Streaming is making legal access to music easier, but at what cost?

Everyone but the listener can lay claim to ownership of the music in the era of unguarded access.

The other day, my CD copy of Gino’s Pain Plus Work’ broke. Released in 2006, the album is revered by those in the know as one of the best Nigerian rap albums ever, a stunning collection of vignettes depicting the gritty mundanities of being a hustler on the concrete jungle of Lagos’ inner parts. At the time, I was deeply enamoured by its lead single, the ever-affecting “No Be God,” that I would cease flipping between terrestrial TV stations every time I found the song’s video.

As a kid inching towards my teenage years, living in the far-out parts of Lagos mainland, I understood the reality and divinely-tilted optimism of “No Be God,” but Pain Plus Work’ only fully entered my life about seven years later, when I was in university, going through the motions of getting a degree and beginning to figure out that adulthood was really the trenches. I saw the CD laying on the desk of the shop attendant where I regularly bought CDs in Ilorin, and I agreed to part with 400 naira—just over double the going price for CDs at the time—because he was reluctant to sell. The logic was that I’d bought four other albums so it would all round up to a thousand naira.

Considering the countless amount of times I lost myself in the bravado and occasional introspection of Pain Plus Work’, I should probably have been charged a little more. I spent many evenings visualising the boastful raps and reality-soaked quips across the twenty tracks, and more than a few early mornings were dedicated to admiring Gino’s jaunty yet suave flow over his brother and producer/rapper Sossick’s cinematic beats.

First, the Pain Plus Work’ CD lived in the third slot of the CD player in my uni hostel, then, factoring in the obvious limitation of that listening medium, even though I used it every chance I got, I ripped it with the laptop I was using at the time. I carefully labelled each track and transferred them to the 64 GB memory card I used with three successive phones. By the time that card got permanently damaged, I had stopped using a laptop with a CD drive compartment, so had everyone in my family and all of the friends around, and I’d left uni, so I can’t even recall what happened to that CD player. Also, at this time, I was already dedicated to streaming music, and had even moved Pain Plus Work’ and a couple of select album CDs into the car, I tend to use the aux cord a lot more.

It’s a travesty that Gino’s excellent and only studio album isn’t on the major streaming platforms. A few years back, I was talking to a rap artist about seminal albums in modern Nigerian and I vividly recall he’d used the term “erasure” when we briefly fanned out on, and discussed the digital absence of, Pain Plus Work’. The latter is not a unique fate, many important albums in the canon of Nigerian music aren’t present on Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and the likes. The biggest sell of music streaming is the instant, on-demand access to millions of songs and thousands of albums. There are a few caveats, though, and one of them is that access is function of availability.

I get blue each time I remember my ‘Pain Plus Work’ CD has cracked in two unequal halves, not because I can’t listen to the album—I found a purchase link for a digital copy after a few minutes of searching—but for what it symbolically means. Call it needless sentimentality or whatever, but I’ve always deemed music as invaluable, especially the ones that mean a lot to us. Of course, in a capitalist world, everything has a price and music is not immune to that. As the ways we listen to music have evolved to fit into the post-digital age, the value of music has trended downward and, in my sentimental opinion, so has the experience itself.

There’s a pretty sizeable difference between tapping your screen and slotting a CD into an appropriate player. One feels quotidian, the other has an intentionality to it. I’m not in any way against the digital normal, but it doesn’t always carry the preciousness that I (and I’d like to assume many others) attach to music. I re-bought Pain Plus Work’ for over triple the price ($2.40 ~ 1,400 naira) and even in my gratitude, my heart involuntarily sank a bit when I didn’t catch the CD skip on the posse cut, “Lagos,” I’d become used to in the years of sporadically revisiting the album in the car CD player.

Music is a living, breathing organism. It’s art, and art is not inanimate. In the past, things like CD skips, tape winding, bleached album packs and jackets, were signifiers of our relationship to music. I remember buying the CD copy of Wizkid’s debut album, ‘Superstar’, four different times, because the girl I liked at the time, permanently borrowed the first one I bought. I forgot the second CD at a friend’s house, and my mum mistakenly trashed the third from her old car. I still had the pack for the second by the time I bought the fourth, and I simply moved that new CD into the old jacket, mainly because I wanted to remedy the silliness of going back home with a pack that didn’t have a CD.

That sort of relationship with an album extends beyond public approval, making personal meaning the main context through which we experience music. (Then, I could care less if everyone else thought Superstar’ was an instant classic—all that mattered is that it was to me.) With the increasing ubiquity of the internet and the constant evolution of smartphone technology, physical modes of music recordings were destined to be phased out significantly. It’s far from egregious, because CDs phased out tapes, and tapes did same to vinyl; the triggers were technological advancements and the sell was better access to music for more listeners.

A classic character from a hugely popular comedy-drama TV show once remarked, “New is always better.” The context was to justify a serial Lothario lifestyle, but I think it applies to the way we take to new mediums of music listening. Vinyl players are too bulky to move around, tapes and CDs have durability concerns, iPods seem unnecessary when your phone, with the help of an internet connection, can get you to almost any song you want to hear almost immediately with a couple of clicks. New seems much, much better. At the same time, though, and beyond my kind of purist sentimentality, music streaming doesn’t seem entirely Utopian from a functionality standpoint.

Some weeks back, Spotify wasn’t working a couple of hours. I found out after that downtime, because my streaming platform of choice isn’t Spotify, but it immediately struck me as a mildly apocalyptic event because I wondered what it would be like if I was one the millions of people that primarily listened to music through that medium. Every once in a while, I joke about the possibility of streaming platforms disappearing temporarily or permanently, and what that would do to us as music listeners. Spotify brought my paranoia to reality, and from what I gathered on my Twitter timeline, it wasn’t a remotely pleasant experience for listeners that went through it.

To be smug, music disappearing was not a concern in the era of predominantly physical music forms. You might misplace your CD, you might break it, someone you like might permanently borrow it, all sorts might happen, but you can buy it right back. If it can happen temporarily to Spotify, the most popular music streaming platform, then it can happen to their competitors, and it can even happen permanently. Panic and paranoia aside, what the Spotify moment reinforced is that we don’t really own our music anymore.

Music streaming emerged as a veritable means of sating a generation that didn’t see the need to pay for music anymore. Online piracy became rampant at the turn of the millennium, sending global music revenues into a downward spiral. These days, online piracy is becoming less pronounced with streaming as the modish reality of music listening. It’s a solution that makes a lot of sense, but it’s a bit jarring to me that we can’t lay ownership claims to the music we listen to through this easily accessible medium.

Obviously, artists (and/or their labels) own the music, but in this context, ownership has to do with what belongs to you—i.e. the purchase—and, to an extent, tangibility. Essentially, in lay terms, music streaming is digital renting because the music doesn’t belong the listener even though they’re in control of what they play and how they curate their libraries. It’s evident in the many complaints of lost personal playlists and libraries you come across on social media. Even artists (and/or their labels) flex their ownership, sometimes taking songs and albums off select platforms or away from streaming entirely. Everyone but the listener can lay claim to ownership of the music in the era of unguarded access. Isn’t that…something?

There’s also the matter of money; Streaming doesn’t pay a lot. While listeners can access millions of songs for a relatively small amount, artists have to earn far less than the reach of their music might suggest. Last November, indie musician Thijs Nijenhuis broke down his payouts from music streaming platforms, and the numbers were, quite frankly, appalling. (Not to throw anyone’s favourite platforms under the bus, but getting $2.99 for 1,000 streams is ridiculous to me.) A lot of it comes back to listeners and the value we attach to music. For example, I’ve seen tweets stating that Apple music should be free if you use an iPhone, which is just ludicrous.

As it stands, we’re getting what we bargain for, the monthly subscription fee continues to buy us access to music, but with it comes the risk of impermanence and it also results in putting far less money in many of our favourite artists’ pocket. The thing is, though, it’s impossible to overstate access as a perk of music streaming. Every artist wants to maximum visibility, especially in a globalised world driven by social media interaction, and streaming helps with that. As an advocate for the value of music and the tangibility of purchasing music, the downsides consistently make me wince.

My version of Utopia involves a hybrid of streaming and purchases. I stream music, a lot, and, not to be holier than thou, I also buy music. In addition to the easy access, streaming serves as a filter for me, cycling through music and finding the songs and albums I like enough to commit to buying. A few days back, I bought the Namibian producer DJ Dreas’ early 2022 album, DAYSBEFOREULTRA’, a luminous and lush electronic record. Without streaming, I might never have discovered DJ Dreas and his album, and in the days before music was digitally revolutionised, I probably would never have been able to find a physical copy to purchase in Nigeria. It’s an album I’ve been incessantly playing on my streaming platform but, in addition to signifying my reverence and relationship with the music, buying also means I’m not subject to the impermanence of streaming.

Like all the albums I’ve purchased digitally, DAYSBEFOREULTRA’ is not just locally lodged in my laptop to be played on iTunes, it’s also carefully filed on my phone and a hard drive. I’d rather not be subject to an unforeseen downtime from my streaming platform of choice, or the whims of shitty internet from Nigerian service providers when I’m trying to conjure immaculate vibes during a rainfall. Every so often, I even keep considering finding a way to burn all the albums I’ve bought unto empty CDs. Maybe it’s overkill.

Personally, I’d still take buying the physical copy of an album over its digital, partly for aesthetic purposes. Nothing beats holding an album pack, admiring the cover up close and reading through the credits. I remember Tami—The NATIVE’s Managing Editor—bringing her limited edition vinyl copy of Odunsi (the Engine)’s 2018 debut album, rare.’, to the office and trying my hardest to suppress my jealousy. I don’t even have a vinyl player—yet—but I can imagine hours getting lost in gazes at the album art.


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Part of this preference for physical is also historic. If rare.’ exited streaming and digital purchase platforms for some reason, I don’t think Tami and a few other thousand listeners are going to fret, and that means a lot, not just to them but to the history of Nigerian music, that one of the most important albums in recent years doesn’t disappear into the ether. It’s not that physical copies of music can’t fade away, it’s that they are in the listener’s control. Maybe that’s why, between the aesthetic and the transience of digitally accessing music, vinyl has been on a resurgence in recent years. Even CDs seem to be on the rebound.

To reiterate, this story is not a tirade against music streaming. While I’m still saddened about the loss of my Pain Plus Work’ CD and this was partly inspired by that, this piece is emboldening the fact that there’s an ongoing trade-off in our relationship with listening to music, and everyone needs to be more conscious about it.

[Featured Image: Web/Berklee]