What does it mean to “own” music in 2012?

From The A.V. Club:

The Roots released Undun, their 10th solo studio album, in 2011. Hip-hop labels are notoriously loath to send promo copies ahead of high-profile releases, so The A.V. Club didn’t get Undun before it came out on December 2. By then, our “best music of 2011” feature had already closed. Even though The Roots have been on my best-of list since I started making them, I wasn’t going to include an album I hadn’t heard.

By the time Undun dropped, I’d been subscribing to Spotify for months, though it still took a while for me to realize I could just use the service to get the album. I joined as a premium subscriber, kicking down $10 a month for the option to use Spotify on my phone and download songs. So I went into Spotify, and using its unnecessarily complicated playlist system, downloaded Undun. As expected, it became one of my favorite albums of the year (I could listen to “One Time” on repeat for hours), and I was able to get it on my Pazz & Jop ballot.

But the Spotify process felt anticlimactic. Yes, I had Undun, but I didn’t really have it. Some lower-quality DRM tracks on my phone and computer and a thumbnail of the album cover are a far cry from the—here it comes—tactile experience of physical media, with its discs and liner notes I always read.

Then it occurred to me: Does it even matter?

I don’t have Steve Albini’s ears, so those sub-CD-quality tracks still sound good on my noise-canceling headphones. (I’m enough of a snob to avoid earbuds because of their lack of low end.) Assuming I bought the CD, I would’ve ripped it (at a higher bit rate than Spotify), uploaded the tracks to my phone and Frankenpod (an iPod I upgraded with a 300-gig hard drive), then filed the disc away in one of the Case Logic sleeves on my bookshelf. Joining them there would be the liner notes I read once or twice.

I only listen to a small portion of my music on my home stereo (though I’ve been trying to increase it), so any CDs or vinyl I buy can generally look forward to long, long periods of inactivity. The layer of dust atop some of those Case Logic sleeves grows less fine by the day. And seven months later, I still don’t own a physical copy of Undun, though my Facebook timeline shows the album has received plenty of attention from me.

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