The End of Music

A speculative look into our near future, by way of the journal of a young student.

This morning I ducked into one of the many alcoves on Cambridge St. I think I lost him - the guy in the wool coat speaking steadily into his collar, his legs pumping ceaselessly after me. I placed ten discs in my bag - each one slipped into a secret compartment and stripped of its locator data. I'm not a spy. I don't possess names of outed spies or launch codes.

I hold an antidote to the tyranny of Songstream, the world's only cloud music service. Songstream hasn't just revolutionized the way we listen to music. It has criminalized methods of listening to music through any means outside the cloud. Portable media is outlawed. Music files and compact discs have been made illegal.

All I want is to listen to my favorite music outside of the the Cloud, outside the stream. I want to listen to a song all the way through, without the advertisements that trisect it. I miss hearing a song, uninterrupted, from start to finish. I miss it and I want it back.

The typical pop song structure once went something like this:

Intro - Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Outro

Now, any one of the gazillions of songs available through Songstream, the world's one and only streaming music source, sound like this:

Advertisement - Intro - Verse - Advertisement - Chorus - Verse - Advertisement - Chorus - Outro

The ads are spliced evenly into predictable pop songs, but unconventional songs from artists like Philip Glass or Swans or Frank Zappa or any number of jazz and classical works - really anything progressive - are subject to a different sort of ad invasion. Songstream came up with a really ingenious way of figuring out where to place their sponsors.

They analyzed the sonic dips and valleys of longer, less conventionally structured songs, and inserted the ads into the dips before all the songs' numerous crescendos. The bean counters over in the Cloud figured that those crescendos constituted the 'highlights' of the song. They figured that listeners were more willing to sit through a thirty second advertisement for pimple cream if they knew that a John Bonham drum solo awaited them on the tail end of it. They were right. People don't really question the cloud. They're willing to let advertisements interrupt their favorite songs if it means cheapness and convenience.

These discs in my bag are gold. I've crammed them with a great, unfettered selection of the best songs in the universe. If I'm caught, I'll be searched, and the cloud police will find the discs, and they'll confiscate them. After that, I'll go to jail. The usual sentence for listening to non-ad-subsidized music over unauthorized portable media is five years.

I'm willing to take the risk. It's worth it. I need to hear a song all the way through. I can't stand being interrupted. Having to hear these ads is just like having to go answer the door several times during a night of prolonged lovemaking. It's just not right. It ruins the mood. It kills the heart.

The ads aren't even the worst part. There are so many songs that I once loved that can no longer be accessed in the cloud due to licensing snafus. A song that falls into licensing hell gets yanked, even if you paid for it at one time. Said  song disappears from your stream library. For good.

Most of the songs that got yanked were my favorites. I think most of them are on my discs. They're ad free. This is contraband of the best sort.

I decided this little alcove - right near a little college cafe - was the perfect place for me to test out a disc. My portable CD player is one of those bulky devices from long before the age of wifi and bluetooth. I pop in a disc and place one bud in my ear. Within minutes, tears were streaming down my face. I had forgotten how powerful the art of the song was before the ads broke it apart like shrapnel. Emotional resonance of chord structure builds on itself without ads.

Songstream music, though, breaks up a powerful moment with angry voices and loud sound effects. Ads break through the musical tapestry like an invasive species.

"Introducing, the ALL new..."
"Tired of paying full price for...."
"There has never been a better time to own gold!"
"Are you suffering from...."

When the song returns from hiatus, and the chorus breaks in, it's like the song has been depleted of its charge. The battery powering your bond with the music drains dry. The song becomes like the friend who went off to war and came back different, battered by noise and ptsd. The song feels diluted, like its very meaning has been commandeered by the gross proclamations intentions of the ads that encircle it.

It's nefarious. It's awful. It's what music is now - hints of once transcendent strains interrupted with noisy burst of grabbing hands, grabbing all they can.

The song ends and I stand and slip the disc back into my pack. I continue toward the campus, mindful of men in wool coats, the ghostly recollections of ad-free songs still running through my memory.


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