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.

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Comments on “The Complex Joys Of Music In The Age Of Digital Abundance”

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Wally (profile) says:

Re: Re:

We have many modes of listening to cultures and styles of music. Everything from the rock concert to the concerto. From the analog, to the digital. The mode will always be live or many other forms of media available to us.

Fact! Culture and music change and go hand in hand 🙂
Fact! The venues may change, but we will still grow to appreciate music notated what 🙂

Wally (profile) says:

The best way to appreciate music and to have the ability to enjoy it further than ever….learn to play a musical instrument or sing in a choir during your US K-12 equivalent years of school. I played the piano, learned the violin to where I was the first seat mid row (acoustically the best place to put someone so everyone in the theater can hear), and was a base in Jr. High and High School.

Joe111111 says:

I’ve always spent a lot of time listening to music and as technology progressed into the mid 90s I spent more time listening and found it much easier to stay on top of things. Now there are so many ways to find new music and being a working dj I find myself buying and listening to vast amounts of music from artists at all levels of DIY to major label success. I’ll admit it’s a little harder to keep up and the time I spend cataloging music can be tiring but it’s worth it.

**** bonus tangental crap here ****
A common complaint from DJs is that digital distribution has made it harder to have those secret tracks that nobody else has the limited vinyl copy of. I’ve even heard my friends’ music being played in a club by some digital DJ when that track was only released on a few hundred pieces of vinyl. The guy got a copy from someone on the opposite coast who must have got it from a foreign distro. It was was shocking in a good way and for a few minutes I was a little pissed. But when it comes down to it, it’s about actual skill. Though now programs like Virtual DJ or Traktor will beatmatch for lazy/wannabe DJs and the job has come down to curation and personal style. All I know is we’re at an exciting time I’m glad that talented unknown kid from around the block has a chance to get his music heard along with today’s favorite pop hacks.

Milton Freewater says:

Re: Re:

“A common complaint from DJs is that digital distribution has made it harder to have those secret tracks that nobody else has the limited vinyl copy of. “

Yes, but the flip side is that there’s so much out there, DJs sound more different from one another than ever before. It’s not possible for every DJ to have every track, so where you direct your search determines your sound.


Re: Re: The Clear Channel Wasteland

There are some bands that owe their one-hit-wonder status to DJ’s that had to power to elevate some bit of obscure material. It doesn’t matter if it’s rare or just lost in the noise. The effect is the same.

A good DJ can still be relevant. Instead of being a gatekeeper for rare items, they can be a useful filtering mechanism. The problem is that we haven’t had any real DJ’s since media consolidation began in radio.

The labels are also trying to create an environment that’s openly hostile to anyone that would seek to be an independent DJ.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

I’m getting pretty tired of people lamenting the love of things that digital robs them of – paper books, CDs, vinyl, perfumed magazines,

Who’s talking about the new way it lets us experience the world?

How about having the entire history of recorded music at your fingertips ready to be listened to.

How about being able to follow your favorite band and be updated on what they’re doing on a daily basis.

What about how everyone can create their own personal radio station, and listen to a more diverse selection of music than any real radio station ever played.

How about all those groups you never really listened to because you didn’t enjoy hearing the whole album, but at a track at a time mixed with your other music they’re great.

About how the struggle today isn’t figuring out what to listen to, but figuring out what NOT to listen to.

Yes, we’re drowning in abundance, but that’s doesn’t make music less special. In Spies’ world he was forced to make choices based on money. I make choices based on time. There is more great music on my hard drive than I can ever listen to – more great movies than I can watch – and more books than anyone on earth could read. My time is far more valuable than money, so what is really worth my time?

Wally (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I’m getting pretty tired of people lamenting the love of things that digital robs them of – paper books, CDs, vinyl, perfumed magazines, “

I think the only way digital ever robs us of anything is when some ass hat decides to put DRM on their digital distribution platform or installs rootkits that prevent CD’s from turning into MP3 Albums on your hard disk.

argh says:

I just realized the two things I don’t like about the digital revolution. The responsibility of having to have multiple backups of my data as apposed to grabbing it off a shelf in some stable form. And that damn DRM which tries to keep me from archiving my stuff.

Otherwise, it’s all good. Well, maybe some sort of easy to read/use at a glance database that can arrange my files by any meta data I choose would be nice.

Wally (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Early CD’s used aluminum tracks and were stored in sulphur paper sleeves causing corrosion of the plastic coating thus killing your CD. Also instability was a problem when you scratched your CD’s and DVD’s. BluRay players work more like a buffering CDROM drive so even if you scratch the surface of a BluRay Disc, the data is still retrievable for playback.


Re: Re: Re: Silly FUD directed against physical media.

SOME CDs have degraded quickly. This has depended on individual titles and is not a universal problem. On the other hand, plenty of us have legacy media that has withstood the test of time whether or not it’s DVDs or CDs or even stuff that’s much older like VHS tapes.

The typical experience is far less dire.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The responsibility of having to have multiple backups of my data as apposed to grabbing it off a shelf in some stable form.

This isn’t new. When I started buying music on vinyl, then when I shifted to CDs, I still followed the same routine: tape them, then store the original media. I had to do this because both of these formats wear out over time.

Digital doesn’t wear out, making backups is much easier and less time-consuming, and they don’t take any physical space.

Digital doesn’t increase the need to make backups, but makes them much easier to do. In this regard, it’s a true improvement.

My only complaint about the “new way” is the death of album art. But that died with vinyl, so that ship had already well and truly sailed.

anonymouse says:


Seriously, i hated having to spend so much time trying to find an album where there was more than one track that i enjoyed, there were some gems and there were some albums that should never have been allowed to pollute my eardrum’s.

One of the best albums i ever owned were ones that i created myself by mixing, either on tapes or more recently on cd’s. I sent my now wife a collection of songs while we were dating long distance, a collection that was both humorous and just a little crazy, as i tried to see if she would be scared off, and also because i knew her mother would listen to it and i am one for winding up the mother in law.

That album was so cherished by my wife that when it eventually became useless after the disc basically started disintegrating. She was so sad and demanded i create a new album for her. This was about 7 years after i created the original and i cannot for the life of me remember all the tracks.

The point of this story is that there will always be music that can be mashed and mixed and there will always be music that people dislike, there is a story to be told with music but it is our own stories stories of love and the lack of it, stories of fear and overcoming it and stories of life and death.

Music means something different to everyone, where i may be listening to a track and remembering a special time in my life , someone else may listen to that same track and feel nothing, this is the magic of music.

Sometime the artist has created a track or two that pull at our heart strings , but it is our connecting that music with our real life experiences that brings it to life.

Beech says:

Yeah! I’m with this guy! And what’s the deal with cars? How can you enjoy BEING anywhere when you know you can be miles towards somewhere perhaps better in mere minutes?! Back in the good ol’ days going to see grandma was a TREAT, a PILGRIMAGE that could have taken weeks! You had time to contemplate things in nature…like perhaps the blisters on your feet, or how likely it was that of a pack of ravenous was stalking you. Now you just hop in a car and BAM! you’re there. Now grandma doesnt mean as much because you don’t need to any work to get there.

Zakida Paul says:

All this “digital abundance devalues culture” stuff is a load of bollocks. Firstly, culture cannot be measured in monetary terms; for example, can you even put a monetary value on the influence that Beethoven, Mozart, Charles Dickens or Shakespeare had on the world? I don’t think so.

Anyway, on the subject of the enjoyment of music. Before ‘teh Internets’ I had to trek down to my record shop hoping and praying that they would have something interesting for me to buy. Invariably because I live in a small community of Western Northern Ireland, they usually did not. I was limited to listening to bigger well known bands and artists.

Since the Internet and the digital revolution, I have been able to branch out much more in my music tastes because I like to enjoy a greater diversity of creativity. The number of slightly obscure, less well known truly amazing artists I have discovered is staggering. With the help of Last FM, Grooveshark, Amazon MP3 and 7 Digital, I now buy more music than I ever did before I had the Internet. I now go to more concerts than I ever did and I enjoy music infinitely more than I did before the Internet. That is something I simply cannot put a monetary value on.

desertgeek says:

There I was...

I was just thinking about how anyone who listens to “golden oldies” should be able to see the problem with thousand year copyright and DRM, then I read this.

I’m 62, and listen to lots of old music… the really old music is less complicated.

Maybe I should listen to records, then. This all sounded a lot like the pleasures of reading a paper book instead of these here now Buck Rogers electric thingamajigs.

I wonder if the article was written on a typewriter. I bet it would have been better.

Rob Lewis (profile) says:

Drowning in abundance

Haven’t read Spies’ piece yet, but, as a certifiable Old Guy, I’m sympathetic. It strikes me that your commentary crosses the same territory as his lament, but at a totally different altitude, IOW you’re largely missing the point.

Let me try to illustrate by taking a few sentences you wrote and changing a few words:

“to understand any given woman, is it not useful to have access to the women born before and after her by her parents, the girlfriends that influenced her, and those that she influenced? Or what about all the women born the same year, or attending the same schools, or living in the same town? Those complex relationships of the totality of the female sex.”

If the goal is an intimate, and, yes, romantic relationship with music, all the other music surrounding?by whatever criteria?a given piece may be of interest, or it may be quite irrelevant (Pandora’s hit ratio just isn’t that high for me). I never did an analysis of my girlfriends’ siblings or sorority sisters to help me decide whether to fall in love with them. That’s the point you’re missing. Besides, who has time to do all the exploration you advocate? It’s the old story: do you like things a mile wide and an inch deep, or would you like to choose a few things?by whatever idiosyncratic, quixotic, and maybe even just plain random processes work for you?to give your heart to. “Abundance” may have its merits, but it ain’t the whole story.

If you can’t see this, then I submit you’re being willfully blind in the service of your ideology.

Tim Griffiths (profile) says:

Re: Drowning in abundance

You can not equate a body of work from one person or group with the nature of a person. Everything about a creative work is controlled but a person is can only be influenced. Even then understanding the way a girl was brought up and who are parents are can give you a better understanding of who she is which if you are romantically involved should deepen that connection.

It’s not a case of deciding what to fall in love with (whole point is that you don’t decided these things) but of being better able to understand what you love. I don’t know about you but if I love something I want to know it better.

Let me give you an personal example, there is a band Streelight Manifesto who I fell in love with this year. The thing is that this is a band I’ve know about for years I’ve even seen live a number of times so what happen so that I love them now but not then?

Well firstly Streetlight was formed from some of the members of a band called Catch-22, a band I was utterly in love with at the time. I only pay attention to Streetlight because they’d play some of the Catch-22 song’s and for what ever reason Streelights own stuff didn’t click with me at the time.

Fastfoward a few years and some one introduces me to Bandits of the Acoustic Revolution. A short 4 track EP of folk ska style songs including a version of a Catch-22 song and I utterly adored it. Turns out it was a side project from the same song writer and it got me to thinking that I should give Streetlight another chance.

I did and I fell in love, so much so I have no idea at all how in hell I didn’t understand the genius of the band in the first place. The point of all this? Thanks to the internet not only I was able to easily get hold of everything Streetlight had done in which I totally immerse my self (all I listened to for months) I was able to use the internet to better understand what had chanced in my tastes. Turns out Tomas Kalnoky, the main song writer, is heavily influenced by eastern folk music and it was that blend with ska that I realised I was reacting favourably too.

That made me realise that a lot of music that I was listening to at the time had a common link of this eastern influence. We are talking things as disparate as Caravan Palace (electro swing dance) and Gogo Bordello (folk punk) which had the same eastern/gypsy folk influence. By being able to better understand why I was falling in love with a given band (Streetlight sit firmly as my favourite) I was able to uncover a trend in my own taste I was not really aware was there and that’s let me to looking for more music with that kind of influence.

I’ve not even gone in to how being able to consume a bands work, including side projects as well as re-listening to their old bands and being able to read up on endless interviews and talk to other fans gave me a much better understanding of their creative journey which I feel gave me a deeper connection to the music.

My point is simply this, none of that was why I fell in love with the band but by being able to understand that love better I was able to understand my own tastes better which has lead to me exploring (in all that abundance) a taste I may never have other wise identified.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Drowning in abundance

If you can’t see this, then I submit you’re being willfully blind in the service of your ideology.

I’ll admit that I don’t really understand the point you’re making, so perhaps that’s why I can “see” it. It certainly isn’t willful blindness.

In my experience, the music scene and my relationship (or “in-love-ness”?) with music is deeper than ever, precisely because of the abundance. In the old days, it was difficult-to-impossible to find music that really spoke to me.

This meant a couple of things, such as that I would pretty much just stick to artists that I already knew I enjoyed and rarely branched out and experimented with new forms. The risk was too high: music was never cheap, and if you’re purchasing an album at random, the odds are very high that it’s crap.

Although the article seems to be making the case that this made the music that I did manage to turn up more valuable, which may be true in a sense, it also meant that overall I had a less valuable experience. Nowadays, I can locate and find deeply powerful (to me) music in genres that sometimes I didn’t even know existed, or at least that I would never have taken a chance on.

My musical life is better now than ever.


Re: Data storage versus access methods.

There are any number of applications out there that will help you sort out your media. If you really want to, you can even use iTunes. The problem of “caring” for a bunch of files is quite separate from the problem of sorting through it all.

Just point the tool of your choice to where you happen to have stuff stored. Some tools don’t even require that.

Anonymous Coward says:

On a personal note this looks like someone complaining that things are moving in a way he doesn’t like maybe because he is just so used to how it was and he is pissed that things change.

I see this type of behavior all the time in many groups specially programmers, which is not surprising really, since programmers are all writers and they care about the interfaces(programming languages) that they use to access the machine, so I see a lot of people saying “This is a toy language”, “We never program using icons, that is not programming”, also engineers disagree on their interfaces too, medics disagree on their diagnosis and the processes to achieve those diagnosis, in the end it comes down to this.

The old intellectuals have been replaced by a new generation of intellectuals that do things a bit different and people are following the new kids. I call them the e-Intellectuals the tech kids that read a lot and appear to me to have become the vanguard of advance and free thinking.

GTFO of my lawn is not and option at this point, because there is no one in the lawn anymore and so sadness sets in for the old vanguard.

Wally (profile) says:


“Seriously, i hated having to spend so much time trying to find an album where there was more than one track that i enjoyed, there were some gems and there were some albums that should never have been allowed to pollute my eardrum’s. “

Well record albums I can understand. Tapes and CD’s, not so much…Sony was the only company who used DRM on CD’s through BMG. CD’s were easy to copy too because if you ripped one in 16bit 44.1Khz .wav audio format, those tracks could play on a CD player if you coppied them straight onto a CD-R disc and then finalized the CD (making it impossible to add more information to the disc).

Shane Roach (profile) says:

Consumerist Nightmare

Seriously? The guy is bummed because he has too many choices? There are too many good musicians now? How many of us have abandoned our fondness for music, meanwhile, because the real problem is a metric ton of stuff that sounds pretty much the same?

Maybe his real problem is that music, after all is said and done, is not the meaning of life, nor is the process of buying it.


The kid has some strange memories...

I think this guy is on crack. By the time CDs became commonplace, we were already well into the multimedia era. Although it was TV instead of the Internet. If you wanted to know about a band you could.

I am not sure this guy’s fantasy was even really relevant in the 50s during the heyday of the vinyl single.

Kevin (profile) says:

Ain't y'all lucky

Ok I am an oldie and can go back to the day when the marvel when the vinyl LP and 45 came to be. Yea I’m that old.
I was a commercial radio DJ and musician for most of my life and have witnessed the ever changing music and technology and wonder why anyone complains about anything to do with music these days.
Back when the only source for music was radio or your local record shop the choice was extremely limited. There was no Community radio, There was no FM and is was rare to find a radio station that would venture away from pop, Jazz and Classical music. I remember having to put a wide dipole aerial on my roof so I could pick up those rare stations broadcasting from hundreds of miles away. Local radio was pathetic at the time with limited playlists, usually the top 40. Back then we even had to pay a license fee to listen to any radio station.
Now there are literally thousands of station on and off line. The amount of music available to listen too has never been so broad yet people still whine about it.
just imagine if you lost all that is now and had 3 stations to listen too and was subjected to whatever those stations decided to play. Imagine entering a record shop that was stocked with music the record companies chose.
As with musicians try having three top ten hits and still struggle to make a decent living out of it. Ten years, 3 hits and no royalties at all. Think yourself lucky if you can afford rent and a meal.
If you are into any form of art for money then you have chosen the wrong path. 9-5 jobs pay better.
If you are in to any form of art for the love of it then find an alternative way of making an income to finance that love.
Bottom line Art does not = money

Anonymous Coward says:


Before the printing press and movable type were invented in the mid-fifteenth century, books were rare, expensive, and difficult to acquire. Many people didn’t have books at all; among the people who did have books, they were considered to be incredibly valuable property.

After the printing press and movable type, books got cheap and easy to make. They started getting printed all over the place, and everybody had them. The process has continued to the present day, when books are pretty much everywhere and printed at cost. And books aren’t valued like they used to be. They get damaged, thrown away, donated to charity shops, and lost. The lack of concern that a modern reader shows for their books would be utterly insane (and disgusting) to a scholar from the fourteenth century.

The thing is that, speaking as a book lover, I think this is a good thing. Individual books are valued far less than they used to be, and people don’t get emotional about individual books the way they used to do. But there are far more books being published, and they’re available everywhere. I prefer living in a society that’s so fantastically rich in books that individual books aren’t particularly valued. It’s better this way.

So yes…having music become abundant and easy to acquire makes us value our music less. But there’s more music, and better music, and I think society as a whole is better for it.

hopponit (profile) says:


We have had lots of music for decades. This isn’t new, just the way to discover it. Some folks seem to get nostalgic for a golden age of great music that wasn’t there. When I was growing up as a kid in the ’50s-’70s we had great music. We also had a whole lot of forgettable trash music. True then, true now. The big change has been the medium. I miss the old medium, I love the new medium. Is that a contradiction? Nope, just the flow of progress.

Zakida Paul says:

Re: music

Yes there has been lots of music for decades but not everyone had access to the full range of musical diversity until the Internet came along. Some of us live out in the sticks where the only thing played on radio or stocked in local record shops was the top 40. The Internet changed that bringing a whole world of obscure and not so obscure music into our lives. Why anyone who is not a gatekeeper would complain about this is beyond me.

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