The Ephemerality of Streaming

This is going to sound like a daft thing to complain about considering the endless amount of music that now exists at our fingertips, but I’ll never acclimate to how quickly songs slip in and out of my life under the streaming model. There are, of course, many times throughout the day when I purposely play something and consciously listen to it, but the ubiquity of streaming music—and the way it soundtracks much of daily existence—means that certain songs escape my full attention and fail to lodge in my memory.

You could chalk it up to a lack of attention on my part, or the sheer quantity of songs and the fact that many now exist independently of the albums that once structured them, but I wonder how much of it has to do with the ephemerality of streaming versus more enduring physical media, like vinyl records, CDs, or cassettes. Those forms have greater permanence, thereby shifting our engagement with the music they house as well as the memories we form about and around said music.

For me, one of the more telling moments of ephemerality—or early senility—came last summer when, seemingly out of nowhere, the opening piano phrase of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” popped into my head. At the time, I couldn’t remember who sang it or the song’s title, but I knew it was an 80s new wave classic, so I started poring over playlists. After two hours of what felt like an increasingly harried rabbit hole, I found it. Oh glory!

But then a month went by and one evening I remembered that funny time when an 80s new wave song got stuck in my head and how hard it was to find. Gee, what was that song again? It’s not as though much time had passed, but there’d been so much else to think about and remember—and then there was all the music I’d heard in the interim. Neither the band nor the song title came to mind. Again. It was gone into the ether.

You could argue, rightly so, that if I was more familiar with Tears for Fears or 80s new wave, it wouldn’t have been such a big to-do. After all, background and context help prop up memory, and are instrumental to any search. But it signaled a larger quandary, even after I found “Head Over Heels” again and used Spotify’s handy “Liked Songs” option this time. (Now, every time I hear a song I remotely enjoy, I make sure to save it because it’s the best way to find it should I forget, which I regularly do.)

My point, if I can be said to have one, is that vinyl—or really any physical music media—seems to offer such a different experience. Sure, none of us purchase as much vinyl as songs we stream (unless you’re Questlove—God bless that man’s collection), so a collection, being narrower by default, is easier to remember. We’re also likely return to it frequently enough that it bolsters our memory of what we’re playing.

But maybe the problem with streaming and ephemerality comes down to ownership, a topic I’ve been thinking of lately especially in light of vinyl and especially in light of a vinyl collection. Russell Belk wrote in his 1988 article on possessions and identity formation, “Because of the purposefulness and the commitment of time and energy spent in developing a collection, it is natural that a collection may be seen as more a part of one’s self than are isolated consumption items.”

There’s something to be said about the way possessions help us form and define ourselves; the objects we acquire and keep around us not only say something about who we are but actively feed into this larger idea of our self and our memory. Physical objects can—not always—prop up memory. I always use books versus digital articles or e-readers when explaining the phenomenon. When we read a book, we map it out as a space and can therefore find previous passages easier than on an e-reader. You may remember around what part of the book a bit of action occurred, but on an e-reader it’ll be harder to find than if you’d been reading a physical book.

Streaming and even purchased MP3s are only ever borrowed forms of music. And with streaming there’s the sheer number of songs that churn through your consciousness on a daily basis. On the one hand, I’m grateful to have such rich access to the catalogues of my favorite musicians as well as artists I’ve only likely discovered thanks to the streaming model. I realize what it offers, though don’t get me started on their inequitable pay structure.

But on the other hand, what do we sacrifice by engaging with such an ephemeral form of music? And, yes, I know that music itself is only ever ephemeral, but I’m talking about the forms—the media—used to transmit that moment, that experience. Will all of this streaming leave us fragmented and forgetting the amazing song we couldn’t stop playing last year but now can’t place, overwhelmed by the options and remembering not a one?