I don’t do streaming music. There’s a few reasons for this.
They don’t really pay the artists. By their own math ($0.0084 per play on the high end) I’d have to listen to a 10 song album 1189 times before breaking even against the $9.99 I would spend the digital copy, or 2976 times before the average cost of vinyl. For Chasing Ghosts, the last album I bought on a whim, this would take about 27 days of straight listening, and I like it but I’d be pretty damn sick of it by then.
Especially while all the musicians are unable to tour, this seems like a bad idea.
But there’s another piece: you don’t own what you stream. Spotify will rise and fall as all things do, and when they go the way of the jewel-cased CD, or just start a fight with a record label over contracts, your music will vanish.
That’s not cool.
So I’ve stayed old-school: I’ve been keeping all my digital music in a Dropbox folder where it’s both local and synced across devices1 Nothing is 100% safe, but that’s probably as close as it gets. This system has worked great since 2009 with minimal hiccups.
And then there’s the vinyl collection, which we started this year. People still have their vinyl from the 1970’s.
I feel good about this system. I have the convenience, and the permanence. What I’d really like to do is extend those properties beyond music.
As I write this from week 7 of lockdown, it seems petty to fret about owning art and books while we know people whose lives and jobs are at risk as our suit-and-tie wearing friends in downtown DC struggle to do anything but order another round of bleach martinis.2
On the other hand, there’s nothing else to do, and one can only bake so much soda bread.
In the early 2000’s, really great DVD collections were a thing. And once I actually had a real job and could realistically start to build one up, the Blu-ray vs HD-DVD “wars” were winding down, and the winner was… nobody?
Technically, one became obsolete, and Netflix would mail me Blu-rays in square envelopes, but at the same time there were 100 digital file formats. It felt dumb to do anything but wait and see.
So I waited. And I saw. And I still own a rounding error above zero movies.
We’ve already begun to see the logical consequence of this. There are things, usually small niche shows or movies, many of which won awards because they were good if not popular, that are impossible to rewatch less than 10 years after their release. There’s nowhere to buy them. There’s nowhere to rent them.
The technology that allows us to archive storytelling forever at no cost also causes it to evaporate into the ether with little more than an IMDB page to indicate it was ever even there.
But movies don’t always age well, there’s plenty of weird art films I loved in 2012 that just don’t hold up.
Books are another story.
The Kindle Voyager is the best piece of technology I’ve ever owned, full stop. It does a thing. It does it well. You can buy a book the second before a plane takes off,3 you can read in the dark, you can control the typography (and if you’re insane, load your own fonts), and your entire library fits inside your jacket pocket.
But the feature that makes me stay an ebook convert are the samples: samples changed the way I read for the better. If anyone mentions a book to me, if I so much as hear about one that sounds mildly interesting, there’s no reason not to at least try it, and it’s lead me to discover things that I would never have bothered with if I had to browse a bookstore or order them online.
Every single book is subject to Amazon’s licensing deals with publishers. Should they collapse, the book disappears. This has happened before. It will happen again.
Some books you read one, say “that was fine” and let go. Others you want to lend or reread years later. Others you want to sit on the shelf just to remind you how good they are.
Of course, there’s a reason some of these problems are harder than others: copyright protection software. Music comes in an open file format. Anyone can can write software to create it, anyone can write software to read it. Kindle books are encrypted—it is illegal to break this encryption even for personal reasons, and while you don’t have to worry about Alexa sending the cops to your house should you hack your way to a permanent personal library, the tools and instructions for doing so are sparse and fraught as a result.
The same goes for movies, with the added trouble of massive file sizes. I’m still trying to determine a safe-for-20-years way to store my own movies, and it’s not easy.
I am sympathetic to their cause; artists should be paid. But their tactics never worked. People who want to pirate keep pirating. People who want to pay keep paying. The real goal is to convert one to the other, and upsell fools like me into vinyl, paper and other things that sit on shelves, which are now fancy upgrades because physical stuff is suddenly cool again. But I digress.
All of this begs the question: does any of it matter?
Do you care if you can’t listen to the album you loved 10 years ago? Do you actually reread or lend out your old books?
I think so. Maybe not for all of them, but surely not everything should be ephemeral and disposable.
For step one, I’m going back through the list of books I’ve read over the years and buying used copies of the things I want to own. By going to used books, this winds up being a pretty cheap project. There’s a company in Indiana called Better World Books that absorbs massive amounts of used library books, resells/donates/recycles and passes a portion of the proceeds to fund libraries and literacy programs. The good vibes aside, they have a deep catalogue and are precise about condition.
And if anyone has ideas for all the cinematographic things, I’m all ears.