The seasonal deluge of best-of lists has been heavier than usual, as culture critics rank their picks for 2019 as well as the decade coming to an end. These lists have always been fodder for debate. More and more, though, they’re also a mnemonic necessity, a way to simply remember the releases washing over us at an ever-faster rate in the age of streaming media.
If the cascading menus of Apple Music or Spotify are your default music source, you might relate to the twinge of guilt I felt when reading a rave for “Legacy! Legacy!” It’s a stirring, self-confident album put out by singer Jamila Woods last May, which I listened to repeatedly and recommended to friends—but then never returned to.
If you know what it’s like to browse the endless scroll of offerings on
Prime Video, maybe you’ll relate to the déjà vu I experienced while reading an appraisal of “Sex Education.” I watched all eight episodes of the fresh U.K. coming-of-age comedy in a weekend when it dropped last January, but couldn’t tell you how it ended without help from Google.
In music and television, the entertainment genres most radically transformed by streaming distribution in the 2010s, the framework for our experience of it transformed along with the delivery system. We went from assembling music collections, one CD or digital download at a time, to getting all-access passes to virtually every recording made. Instead of waiting for weekly episodes of a TV series, we plow through whole seasons as soon as they drop, or dive into decades-old shows as if they’re brand new.
While giving us so many more choices, and so many more great choices, the frictionless ease of streaming technology also made our relationship with individual releases both more immediate and less intimate—at times, even numbing.
The industry changes behind these cultural shifts are easy to track. Television has seen an unprecedented surge in the quantity of original scripted series being produced, driven primarily by streaming-only distributors such as Netflix. Since 2014, their output has roughly quadrupled to 160 original scripted series a year. And the deluge of shows that streamers hope viewers will bond with is about to grow. HBO Max, the next big subscription service after the recent debut of Disney+, plans to premiere 80 original series in the two years following its launch next spring.
A chart of the dominant music formats over time shows a series of waves that rise and retreat, with revenue from vinyl records swelling in the 1970s, cassettes in the ’80s, compact discs in the ’90s and digital downloads in the 2000s. The spike in paid and ad-supported streaming subscriptions over the past decade not only introduced a new business model for musicians and record labels (and quelled much of the ’00s emergency around music piracy), it also created a different paradigm for listeners: Instead of being owners of our music, we became renters, granted free range in the streamers’ libraries for as long as we pay those recurring subscription fees.
Before, the transactional aspect of music influenced our approach to it. Perhaps you were more patient to let a song grow on you because you had invested 99 cents in a download on iTunes. Maybe you tried to convince yourself that an album was better than it actually was because you’d spent $9.99 on it.
”Those were like arranged marriages,” says economist Joel Waldfogel, author of the book “Digital Renaissance,” which explores the ripple effects of digitization on cultural products.
The subscription-based system mostly eliminates the buyer-beware factor. Combine that with the explosion in the volume of music being released into the streaming ecosystem, and you get a lot more sampling.
“Does that allow us to discover a bunch of good stuff we wouldn’t have discovered before?” Mr. Waldfogel asks. “The evidence is emphatically yes. Maybe that’s the payoff to the shallow or short-term relationships we have with the bunch of stuff we try but don’t end up liking.”
To extend the courtship analogy, streaming platforms have excelled in the matchmaking business, offering algorithmic matches to anticipate your tastes, or curated playlists for every mood or activity. Sometimes the dynamic is more akin to speed-dating, depending on how quickly a new Netflix show or a freshly released song needs to win you over before you tap the next one in line. On Spotify, whose stock of music grows by about 40,000 new tracks a day, users spend an average of 26 hours a month listening, up from 17 hours in 2014. The number of artists that the average user streams per month—a data point that Spotify calls “listening diversity”—increased by about 40% in three years.
Amid this smorgasbord of discovery, however, streaming companies are clearly aware that their audiences are at risk of losing some of that emotional connection that can make music and TV shows so special. Spotify recently introduced “On Repeat,” a playlist that auto-updates with the tracks users have played most in the past 30 days. Another new playlist, “Repeat Rewind,” aggregates user favorites from further back to help reinforce bonds made in the past.
That and other ’10s trends, especially the role playlists played in breaking artists, fed the increasingly fluid way music travels across borders now. “The local as global,” says Spotify’s head of curation strategy, Meg Tarquinio, describing the phenomenon that turned acts like Puerto Rican singer and rapper Bad Bunny and Korean pop group BTS into superstars in the U.S., despite their dearth of English-language lyrics.
Netflix has a menu category that prompts users to “watch it again.” The urge many people share to re-watch movies and TV shows they already love is one reason oldies are so important to streaming platforms, even as they bulk up on new releases.
In fact, six of the top 10 most-streamed TV series in this year’s first quarter were broadcast shows that premiered in the ’90s and ’00s, including “Friends,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Supernatural,” “Criminal Minds” and “NCIS,” according to Nielsen, which collects estimates of streaming activity on services that don’t make such data public.
And it isn’t only older shows that are being watched again and again and again. Consider the No. 2 most-streamed TV series on Nielsen’s list, “The Umbrella Academy.” It’s a Netflix original series about an ensemble of superpower siblings, released in February. Though there’s only one season available so far, the amount of time viewers spent watching those 10 episodes amounted to more than half the time people devoted to 192 episodes of “The Office”—which was the No. 1 most-streamed TV series—during the same period, according to Nielsen. Clearly the “Umbrella” army is engaged.
The lesson in all this: While sheer volume often seems like the defining characteristic of the streaming decade, when the “binge” emerged as a way to ingest “content,” emotional resonance is still what matters. We just need to make a deliberate effort to capture it, to not let it slip away downstream.
Here’s an experiment: Try reminiscing with your streaming-video history. If you’re a Netflix or Amazon subscriber, a couple of clicks on your profile in a web browser will get you a spreadsheet listing everything you’ve viewed on the platform, sortable by date and title.
Scanning through the 2,331 titles in my Netflix chronology was disorienting at first. Apparently the first thing I ever streamed (in 2009, when I was still receiving DVDs in red mailing envelopes) was a movie called “College Road Trip.” If only my Netflix spreadsheet listed the reason why I inaugurated the streaming revolution with a G-rated Disney comedy in which Martin Lawrence takes Raven-Symoné (and a pig?) on a madcap tour of college campuses.
Admittedly, this is far from the only entry in my Netflix time capsule worth forgetting. But it was surprising how many I recognized as personal mementos of a sort. A run of “Arrested Development” episodes from 2010 stood out, not just because the show was hilarious, but because my wife and I savored it in portions when our infant son was sleeping. Other titles were more like sense memories, such as the feeling of vivid weirdness I recall from the movie “Melancholia” in 2015, and the existential edge-of-the-seat experience of “Russian Doll” earlier this year.
Seeing our son’s first favorites join the list in the early ’10s, when music-packed kids shows “The Backyardigans” and “Yo Gabba Gabba!” were in heavy rotation, felt a little like sorting through toddler clothes he outgrew. Recent titles include more that we watched together, including the three-season “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” much of which we experienced from under a blanket during a polar vortex last winter.
Now, at 10 years old, he has a separate profile, and a growing streaming diary of his own.
Mr. Jurgensen is a Wall Street Journal reporter in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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