/ sound + vision:

“a film is more like music than like fiction.” —Stanley Kubrik

Bemoaning Digital Music: Get Over It

I Heart the iPod

I think it was Gene Simmons that said “if it’s too loud, you’re too old.” Having reached that age, I must admit “it” is in fact very often “too loud.”

But the same truism can be tweaked to express disdain for old-foggie pundits endlessly bemoaning the erosion of quality music consumption by the accessibility the digital age has afforded us. Steve Almond of the Los Angeles Times writes:

“…I wonder if  [technology] hasn’t made [music] less sacred. The ease with which we can hear any song at any moment we want no matter where we are…has impoverished the actual experience of listening to music. Music is more accessible than ever, but it’s also less ‘sacred’.”"

Mr. Almond goes on to propose some well-reasoned arguments on how pre-digital listening habits fostered a ritualistic, tactile, more intimate experience, making listening to a record a “transcendent event with real emotional impact.” There is certainly something to be said for sitting on the floor in your room, taking in the album art, liner notes and lyrics, listening to every nuance of the record without any other distractions. I spent the better part of my teenage years doing exactly that (when I wasn’t pining for the foxy redhead in my Social Studies class). And today I still on occasion lament that I don’t often fully absorb every record I pipe through my computer. But, for the most part, I respectfully call Bullshit on Steve’s nostalgia.

When I was a teenager, I could recite the track for any given record; recall which songs were on side one or two; name the record’s producer; tell you where it was mixed and who engineered the sessions; I could rifle off all the member’s names of any given band I took a liking to more quickly than I could the capitals of the 50 states. And while this might still be the case for certain contemporary records I’ve consumed between the ages of 35 – 41, by and large I have a somewhat diminished command over the details and nuances of my huge music collection.

But brotha, please. Had we not passed from the golden age of the turntable (yes, the Rolling Stones pre-1974 catalog most definitely sounds better on vinyl) to our current milieu, our exposure to (or at least the viability of acquiring) the vast array of musical styles and talent available to us today would be seriously hampered by budget and time. Mr. Almond reminds us that “in the pre-historic 70′s listening to music took time and commitment.” Well sir, you are no longer a teenager, but an adult with a job, responsibilities, and, presumably, a social and family life that requires nurturing and constant attention. I mean, who other than teenagers have the discretionary time to sit around in their room devoting hours to doing nothing else than listening to records? Yes, that experience lends a certain sacredness and commitment to the act. But the portability of our music collections afforded to us by the mp3 frees us to carry vast amounts of music that can be consumed just about anywhere, at any time. This enhances, not impoverishes, our appreciation. Claiming otherwise would be like a foodie claiming he’d rather live in the woods and eat only the food you can catch, kill and cook on your own, rather than living in Manhattan, where you have access to the entire world’s cuisine within a few short blocks. The fact that I wouldn’t be able to break down and identify every subtle flavor and discern it’s complex mix of ingredients every time I sampled a new dish doesn’t mean I would not enjoy the shit out it. (Sorry, maybe that wasn’t the most appetizing phrase for the metaphor, but it does lend an appropriate ring of emphatic commitment common to adolescent opinions.)

We have without a doubt lost some of the valuable qualities of pre-digital music consumption. I commend Mr. Almond for articulating and reminding us of it. But would I trade it for the 200 gigabytes (nearly 3000 records) that have vastly broadened my exposure and appreciation of music and continue to feed my obsessive consumption of it? No. Fucking. Way.

You can read Steve Almond’s article here…

  1. Tuesday 04.06.2010 | 2:30 EDT

    KBJr says:

    And now with The Cloud looming in the not distant future, many of us may not even ‘own’ digital copies anymore…it will all live in the air and we’ll just grab whatever we want when we want, and then back it goes after each listen. The next gen of music listeners will really have a different experience than we had coming up. There will probably be even more ‘casual’ listeners, I suppose. Collectors will still be around, but probably less and less.

    The trouble is – as it already is even in the current configuration – how do we find things we’ll like when so many choices are available.

    Interesting quote from Dave Kusek about this coming infinite access: “Knowing what to listen to is more important than having it in your collection. That is becoming more true every day. There are lots of people currently working on this challenge. Someone is going to find a really slick way to find music that we are truly interested in, and that software will become invaluable.”

    I think I’ll stick with you guys, though. I like the balance between access and ownership of the physical items that I deem special.

  2. Sunday 04.04.2010 | 9:49 EDT

    crispo says:

    I think what Miles is trying to say is that he swings both ways.

    1. Monday 04.05.2010 | 12:53 EDT

      miles says:

      +1

  3. Sunday 04.04.2010 | 6:44 EDT

    miles says:

    I concur and I don’t. I mean, of course it’s indescribably beautiful that we have access to all the things we have access to now (musical and otherwise), but it’s fair to point out the ways the absorption process has changed. And it’s an enormous change. Music as religion is different for today’s average human than it was fifteen or twenty years ago. No, I don’t prefer having to pay a lot of money for music. I don’t prefer having to buy the entire record for just one song. I don’t prefer having to be still enough that the record doesn’t skip.

    But it’s also true that I don’t value individual songs or albums the way I once did simply because of quantity. It’s changed my ability to appreciate. I just have so much shit that I can’t possibly revere it all as deeply as I once did. So while I listen to almost everything in non-physical format, I still make myself listen to CDs and the occasional vinyl album sometimes just to have a different experience, and to listen to the entire album. For me it’s preferable to enjoy both experiences.


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