed to be rich, or content being poor to be a great collector. Albums, CDs and cassettes were expensive relative to today’s $10 a month subscription service. For less than the cost of one downloaded album on iTunes or Amazon, you can have over 30M tracks available online or offline, on the web or your phone, played through a stereo, or computer or tablet. Instead of having to commit to buying something on a whim that might suck, you can easily test drive a song or an album at no additional cost. Had this option been available to me as a teenager, I would have saved literally thousands of dollars a year. Instead of buying magazine subscriptions, I can read reviews, watch live concerts and videos for free.
Discovery is also considerably easier. You now have social features that prompt you when there are new releases and highlights popular music across your social graph accessible in a single click. After all people turn people onto music and that will never change. Things like bios, photos, and social media are integrated into these services, reducing the endless trolling for the right reviews, or buried diamonds in the new release rough. Now you can have most of the music ever recorded complete with all the context (reviews, ratings, etc.) delivered over the Internet to whatever device you happen to be on.
The act of collecting has become more about consuming and connecting. The times they are a changin’.
At Rdio we have built what I would argue is the most comprehensive service available to give music lovers music any way they want it. Songs, albums, playlists and starting today radio stations built around you. From algorithmically generated stations that can be initiated with a song or artist, to fully curated stations based on mood or genre, to personal stations where people can listen to other people’s recent activity. You can now access all of this for free supported by ads or uninterrupted for a fraction of the cost of a single CD.
The future is now. Artists can reach a global audience instead of the one restricted by physical distribution and retail marketing. This is a good thing. The more listeners an artist can attract directly, the more money they can make. The more money they can make, the more artists will continue to pursue creating art.
In the end surely something was lost when the act of physical collecting disappeared. The era of “High Fidelity” is largely over. The Jack Blacks who man the counters of dusty record stores are gone. The smell of new vinyl is restricted to purists, and the hand printed zines of old are all but extinct. The walls of records and CD’s have disappeared from apartments and houses, but now these private collections can be shared with the world in pint-sized digital images.
Collecting music is now a democratic, global endeavor. You don’t have to live in hip cities to access limited edition music. You don’t have to be rich to afford the pursuit. Nearly everything is available to anyone with a smartphone or computer. Music is, after all, one of the world’s most creative inventions. It is highly local, yet massively global. After years of trying to build a model where both consumers and artists win, we are finally at the beginning of something amazing. Technology has caught up, and the business of music has finally entered a safe and exciting time.
I couldn’t be more proud to be part of a company that built a business specifically to bring music to everybody, wherever they are and no matter what music they like. In the immortal words of Bob Marley “where there is a will, there is always a way.” It has been a long journey, but today the song doesn’t remain the same, but then again it does … only differently.
Marc Ruxin is the COO of Rdio.