The Long View | Streaming has trounced my musical imagination

Andrew Mellor
Friday, February 2, 2024

For Andrew Mellor, the algorithm stokes conservatism, not discovery – and for now, his record collection holds more appeal than ever

© Adobe Stock
© Adobe Stock

Five days before Christmas, my family and I moved house. Actually, we moved to the first house I’ve lived in for over two decades. This is it folks: the ‘forever home’ – an abode I’m telling the rest of them I’ll be carried out of in a box.

Among the compromises that have come with significant upsizing is the significant downsizing of my home office. Calling it a ‘study’ seems a bit much. It probably identifies more as a ‘corridor’. But it’s a corridor that came with a 3-metre-long desk that abuts a 3-metre-long window. Result!

That’s where I’m writing this, at an upstairs eyrie from which I can observe the falling of snow and the comings and goings of bin-men, neighbours and an apparently endless procession of teenagers. It’s perfect for listening deeply to music – for letting your eyes drift aimlessly over a landscape of rooftops and shrubbery while your brain engages with what your ears are telling it.

Perhaps it’s less the view to thank for that and more my new (old) way of listening to music. This space has engendered it. In my previous home office, the vast majority of CDs were only accessible via a stepladder. I sank into an inadvertent dependency on listening online via radio players, YouTube and Spotify (using an outdated browser for the latter to avoid ads while not paying for a subscription – sorry not sorry).

I have a complicated relationship with streaming. It can be exceptionally useful for comparing, referencing and sampling recordings (handy for the job) but, over recent weeks, I’ve concluded that streaming services and the ‘at-computer’ model of accessing music have come near to trouncing my musical imagination and destroying my soul. I never knew what to search for, could never find something satisfying and for some reason always wound up listening to second-rate live recordings of the Ring. As for ethics, I’ll admit I begrudged paying for a streaming subscription given I already owned copies of so many of the recordings I was trying to hear.

In the new home office, a sensible number of CDs are accessible by swivelling my chair around 180 degrees from said window and pulling them off a shelf (sensible = circa 2000, right?). With my turntable, separates and speakers now downstairs in the living room, I bought a second-hand Linn Classic CD player online for a song (always wanted one) and got a decent pair of Beyerdynamic headphones to plug into it.

Reader, I feel utterly liberated. I can literally hear what I’ve been missing from Spotify’s compressed sound and my computer’s arid delivery of it. I have genuine, visible choice as to what I listen to, whether or not it relates to the work on my desk at the time, because I recognise the spines of the recordings I’ve collected over the decades - even those I have yet to unwrap. Unashamedly uncool, I am in thrall to the process of getting those recordings down (without a stepladder), sliding in the disc and perusing the booklet.

The misery of streaming – where the algorithm is always wrong, where your album of choice is but a dozen search attempts away, where you’re entirely beholden to the very same computer screen that channels your Mephistophelean pact with work and money – is… if not a memory, then a tool of which I am the master, not the other way around. In the last two weeks, I have listened to a far wider range of music and genres than I ever did on Spotify. I have critically functioning ears again – and a balanced musical diet.

I realise how paradoxical that sounds, given the limitless offerings of the internet and of the privileged position I enjoy, being sent recordings unsolicited (there is always something new to hear). Perhaps this is a case of ‘it’s not you, streaming, it’s me.’ I was always a bad streamer: prone to indecision and safe options. I would be surprised if I’m alone there. Maybe I’ll learn the ropes one day, and equip myself with the technical knowhow to stream at high resolution into a decent system without having to stare gormlessly into a computer screen. Until then – and for the first months of 2024 at least – I’ll be in the home office with my CDs, thank you.