Is YouTube the new record store?

It’s not about the rejection of the physical space. Rather, it is about how we discover and rediscover new and old music.

June 10, 2013

When Romanthony passed last month, I rushed to YouTube to pull up as many of his songs as possible. My iPod was broken. Spotify would only have bits and pieces. But on YouTube, I could find the classics that spoke to me years earlier and still resonated deep in my psyche. I started with "Hold On" and transitioned to "The Wanderer," eventually falling into a beautiful hole of soulful and deep house, genres I hold up as beacons of truth and musical beauty. 

YouTube is my iPod. YouTube is my record store. It’s not about the rejection of the physical space. Rather, it is about how we discover and rediscover new and old music. It is my place for accessing something quickly and then moving on. It is my place for finding something lost, for discovering one song after the next as related artists and albums and genres blend together to form one perfect space of music. A song is just a click away. Consumption is easier and more accessible. Discovery happens in an instant.

I cannot remember the last music video I saw. I grew up fascinated with the form, sure that I would someday create them. In music, I found perfect snapshots of the human condition. My favorite films are slices of life, quick glimpses into a character’s life, and then a slipping away as fast as the audience entered the story. Songs exist in much the same way. They too were slices of life, were snapshots, were ways in which I could gather a quick glance of the musician’s state of mind and then slip away. A music video then was a way to explore this: what was he or she trying to say and how can we continue to say it. 

But the way I consume music now is so radically different than in childhood. The aural and visual were intertwined then. Now, I think about music as the soundtrack to my life, a way to escape the outside world, a way to concentrate on things that need to get done. It exists as a complement to my everyday existence. Visuals matter little. Sometimes I fear lyrics do as well. What I crave then is mood, rhythm, the way the song feels, and access.

In March, Google announced a plan to launch its own competitor to Spotify through YouTube, though YouTube already surpasses Spotify in many ways. Specifically, it is a great source for underground, obscure, and out of print music. Will these songs be eliminated with the launch of the new service? It appears unlikely, but Google is known to make swift cuts with little notice. YouTube certainly won’t go away, but will our unlimited access to just songs for songs sake still survive? At its core, this is what brings me back again and again to YouTube. Actual music videos matter little.

According to an article from CNN, this consumption practice is more common than not. Writers Ryan Bradley and Jessi Hempel wrote:

“Most of the website's top viewed videos are music, and the viewers of those videos represent a demographic that the record industry has always coveted: teens. Most tellingly, according to a Nielsen "Music 360" report from 2012, a startling 64% of teenagers prefer YouTube over any other music listening and discovery engine.”

Not everyone went to the record store in the past and not everyone needs to go to one in the present. For the next generation, discovery happens with a few clicks. I can't say that this is worse than discovering music in the past. If one never grew up finding music by pouring through record bins, how could I dismiss how it is discovered now? What matters is that the curiosity and eagerness to find something different still exists. The medium in which they discover is less relevant.

The Internet and our access to a variety of different musicians, singers, albums, and genres of music within a matter of seconds has changed the way we consume music. It was during those late nights my freshman year of college that I first started listening to many of the musicians I still call my favorites. I think this has been a similar experience for many. Their tastes are now expansive. Perhaps they wouldn’t have given the local hip hop or R&B station a chance in the past, but now they can sample and discover and genuinely enjoy.

I cannot know for certain, but a part of me understands that the bands and artists that I most enjoy would not have been a part of my life without constant access to the Internet. I went through an intense phase obsessed with mutant disco, no wave, and post-punk music. Would I have found myself "there" if there was no YouTube, no access to millions of songs uploaded by faithful fans? I doubt it. I fell into that love by discovering other favored genres. The Internet as a whole led me from one source to the next. The consumption might be gluttonous, but it is still born out of a love of the overall power and pleasures of music. 

A browser window is open at work as music plays. I don’t look at the screen except to change the song. And it is the changing the song that is key. I understand the appeal of the cloud, but there is something to be said for wanting exactly one song and grabbing it immediately. I do not need everything with me all at once. What I need is to know that what is wanted at the right moment is there. My iPod has always reflected this idea. I keep the discographies of my five favorite artists, but for everyone else, it is dependant upon the force of my moods.  

At its core, YouTube’s appeal stems from its usability. It is the top video streaming service because of its ease and simplicity. With YouTube, audiences are able to share clips immediately and quickly. This same idea can be applied to music itself. Videos must be created for the songs to stream, but the image itself typically remains static. The song is what is really necessary. 

Britt Julious blogs about culture in and outside of Chicago. Follow Britt's essays for WBEZ's Tumblr or on Twitter @britticisms.

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