'The Music Is Waiting to Be Tapped': Listening in the Era of the Stream

As Rdio rolls out Pandora-like stations, a personal look at the state of loving music
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A needle in the groove (Alexis Madrigal).

Take an average record. A groove cut into the surface of the vinyl contains music. For a standard LP, the groove is 1,500 feet long.

The groove is the physical embodiment of music. And one type of music history would emphasize how the manufacturing of these discs -- and their interplay with the technologies of radio -- shaped what people listen to, what people consider "normal" in music. The short length of playable music that could be encoded on a 45 (and the older 78 technology) influenced what could be sold, which influenced radio play, and helped determine the standard length of a song.

Pop musicians playing with the limits of 45s began to make longer art during the 1960s, exploiting the 50 minutes or so of music that the 1,500 feet of groove allowed. This, in turn, precipitated change in the music discovery medium of the day (radio) and on it went.

I can remember the first album I had on vinyl. I was maybe five years old, and my sister gave me the Top Gun soundtrack. Dancing on the carpet of the living room in Sylmar, California. I can't even remember how I must have moved. How do you dance to "Highway to the Danger Zone"? I did, though. I did.

I bought my first tape around nine at Sam Goody at the Northridge mall: the Boyz n the Hood Soundtrack. Ice Cube, Tevin Campbell, Quincy Jones! Bad Quincy Jones.

My dad had CDs by the late 80s. Their rainbow reflections seemed like a mirror from the future. He owned mostly classical music and, as I recall, U2's Joshua Tree. I remember listening to that album together, clustered around the stereo, which he kept in a large cabinet with a plastic door.  By the time we left Los Angeles in 1992, I had even acquired a CD. I'm pretty sure it was 4 Non Blondes' Bigger, Better, Faster, More!. I tried to sing the hit single, "What's Up?" but my voice was already changing.

Every physical medium had its little quirks. Recall: most tape players couldn't skip tracks. But it was easy to record on tapes. Meanwhile, it was a revelation when CD players could loop individual tracks or the whole disc at the touch of a button. But man, did they skip with the early portable players. And the read-write capability was lost for most systems. You could burn CDs from your computer, but no one recorded the radio onto CDs like they did with tapes.

We expect this kind of thing to influence the way we experience, maybe even hear, music. But what about the digital interfaces that now dominate the market? Shouldn't they exert just as much of an influence over how we listen and how artists create?

For me, all that began in 1994, when we got the Internet. And it must have been a couple years later that I started downloading MP3s from FTP sites over our impossibly slow dial-up connection. The first was almost certainly "No Diggity" by Blackstreet, so it must have been 1996. A few years later, Bain says that global music sales peaked.

I do not approve of this remix, but it exists.

With the full speed of collegiate broadband at my back, I got into the obscure music sharing site Soulseek, and like everyone else at school, developed an huge library of music that I hadn't paid for. I traded mix albums with friends. I got my first MP3 player. I got an iPod.

At a handwaving/fan level, it's easy to say that the iPod encouraged ownership. That little hard drive was your record crate, your folder full of CDs, and your wall of music posters in one. And it was *all* your music, which made it meaningful. A common practice was to just 'shuffle' the whole thing, letting the iPod -- not a recording artist -- select your next track.

iTunes provided a big market for singles for the first time in decades, and made playlists easy, too. The units that really seemed to matter were the single song and the totality of the collection.

All the new things have antecedents in the old things: the CD purchases, broadcast radio stations, the mix tapes, and the free-for-all of Napster-style music piracy. But the fact that there are continuities do not mean that nothing has changed. Streaming music services like Pandora encouraged a different kind of behavior all together. They were personalized radio, and they put the full-weight of whizbang algorithmtude behind their track selections. In the early days, they heavily promoted the Music Genome Project, which claimed to be able to break music into its components to find what you liked deep inside the music, and then serve up novel recombinations of those sound structures. Your results varied, but it was interesting. If the iPod collection was the phenotype, Pandora claimed to find the genotype. Personal genomics for your taste. 23andMe for people who like The Monkees.

Pandora never quite sat right with me, though. I felt like it never quite understood me. Like, just because I like soul music from Philadelphia in the early 1960s doesn't mean that I like late-1980s, peak-synth Quincy Jones. On the other hand, it was cheap and discovering new music was fun.

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Rdio's office in San Francisco (Alexis Madrigal)

In 2010, I got Rdio. I liked it because, in contrast to Spotify, it struck me as admirably traditionalist about music. Even though you could find out about music from what your friends were listening to, the service hewed closely to the old LP interface. Rdio's user interface was organized around albums, and looking through the site felt like browsing the racks at a record store. It was a happy medium between the anarchic glee of music piracy, the iTunes pay-per-song model, and the pure streaming models like Pandora. Rdio, for me, is a huge record store that I can shop in as much as I want to for $10 a month. Rdio VP of product Chris Becherer called it "the celestial jukebox." It completely changed my music habits. I listen almost exclusively to Rdio, while my (lovingly collected) MP3 collection sits on a hard drive somewhere in a closet. But I wonder: how is it warping my ears?

All this to say: music distribution is crazy these days. On one axis, there are competing business models: transactional ones like iTunes, in which you pay per song/album versus access models like Rdio/Spotify/Pandora, where you pay a monthly fee for the ability to play a library of music. On the other axis, there are new possibilities in music listening. Music fans can stick with albums or singles (the units of yore), create their own playlists, or stream computer-generated playlists of all kinds.

The classic behaviors of discovery, acquisition, and consumption are all being extended and mutated and monetized.

And things got a lot muddier this week when Rdio amped up its Pandora-like Stations offering. Now, you can pick an artist, label, or friend, and stream a playlist of music based on them. Tracks are selected by a heavily modified version of EchoNest's recommendation algorithm going to town on Rdio's collection of 20 million songs (Pandora has about a million). Rdio doesn't disclose how many free or subscribing users it has, but, by all accounts, it is much smaller than Pandora, which has more than 70 million users.

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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