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Music vs. TV for attention span

Posted: January 24, 2014 9:07 a.m.
Updated: January 27, 2014 5:00 a.m.

As a connoisseur of both music and television, I’ve noticed some interesting trends during the last few years. Like many things, such trends can be considered good or bad. On the good side are the abilities to tailor entertainment experiences to our own preferences and defer listening or viewing experiences to meet our busy schedules.

Those who follow me on Facebook know I listen to a lot of music -- a lot -- through Spotify, the online music service. Spotify offers a computer program, Web interface and mobile app with access to tens of millions of songs. Despite their vast library, they don’t have everything, so I still maintain a small music library through iTunes, the original record store disrupter.

With iTunes, Spotify and a host of other music services, you can create your own playlists or listen to “stations.” Many of these services are free with ads or ad free with a fairly modest subscription price. In addition to saving entire albums as their own playlists, I’ve made “super playlists” of categories of music I like, such as pop, rock, (classic) jazz, smooth jazz, new age, R&B, vocalists and even soundtracks.

Some of the services include pre-made and/or automatically updated lists of some categories of music. For instance, on Fridays I love to flashback to the 1980s with a pre-made Spotify-maintained playlist.

Another great thing on Spotify is the chance to discover new music or older music I’ve missed. For example, when I originally wrote this paragraph (Wednesday at 4:20 p.m.), I was listening to an album called Is There Anybody Out There by a New York City duo called A Great Big World. They’re listed as an indie pop/rock duo. Most of the album is pretty snappy, up-tempo stuff, but also includes what seems to be their biggest single to date, a ballad called “Say Something” with Christina Aguilera.

I doubt I would have discovered A Great Big World on my own, but with Spotify’s New Releases playlist, I usually discover at least one new artist to listen to each week, sometimes more.

The drawbacks to Spotify go back to the radio stations I used to work for in the 1980s and ’90s. Pay $10.67 each month, and you don’t even hear commercials. It’s like listening to an infinite Walkman (remember those?) through your smartphone or computer. As these services continue to dominate the market, radio stations continue to lose steam. Ratings are down with advertisers fleeing for other ways to reach consumers. When I listened to a Midlands-area station the other week, most of the commercials were from low-level national advertisers I’d expected to hear on late night talk shows. I went back to Spotify. (For oldies, of course, I recommend our local station, Kool 102.7 FM.)

I should also point out that the music industry and the artists themselves aren’t making a lot of money off these services. I would have no problem paying a little more if I knew artists were getting the money they deserve for their musical creations.

On to TV. Believe it or not, I don’t have a television in my house right now. I watch my favorite TV shows on the Internet. For the most part, I’m able to play them back through various networks’ websites. In some cases, I use Netflix and, more rarely Hulu, along with a few other services. Like Spotify and iTunes (which also offers TV shows, for a price), these are online services that, at various price levels ranging from free to ... well, not so free, give you access to TV shows, past and present.

Because almost all my favorite shows are available online, I can watch them at my convenience. In most cases, it’s a delay of only a day; in some, I have to wait a week. A couple of networks have made it harder than others, requiring you to prove that you subscribe to a particular cable service in order to watch their shows when immediately available -- which is weird since the whole idea of watching online is to cut the cord, so to speak.

On the positive side for me, I can watch certain shows I would otherwise only get to see if I had cable. HBO’s The Newsroom and Game of Thrones are the biggest examples. Thanks to online outlets, I can see these shows -- again, usually the next day or following week -- for a substantial discount compared to having to subscribe to HBO itself.

Which, like my point about radio, means HBO, cable providers, broadcast networks and advertisers aren’t making as much money from my viewing pleasure as they used to.

Layered atop all of this is an attempt to end “net neutrality,” the concept that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should not be allowed to block content and/or throttle Web speeds to their customers. Let’s say an ISP is owned by a big entertainment conglomerate. That conglomerate probably don’t like losing money to Spotify and Netflix. So, they might decide to have their ISP block them, or reduce Internet speeds to make it harder for customers to enjoy their services.

Ironically, that doesn’t help artists, television producers or advertisers. It just hurts everyone -- except the conglomerates and their ISPs, I guess.

In any event, it’s clear that consumers have a lot more choice when it comes to listening to music or watching TV shows. In some ways, that’s good: exposure to more artists and TV shows and the ability to listen or watch what you want when and how you want to.

In some ways, that’s bad: with more choices, we’re more distracted and interact less with the real world. The one solution I’ve found: trying to watch at least some things with my sons when appropriate -- a sort of throwback to the days when the television set and radio cabinet dominated the living room.

Ah, those were the days. Right?

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