Okay, so we can all agree by now that computer technology has had a momentous impact on recorded music. And we might also agree that we are still pretty much in the middle of watching that impact unfold.
But all this unfolding, which has been going on for almost 15 years at this point, is starting to leave a bad taste in this music fan’s mouth.
Because what we talk about when we talk about music, here in the internet age, often isn’t music at all. All the hype and the social media buzz around music in the 2010s seems far more often about distribution channels, devices, and apps rather than notes, melodies, and sounds. While we rightly appreciate (and maybe even take for granted) the downloading, the streaming, the file-sharing, and the vast quantities of music digitisation has made available to us, we seem rarely, collectively, interested in understanding that quantity and convenience have little to do with the meaning and import of listening to music.
And so I am here in defence of music. Of music music—not social music sites, not music apps, not the ability to stream, or the ability to store songs in the cloud. I am here to extol the delicious, indescribable good that music can be to our ears, our psyches, our souls. I am here in particular to extol the marvellousness of recorded music, for its ability to be with us where we are, to soothe us and stir us and remind us, in ways both ineffable and unmistakable, of nothing less than the majesty of life itself.
But to do that I am going to have to point out a few ways in which digital technology is messing with us. Bear with me for a moment.
Think about this, for starters: in less than 15 years, the internet has transformed recorded music from a prized possession into something presumed by a disconcerting number of web denizens to have literally no value.
Or think about the fact that not long ago, even relatively casual music fans listened to their favorite music with the care and attention one gives to something of consequence. Today, songs flood through people’s digital existences at a tempo that debilitates a sense of custody or care.
Or maybe just think about this: when you had to take yourself in the three-dimensional world to a physical retail store, flip through material items to find something of your liking, and pay actual hard currency to take possession of your music item, and when that music item might be one of only two or three you might take possession of in, maybe, a month or two, well then you damn well made sure you sat and listened hard to the thing, and plenty more than once or twice.
Is it so difficult to see that effort creates payoff? Is it so difficult to remember the hoary adage about there not being any free lunch? I am here to defend the rewards of active listening, of music as soul balm rather than hard drive filler, of recorded music as an artifact of great value, regardless of whether the recording is housed on a piece of plastic or, apparently, nowhere at all.
And yes, the bump in the road here has something to do with the incorporeality of the digital file. In renouncing its physical form, in becoming just another series of bits and bytes in a computer-focused world, music acquired bells and whistles but relinquished some of what traditionally made it special—more central in both our culture and our hearts.
Now don’t get me wrong—I love my MP3s and my portable music devices, no question. But I don’t necessarily love the side effects that technological advances have had on the otherwise simple act of listening to and responding to music. Especially considering that technological advances seem so often to be about convenience, which is posited to everyone as a win-win.
Oh if only. As a matter of fact, I believe that the longer we refuse to acknowledge the double-edged sword of convenience, of access to everything all the time right away, the harsher will arrive, someday, the Mephistophelean downside. Or maybe it’s already here.
The rewards of recorded music are inherently unavailable to the digital music glutton, because the rewards of recorded music require committed listening. Physical purchasing of a physical object fosters committed listening, but it’s not the only way. There are surely plenty of you out there who have flipped your music collections to the digital side while remaining committed listeners. It’s a bit harder, though, isn’t it? It takes exactly the kind of thought and effort that the digital landscape, by its very nature, undermines.
How committed is someone going to be to any one of hundreds of digital music files being accumulated weekly, even daily, via the effort of clicking a mouse button, for the cost of precisely nothing? The pirates, indeed, prove their own pathetic-ness as music fans, since as a group they seem far more interested in making sure they never have to pay for recorded music than in connecting with it deeply enough to understand that soul-stirring music can’t possibly be expected to exist only and always for free.
But I digress. Sort of. The fact that a discussion of music in the digital age leads rather inevitably to a discussion of piracy tells you something right there. Pirates are not true music fans, and yet they loom over the 21st-century digital music landscape to date like a stalled cold front in the dead of winter.
Maybe spring will yet arrive, and if it does, it will come from those who still feel the deep joys of the music itself, those who dare to allow it the time and space in their lives to effect its magic. I have come here in defence of music and in the end all I can ultimately say, with a nod to E. M. Forster, is: only listen….
‘Music that reminds does open the door to that imp of the concert hall, inattention. To think of a gray-green tapestry is not very different from thinking of the backs of blurred. The sounds! It is for them that we come, and the closer we can get up against them the better. So I do prefer “music itself” and listen to it and for it as far as possible.’
‘Not Listening to Music’, Two Cheers for Democracy, E.M. Forster
Jeremy Schlosberg curates the music recommendation blog fingertipsmusic.com and periodically writes fine essays on the miasma that is the post-Napster music industry.
This essay edited from the original.