The Death of the Music Hunt, or: How I Learned to Love LimeWire Again
Spotify failed me. I finally found some artists that are relatively popular whose best works simply weren’t on Spotify. I was recently in a particularly Americana/Red Dirt mood, so I decided I’d take the time to finally get into Lucinda Williams and Cross Canadian Ragweed. Unfortunately, most of their music, particularly their best and most acclaimed albums, just weren’t available for streaming (note: since this ill-fated music hunt, most of Williams’s catalog has been uploaded to Spotify. Cross Canadian, not so much). These weren’t some up-and-coming, hyper-underground artists who you could still go to Bandcamp or Soundcloud or wherever and still find their music. These are artists who, at some point or another in their careers, were some of the biggest names in their genres, and their music simply wasn’t there. I was sorely disappointed, and to respond I…did nothing? I frowned, shrugged, and moved on to something I knew would be in Spotify’s still near-limitless catalog. It was a decision that actually stunned me once I thought about it, and made me realize the ease and convenience of streaming on Spotify (or any of the other major streaming apps you may choose to use) has completely changed how I find, listen to, and connect with my music.
Spotify has managed to create a listening experience that is both incredibly personalized and deeply impersonal. Whatever algorithms they use to provide recommendations are usually spot on, and can direct me to fantastic new and new-to-me music in a heartbeat. The “Discover Weekly” playlists have delivered me hundreds of songs that elicit an immediate “Hell yeah, this is the good stuff” from me and that I bookmark to revisit and explore in more depth later. And then I never, ever listen to 95% of those songs or bands ever again. Even with the bands I truly love, I can barely remember the names of their albums I discovered through streaming, much less the individual song titles. Young Mitchell would be so disappointed in me right now. I used to know every detail about the music I cared about, and prided myself on knowing what every song was that came on the radio at a random restaurant. I was even more of a music nerd than I am now, and I think much of that comes from how I found my music. Now, streaming brings the world of music to your fingertips, whether you knew you wanted it or not. But before Spotify, before Google Play, before Apple Music, before any of that, if you wanted new music you had to know what you were looking for and you had to hunt it down yourself.
For the entirety of my music-loving career, I’ve been, to put it generously, a broke-ass student. I’ve had to make my music purchases judiciously, so as a way of test-driving music and seeing what truly belonged in my lofty CD collection, I acquired a whooooole bunch of music in most of the typical less-than-legal ways. In my later high school and early undergrad years, those heady days before Spotify had an unlimited free-to-use option, I was a bit of a torrenting machine. I decided that downloading entire discographies at a time was the easiest way to figure out what bands I really liked (New Pornographers! I enjoyed them so much, I made “All the Old Showstoppers” my ringtone for a while in high school. I’m still mystified as to why I wasn’t immediately recognized as the coolest and hippest kid on campus) and disliked (t turns out that all of U2, outside of their early hits, is just kinda bad. Don’t @ me). Some of the larger and more established artists I wanted had their entire discographies ready to go in a single package to download, but most of the artists I wanted, I had to hunt down one album at a time with their Wikipedia page open in one tab and whatever database I was using to find the music in the other. I always enjoyed the challenge of hunting down that one damn album that never seemed to have a torrent with anyone seeding it, even though those challenges were often fruitless. But even though torrenting an entire discography was a good way for me to familiarize myself with albums and figure out what music I liked, what music other people cared about, and what music was really worth hunting down, it still made a lot of listening a rather impersonal affair. Years after I stopped downloading music en masse, I still have songs come up in my personal collection that I’ve never heard before and don’t know who they’re by (case in point: I just had a fantastic cover of “Shankill Butchers” by Sarah Jarosz come up in my shuffle that I didn’t realize existed, even though I’ve had her music on my computer since 2011 or so). My relationship with music was better here, but it wasn’t at its best by any means. This might be the only time in my life I say this, but, at least in terms of how well I connected to and intimately knew my music, I peaked in middle school.
Middle school (and early high school, which is basically just middle school with a slightly better reputation) was a wild time for music consumption for me and my friends. In 2005, right in the heart of my middle school years, the iPod Video and Nano were released, which completely changed the game for us all. Everyone got one for their birthdays or Christmas, and the new dick-measuring contest became a combination of who had the most music, the most unique music, and the dopest overall music collection. Everyone wanted to have a shot at being cool with their music, so, eventually, everyone turned to the same solution: LimeWire (I was personally a FrostWire user, because even then I was an unrepentant hipster apparently, and it seemed like a less virus-filled alternative. This almost certainly wasn’t true, but at least I tried my best to preserve the family desktop’s wellbeing).
For those of you who never experienced the glory days of LimeWire, or shoved them deep down your memory hole, allow me to refresh your memory. This beautiful trainwreck of a program was the heir to Napster’s file-sharing throne and was a slow, inconsistent virus minefield that would somehow always end up installing the Ask Jeeves toolbar on your web browser no matter how many times you told it not to. It was a terrible piece of software, but it was exhilarating to us youngbloods because, for the first time, we truly got to experience the power of the internet. Any media we could want was right there at our fingertips. Now, because LimeWire was a terribly made program, music had to be downloaded song-by-song. It was a massive pain in the ass, but it also created a unique way to bond to the music. You had to know exactly what song you wanted if you were going to hunt it down, and then you’d probably have to download multiple versions to try and find one that sounded like it was a passable quality. If you wanted a whole album, you had to have the track listing in front of you so you could piece it together and download it track by track, while hoping every track had even been uploaded by someone in the first place. And even when you could find what you thought you wanted, half the time the artist and track listings were just flat-out wrong. Since my friends and I typically shared our music and were all hunting down the same things, we usually ended up with the same messed-up song info. I still vividly remember one song that we all had wrong for years. It was a popular country song that was on the radio fairly frequently that we all had in our iPods as “BBQ Stain” by Kenny Chesney (album unknown, because of course). It didn’t particularly sound like Chesney, but because that’s the information we all had, it’s what we accepted. After way, way too long, we realized that the song was actually by Tim McGraw and was called “Something Like That,” a former #1 hit and one of the most played songs of the 2000s that the internet decided to mess up for no particular reason. It was an entertainingly revelatory experience for us (the internet LIED to us! What madman would do that!), but it’s also an experience and song that’s stuck with me for over a decade because of LimeWire’s idiocy.
LimeWire was an awful, bloated, inefficient way of doing anything that has thankfully been put out to pasture, but it still holds a special place in my heart because of the way it forced me to interact with music on the smallest, most intimate scale possible. Hunting music because it’s something you desperately want to find and have and listen to, rather than it just being presented to you with no effort, isn’t really an option any more, and the loss of that option comes with a loss in connection to the music we listen to. There’s less reason to learn all a band’s info, take in the various track names, or even place any information at all to the song you have playing in the background from a pre-generated streaming playlist. All that knowledge just floats into the breeze now, and leaves the listening experience a less rich place than it was back in middle school.