This is the story of how I came to be the proud owner of an authentic compact disc of Jars of Clay presents The Shelter. It’s also the story of the digital media age, the new realities in the music business, and the jarring transition faced by my particular generation of music-lovers. The story begins two weeks ago.

Let’s start with some context: I turned 40 this summer. I don’t know if my generation has a name – those names confuse me – but I think we’re probably best defined as the group whose formative years spanned the 70’s and 80’s. I think we’ll be the ones with some of the most interesting stories twenty years from now about a childhood in the dark ages of technology. We witnessed the birth (or at least the widespread adoption) of the microwave, the cordless phone, the personal computer, the video game console, the VCR, and more. We were old enough to remember these events but young enough that by the time we’re geriatric each will seem wildly antiquated and mysterious.

Musically, we grew up through vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassettes, and CDs. We debated the merits of each. Records were good because you could skip directly from song to song and, if you had a cool turntable like mine, you could stack a bunch of records on the spindle and listen for hours. (The unadvertised advantage of records, of course, was the ability to play them backwards and thereby listen for the subliminal messages on “Another One Bites The Dust”.) But, records warped if they got too hot, and I wore out more than one stylus over the years. Cassettes were mostly horrible, but they had two major advantages: they played in cars, and you could record on them. The mixtape was born, and so was the illegal copying of music. I still remember that summer at the beach when my friends and I played my rock mix tape over and over, the one on which Aerosmith’s “Dream On” was so rudely interrupted by the end of Side A.

The cassette era was mercifully supplanted by the arrival of the Compact Disc. I bought my first CD, Who’s Next, before I had a CD player, because I saw the future (and because I worked in a record store and got an employee discount). I’ll never forget the night I was at my buddy Steve’s house and his older brother drove up with a brand new CD player in his car! We went right out and listened to “90201” by Yes, and all those keyboards were mesmerizing.

And so it came to pass that I began collecting CDs in earnest, and now I am blessed with hundreds. Then, just when my generation thought we had it all figured out, Karlheinz Brandenburg had to go and invent the mp3. Napster exploded everything we thought we knew about the music industry, then Apple seemed to put it back together, and now we are a generation torn.

See, my generation remembers album covers. The big ones, 1 ft. x 1 ft.. We read liner notes and lyric sheets, and many of us are baffled by our younger friends who are completely content with a single download off an album and maybe a glance at error-ridden lyrics on some website that’s desperate for me to “Download Ringtones Right To My Cell!” Still, we can’t deny the unparalleled convenience, portability, and access of this new digital music reality, even as the industry crumbles around it.

Okay, now I can start my story. Two weeks ago, I think I might have finally caught up to these insouciant young folks. I joined Spotify.

If, like me, you’re not the earliest of adopters, Spotify is a Swedish music streaming service that recently landed in the US. It’s got over 15 million songs, and you can listen to all of them, all for free. You have to request an invitation and download a little app, and you have to listen to a few short ads along the way,* and, yes, a few significant bands are missing (Beatles, Zeppelin), but what is there is extraordinary.

I didn’t take me long before I had Spotify connected to Facebook and I could see music that had already been discovered by my friends. For example, I had no idea, until I saw it on my friend Jeff’s playlist, that Relient K had covered a Justin Bieber song! That same friend Jeff had an Owl City list, and I remembered I had wanted to hear their (his) latest album, but it had kinda slipped by me in the shuffle.

That’s when my head exploded. I keep a mental list of CDs I might want to buy since, as you know, I’m a holdout from the vinyl record generation. Given my limited budget, I look for massive sales, scour the used CD bins, and for a few dear artists I go ahead and pay full price. But plenty get missed along the way.

I missed a Bebo Norman release. On Spotify, I just type his name and – poof! – there’s his entire catalog. Brand new Steven Curtis Chapman? Bingo.

And round about October of last year, I chose not to buy Jars of Clay presents The Shelter. I love the band, and I think they’re one of the best in Christian music right now. I thought The Long Fall Back to Earth was among the single best records of 2009. But this Shelter thing seemed a little different to me, maybe even a little gimmicky, what with the collaborators on almost every song. Given that pesky limited budget for music, I passed.

But then, while my head was exploding, I remembered I could listen to the whole record for free on Spotify. “jars of clay shelter”, I typed, and – poof! – an hour’s worth of music. I loved it.

Now here’s the economy part. I’ve invited a few friends to Spotify, and the first question is always, “How is this free?” There are subscription plans, and the free plan does have the little ads, not unlike Pandora, but it sure doesn’t seem like enough to save a hurting industry.

And here’s my answer: perhaps it will stick the dagger a little deeper into the music biz, but the labels are buying in, so maybe it’s generating more revenue than it seems.  There’s also something else at work. See, I listened to an album on Spotify, one I had passed on before, and then I bought it. I paid my $13.99 at my local Lifeway Christian Store and now I have cover art and liner notes and a shiny disc I can play anywhere. Because my generation still cares about shiny discs. Well, most of us do.

Maybe the discovery of music begets the purchase of music. Maybe there are enough of us out there who aren’t just consumers of music but also patrons. Maybe we need a risk-free way to dig through a supersaturated morass of songs and albums, find what’s good, and then go buy it. Or maybe I’m naïve, and labels are dead, and the CD is dead, and dinosaurs like me are going to our graves wallowing in our shiny discs and our liner notes, yelling at kids to get off our lawns.

But I’m optimistic. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have new music to discover.


*If you’re really curious about all these details, Jars of Clay’s own Matt Odmark explains Spotify in a 16 minute video blog: