The Complex Joys Of Music In The Age Of Digital Abundance
from the times-they-are-a-changin' dept
A recent issue of The New Yorker had a fine essay by Mike Spies about the joys of discovering and listening to music. But its overall tone is rather melancholic:
We seem to have created an environment in which wonderful music, newly discovered, is difficult to treasure. For treasures, as the fugitive salesman in the flea market was implying, are hard to come by — you have to work to find them. And the function of fugitive salesmen is to slow the endless deluge, drawing our attention to one album at a time, creating demand not for what we need to survive but for what we yearn for. Because how else can you form a relationship with a record when you’re cursed with the knowledge that, just an easy click away, there might be something better, something crucial and cataclysmic? The tyranny of selection is the opposite of freedom. And the more you click, the more you enhance the disposability of your endeavor.
Of course, this is a common complaint — that digital abundance is somehow devaluing our experience of art. It’s a close cousin of the idea put about by the copyright industries that the lower the price of something, the less you value it (neatly confounding two quite distinct concepts — “price” and “value”.) But the post by Spies rises above that, partly because it is so poetic in its phrasing, and partly because it gets down to specifics. Here, for example, is his description of some of the pleasures enjoyed during that now-lost era of analog scarcity (the music was already digital, but the packaging wasn’t):
When I returned to my dorm, I unwrapped the cellophane and turned the album over in my hands, flirting with it, searching for clues about what lay within. The cover image of the singer seemed to tell the story of a man who, perhaps in order to avoid great pain, had entered oblivion, but done so in style, with a cool cigarette sticking straight out of his mouth. The question was: How did he get to oblivion, and why did he seek it out in the first place? The answer, needless to say, was the CD itself: the music, the sonic promise.
There seem to be two distinct elements here. The first is “clues” for the music: that cover image of the singer. In the pre-Internet days, such images had considerable power because they were one of the main ways musicians were visualized for the public. Today, a simple image search will bring up hundreds, if not thousands of images of musicians engaged in lots of activities, both cool and uncool. But for anyone who was truly “searching for clues” about the music, even the uncool images might, in their authentic awkwardness, offer vital hints.
The other element, of course, is the music itself, and its “sonic promise”. But again, to understand any given piece of music, is it not useful to have access to the pieces written before and after it by the artist, the pieces that influenced it, and those that it influenced? Or what about all the pieces written in that year, or for the same musicians, or played at the same venue? Those complex cuts of the totality of recorded music — the rich and surprising playlists that people make and share — are something that the Internet with its digital abundance is uniquely well-placed to supply in a way that CDs never could. Isn’t that multidimensional richness something to be welcomed, not feared?
On the one hand, Spies seems to be saying that today it’s too easy, that we don’t do enough to earn the pleasure of our music by spending time as we did in the old days:
if I was going to buy a CD, back when I bought them, I had to eke out some time, and even pray for a little luck, as I could spend hours in a dimly lit store, and leave with nothing. So I had to make a conscious decision that I was going to take my chances.
But on the other, he seems to be lamenting the fact that it’s just too hard, that we can never know whether we have found what we are looking for, because there is always more to explore:
how else can you form a relationship with a record when you’re cursed with the knowledge that, just an easy click away, there might be something better, something crucial and cataclysmic?
Perhaps he just needs to recognize that, as in so many domains, the shift from analog scarcity to digital abundance brings with it a need to change our own ways of thinking and listening. Now, the difficulty of finding music that we like — the hours spent bent over racks of CDs in that “dimly lit store” — has become a challenge that is physically trivial, but mentally far more demanding because it is unconstrained and almost limitless in its extent. It’s no longer about arriving at that definitive record that is “crucial and cataclysmic”, but more about enjoying the journey through, and connections between, entire sequences of wonderful musical performances.
I suspect that the generation now growing up with digital abundance will have no difficulty forming their own deep and important emotional bonds with collections of music that they have discovered not through a slow process of seeking and finding in the physical world, but by constant, high-velocity adventures through an equally valid digital space.