at the push of a button

Has downloadable music made music seem less valuable?

This issue comes to my desk via a commenter named Will, who responded here to my post “apology not accepted.” Will writes:

However, this group has shrunk more and more with the ease of use at which people expect things to be free. Almost every indie band, film maker, writer, comedian or artist I follow on the internet, no longer even tries to sell their art, because they either think, or are aware that it is hopeless. It is essentially true too, as the majority of people have become indignant at the thought of paying for something that can be found digitally for free. Even those truly inspired works that may have taken months, or years of work and personal commitment for artists to produce lose their value when they are on your computer in under a minute at the click of a button. Today, instead of making what small means they can from their physical work, most artists opt to give it away, and sell themselves instead. They sell their brand, or the idea of their art rather than the art itself.

There are some quantitative issues here that I would find difficult to resolve without a lot of research: have indie bands prospered or suffered in the last ten years? What about comedians? (And so forth.) Intuitively, I believe that advances in technology have been good for these artists. It is cheaper to make, market, and distribute art. Will is right that many artists feel obliged to give work away for free, but I would point out that this actually can be a viable strategy for them; at an earlier point in history, giving away your stuff would have been a complete waste of time. I feel as though I have more knowledge of more artists working in a wider range of media, thanks to the Internet. Without it, how likely is it that I’d know about Louis C.K. or the band Youth Lagoon? However, I’ll admit the possibility that this is purely subjective, and that the actual amount of work being produced is less, even though I am aware of more of it.

Instead, let’s focus on Will’s subjective point: “years of work and personal commitment for artists to produce lose their value when they are on your computer in under a minute at the click of a button.” I would link this argument with a whole suite of arguments that appear, week after week, in various news media, and which fall into the general category “iPods make it all too easy.” For example, a week ago, NPR ran a story about Spotify which quoted “singer and composer” Gabriel Kahane saying this:

I perceive this kind of decline in the spiritual value of music, where there is so much of it at our fingertips that we don’t really listen to any of it with any kind of real attention and we don’t take the record home that maybe on first listen didn’t really catch our ear but since we bought it maybe we should listen to it a second time and then a third time and then all of a sudden we find that there’s something of value there. And that’s something that I think happens less and less with services like Spotify.

You heard the man. If you listened to music on Spotify today, you actually contributed to the decline in the spiritual value of music. I should imagine you’re quite ashamed of yourself.

The argument goes like this: at every point, modern technology makes things too easy. It’s too easy to find out about new records via Internet sites like Pitchfork, as well as all the popular music blogs. It’s too easy to download music via BitTorrent (the heir to Napster), iTunes, and streaming services like Spotify. Finally, it’s too easy to carry music around; when you go for a walk around the block, you have 80 GB of music to choose from on your iPod. Unless you live in a city with really huge blocks, you’ll be back at your apartment before you’ve even managed to scroll all the way to “L,” for “Lykke Li.”

Every time I encounter this argument, I find it impossible to miss the subdued masochism of the “old” model: these music fans like to be teased. They like (or at least can remember liking) the feverish wait for a certain release, and the agonizing wait for it to reach their local record store, and every step of the journey to the store, and the click of the needle as, at long last, it moved toward the shining grooves of a new LP. Even this, though, is not enough: they initially have to dislike what they hear. However, because they’re out $20, they give the record a few more spins, and discover — eureka! — that it’s actually a classic! It’s a fucking great album! It’s funny, but also poignant! You bet it was worth all that trouble! And to think, at first I didn’t even like these songs.

None of this has much to do with the music itself. It actually has to do with desire and anxiety. Anxious young people, who are at a high risk of becoming music fans, turn to pop music to find companionship and solace…but they remain anxious about letting new music and artists into their Truman’s Show of a world. The stakes are potentially higher with a new album by a beloved artist, because there’s the possibility that the artist has started to SUCK, that they’ve SOLD OUT or GONE SOFT, and that, as a result, the lonely music fan will have lost a friend in this vale of tears. So actually, all the while that the music fan is pretending to be stymied by the barriers that life has put between them and twelve new pop songs, he is actually flirting with the record, daring it to barge into his life with tunes of such undeniable quality that all reasonable precautions must be thrown to the wind because tonight we’re listening to NOTHING but the new Deerhunter record and it is going to be SOME INTENSE SHIT.

This dynamic is independent of the time and effort it took the artist to make the record. An album by the Ramones or the Stooges might have taken the band all of three hours, but a music fan will still ease into it over the course of two weeks.

I hope it’s clear that the only way I could possibly know so much about our hypothetical music fan is that I’ve been there and done that. But I also spent hour after ecstatic hour this morning listening to Pitchfork’s Best of the Year on Spotify. I would be depressed to return to a world in which Pitchfork picks 50 top albums for the year, and I only end up listening to about ten of them, because that’s as much as I can afford.

There were certainly a lot of things about the advent of Napster that made me crazy. I hated that people I barely knew would expect to plug their external hard drives into my computer, sucking up 50 GB of music which they would then never listen to. (Or at least, this is what I imagine happening, had I ever violated copyright laws by sharing music.) Furthermore, invariably, these same people would force me to go into long explanations of why they should listen (for free!) to British Sea Power, and when I was done explaining that it was the most anthemic music ever to be influenced by Kafka, they would say “Well, doesn’t sound like it’s for me,” as though they were browsing through the offerings of a merchant who had eccentrically decided to make all of his wares available for nothing. Then, five days later, they would tell me that they were really into British Sea Power, which actually meant that somebody else had also recommended it, causing them to download three random songs from Napster (at random bitrates), as though that meant they were now positively EXPERT…well, you get the idea.

Regardless, the romanticization of the brick-and-mortar purchase gets co-opted into these stories of our Fall from grace into electronic media, but I would argue that something else is actually driving them. Because consider this: if this argument was actually valid, then the most enjoyable albums would be the ones with only a couple of excellent tracks, because you would suffer through the mediocre songs and then be rewarded with the great ones. But nobody thinks that Goat’s Head Soup is better than Beggar’s Banquet.

First of all, with the advent of Spotify (and competitors like Rdio), what you have in your personal music collection matters less. It no longer reveals whether or not you have good taste, and it’s no longer something other people need from you. The days of Jack Black walking you slowly through the record store, gently telling you what a moron you are for not knowing about The Jesus and Mary Chain, are over.

Second, one of the greatest pleasures of pop music is the pleasure of identifying with the band. The way pop music has evolved, it’s relatively easy for a teenager to identify with all sorts of different scenes. One moment, they’re living out the drama of suicidal depression with Trent Reznor, and the next, they’re imagining being bohemian hedonists in Manhattan with the Strokes, and finally they imagine listening to their favorite Patsy Cline song in some hardbitten, rural dive bar. When an album like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Dummy comes along, and you haven’t committed to any one life in particular, you can easily imagine living in the world of those songs. You will have those kinds of love affairs, staying up late on those kinds of nights. Even the Beatles, who seem so humble and universal, are actually more childlike and Utopian than most adults can stand for extended periods. There’s an entire Lester Bangs essay on how impossible it is for him to listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Those possibilities start to blink out as we age. It starts to become clear that I will never lead the same life as Jack White or the members of Ladytron; in fact, even if I could have their lives, I might still prefer my own. Unless I become willing to play the tourist, accepting that there is so much I will never personally experience, an increasing number of pop songs start to sound whiny, narcissistic, or just plain ridiculous. Remember that scene in The Breakfast Club where the janitor tells the principal “the kids haven’t changed — you changed”? That’s what happens to music lovers, too, but since it happens along a timeline that also includes major changes in music technology, it’s a lot easier to blame the technology. It’s comforting, actually, to both own an iPod and bemoan it.

The problem isn’t the music. If you listen to a universally beloved album, in a genre of music you enjoy, and it does nothing for you, the problem isn’t the album, or the fact that it’s free on Spotify, or the fact that everything else is free on Spotify. The problem isn’t that you need new and better headphones. The problem is that life can feel like a drab assortment of obligations, making you wish you had something to wait impatiently for, so that you could believe in that thing and go on unwrapping it forever. You wouldn’t have to choose it from among 80 GB of senseless, inexplicable, excessive (and grating) ebullience and theatrics. The album would choose you, and swoop down at the last possible endurable moment, for the rescue.

I’m not saying you have to change your life, though admittedly Stephen Mitchell may have translated this post that way. On the other hand, if you don’t, that’s a lot of good money thrown away on pop albums that never grow up, and don’t stop believing.

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