I am not a Luddite. However, in this iPod era (the iPodecade? No?) I might as well be. Not only do I not own one of those slim pocket jukeboxes, but I do not, as a rule with few exceptions, download music. I must admit I have struggled to justify why I hold out - after all, it's easy, everyone does it, and it provides access to all the music under the sun, without really damaging the artists who see little profit from CD sales in the first place. So I apologize if I do not have a clear, snappy explanation for my holdout status for y'all, like "undue worship of Lars Ulrich" or "a curious phobia for the letters m and p and the numeral 3 in succession."
(Note: throughout I include iTunes, filesharing services, burning copies from friends, and all other means of acquiring and trading music outside of the traditional “purchase a CD from the store” method under the umbrella term "downloading music.")
It might be because I'm one of those folks who at least partially credits music with saving my life at one point (R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People specifically); maybe the electronic format doesn't have the same lifesaving appeal as a physical CD complete with liner notes. It might be because I have over 500 CDs, and would feel awfully darn silly suddenly rendering them all obsolete.
Or, maybe, it's something to do with preciousness and scarcity. The problem I may have with downloading music is that in unmooring it from the physical world, it loses some of its value to me, and not just in the hold-the-liner-notes sense. If I hear about some band that's interesting, and in twenty minutes I have all their stuff on my computer or sloshing around in my iPuddle, than there are no longer any barriers for me to cross to listen to it. Not even simple ones like having to open the jewel case and put the CD in the player. I don't have to find out about the artist, decide if I want to purchase them, and then make the commitment; and having not made a commitment, I don't have to listen to the whole thing out of obligation to the time and money spent, thus robbing me of motivation to absorb and appreciate it. I would never have enjoyed Dark Side of the Moon or New Day Rising if not for this; it took multiple listens, motivated by the twenty bucks spent on them, to really start to love them. If given Dark Side today on an iPod, I feel like I would listen once, say "meh, I don't see the hype," and scroll on, possibly never to return.
For a savvy music-downloader, it's all there, the entirety of our recorded music history, if one is willing to look hard enough. Heck, half of it is on YouTube. It is like, if I may be so bold and potentially embarassed to make the comparison, Internet porn. Watching too much of it is desensitizing; as one tongue-in-cheek study showed [I think it was on Cracked.com, but I can’t find the link] even a brief break from infinite access to visions of attractive naked people performing any act you can imagine leads, in its absence, to increased libido and in-bed performance. Yes, I realize I just made porn avoidance sound like car mechanics, but my comparison, I hope, makes its point.
Nowadays, with just a few clicks and a flash drive, I could acquire just about everything – and, for my part, I would love just about everything – rock, jazz, rap, country, classical, world folk musics, techno… My list of CDs I want to get, which includes no more than one album per artist at any given time, is currently 700 entries long – if it were expanded for each artist to include, for example, every single Bob Dylan album I’d like, it would probably be 10,000 entries long, or enough music that it would take a full year, 24 hours a day, to listen to it all. There's just so much amazing stuff out there. But I'm not a collector or a completist; I'm a music lover. I want the attraction-at-first-sight, the flirtation, the dating, the long conversations in the dead of night, the final a-ha moment where I fall in love with the song. (Please don't take that metaphor to its logical conclusion.) I don't want the music-experience versions of Vegas call girls and one-night stands who leave nothing behind but a vague memory of moaning and a forgotten listing in your address book. I want a relationship.
To put it another way, I would rather, I think, at the end of my life, to have really listened to only 1000 albums, then to have merely heard 10,000, even if I never get to Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
But am I am a damn fool for my stubborn stance? Perhaps it's a forced decision on my part – artificial scarcity. Like OPEC controlling the price of oil with selective release, except the oil is music and I am both OPEC and the oil-consumer, thus making me legally insane. Am I hurting myself? Denying myself without cause? Why couldn't I ask friends to burn me copies of CDs I'm interested in, and do so at a controlled, but more-frequent-than-now, pace, in order to satisfy my need for measured absorption? Does spending the money and having the official artwork contribute to the experience meaningfully, or am I being consumerist, materalistic and/or lazy?
The thing that scares me the most, and most makes me question my anti-iSquad stance, is the likely demise of the CD (http://www.audioholics.com/news/editorials/the-demise-of-the-cd-album). Our world is becoming increasingly digital. It seems very, very, very and did-I-mention-very? likely that within a decade or two, nearly all art forms that can be transmitted digitally (and if we can make workable virtual reality, even theatre won't be safe) will be available in digital format, completely free and unregulatable - and eventually even available in sound and video quality equal to or better than satellite broadcasts or compact discs. Folks who want the nostalgia will keep vinyl alive, and CDs will still float around for lack of having anywhere else to go, but, really, for the most part, they won't be made anymore, and my CD collection will become ever-harder to both deepen and to actually find CD players with which to play it. I may be investing considerable money and effort in a fool's enterprise; in a few years I may feel much like someone who campaigned for McCain in the past election (or Kerry in the previous) did after Election Day.
When it comes down to it, I can't produce any argument more convincing for why I don't download music than "it feels better to me that way." And it does, I have to admit. Part of me believes that human beings are wired for scarcity, that rarity = preciousness is more than just a function of economics. Infinite access, the infinite and instantaneous fulfillment of our desires (whether it be for gyrating flesh-colored pixels, waveform audio bytes, or essays and articles that say what we want to hear) dissolves something in us; it removes our natural barriers to complacency. If that's true and not just the doomsday-trader in me talking, than it looks like me and my fellow iPodless, at least, are in for an unhappy future.
A better title for this post may have been “Why Don’t I Download Music?” So, I close with an honest question for those who download, because I really don’t know how you do it – how do you do it? And do you feel your musical experience is richer for the infinite access?
And so we witness the end.
3 years ago