You don’t want the unlimited plan.


J. Thorn

My kids didn’t understand what I was talking about. Not that this is a rarity because they’re both teenagers—nothing I say makes sense to them, it’s all noise like Charlie Brown’s teacher. I remember how much smarter my father got as I grew older, and I can only hope the same thing happens to me.

Why wouldn’t I want to share a family iTunes plan? How could I not jump at the chance to get an unlimited Spotify account for everyone? The reason wasn’t financial. Neither of those streaming services is expensive compared to the $18.99 I used to pay for compact discs in 1987.

They looked at me like I was crazy when I told them that I had spent a summer in the early 2000s ripping all of the CDs in my collection to mp3 files. Some of those CDs I’d purchased when I was a teenager. It took me weeks at a time, doing nothing but sliding plastic circles into the CD-ROM tray (R.I.P.) to create a digital version of my collection, so I could take my music with me everywhere.

But my kids are two or three generations beyond that. They never really owned mp3s, let alone CDs, cassettes, or records.

Besides the fact that services like iTunes and Spotify chew up data and we don’t have an unlimited data plan, I was still not interested in getting a streaming account.

When you have access to everything for “free,” you value nothing. At the risk of sounding like that guy, when I was a kid, music was a commodity. It was produced, sold, and purchased. The medium held a value, even music sold in used record shops. If you wanted to listen to the music you liked, when you wanted to hear it, you had to pay.

I’m not saying this was better than it is today, but here’s the reality: music today holds no value for those who never had to value it. Teenagers who grew up with their iTunes subscription treat on-demand music like Muzak—it’s background noise for whatever else is going on.

But more importantly, unlimited on-demand services create a more troubling issue at a fundamental level—unlimited choice is generally not healthy.

Without earning the goods, there’s no feeling of ownership. And without the feeling of ownership, we treat music as a car rental, and we all know what happens in and with rental cars.

Being able to listen to practically any song at any time means none of them are special. Because I have my CD collection in mp3 format on my phone, I can listen to any of my music when I want, but only what I spent decades collecting. I can’t summon every recorded song in history to my earbuds at will, and so the ones I can listen to mean something to me.

Even as a reader (and writer), I’ve been intentionally limiting my choices, which sounds ridiculous in this day and age. Too many choices leave me overwhelmed, and I can become paralyzed by the thought of going through the decision-making process.

You don’t have to be on every social media platform. You don’t have to watch every new Netflix original. You don’t have to appear to every type of reader. Pick one.

Netflix remains my sole unlimited subscription, but the app makes it feel manageable because so many movies and shows are not on Netflix. There are hundreds of options that can still be overwhelming, but not in the same way as millions of songs can be.

I’m not in Kindle Unlimited. I don’t subscribe to iTunes or Spotify. I’ve dabbled in unlimited subscription models and not long after I subscribe, I tend to use them less because having it all makes the experience less special—I haven’t earned it. I have nothing to look forward to because I already have it all.

Part of the thrill of buying a new CD on the day it came out was saving up the money and turning my purchase into an event. I’d come home and put the CD in the player, listening to it from beginning to end while reading the liner notes and looking at the artwork. As convenient as digital music has become, it is no longer an experience. It’s completely swipeable.

Just because you can get everything doesn’t mean you should.

If you ate every meal at an all-you-can-eat buffet, you’d be facing some serious health issues in a short amount of time. I believe the same thing can happen with your brain if you’re not careful.

I’ve suggested my kids read The Paradox of Choice, but I’m clearly still too dumb for them to take my advice. Maybe in another few years when I’m not so stupid.

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