Thursday, December 3, 2009

Why I Don't Download Music

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, 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 ( 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?


David Pratt said...

I personally love the ability to download songs - any song - anytime I want. But I collect things, and that's the viewpoint I take when approaching music downloading. I love the idea of having "complete collections," so if I get it in my head to download one song I typically end up spending quite some time finding everything I can from that artist as a result.

B.Graham said...

I say I don't download music, but compared to you I do. I utilize itunes for one-hit wonders I have no interest in purchasing a whole album over (although sometimes that backfires and I buy three songs from itunes and then get the whole cd) and I burn and trade mixes and whole albums with friends all the time. On that front, I'd say you're really missing out, because a great mix can be the best thing in the world.

I agree with you at a certain point, though, because when I used to download free music it cheapened the whole experience. I would download 50 songs on a whim, and half of them would be labeled wrong, the other half would be bad quality or only part of a file, and they would almost all be utterly unlistenable. When it was free I would download songs that I ultimately found utterly unlistenable, and eventually I became unable to put my itunes on "random." So I weeded through my music collection and deleted all the crap (which took a very, very, very long time I must say) and stopped downloading. I'm a much happier music listener for it.

Brett said...

The "random one hit wonder" is about the only exception to the general rule, and even then its barely an exception, because I only have about 20 such downloaded, mostly from college, 5 of which are from Final Fantasy video game soundtracks. :P The only other download exception is 'In Rainbows' by Radiohead, because that's how they released the album. If I ever get a random craving for some random single song, I just listen to it once on YouTube.

Usually, for one hit wonder-type songs, I try and find a normal avenue to getting them - either a various artist collection (the Motown "Hitsville USA" box set is awesome) or by finding out whether the one-hit wonder actually has more to offer - like The Buggles, aka the "Video Killed the Radio Star" guys, whose album 'The Age of Plastic' is awesome.

Dialectric said...

I sympathize with the sentiments and the dilemmas of both the OP and the commenters... let me offer you the perspective of an "old guy."

I bought my first record in 1974. Prior to that I held a homemade cassette recorder up to the radio to make mix tapes. You think you have heard bad quality from mp3's? I have easily 1000 lp's, over 800 cd's three suitcases of cassettes, a few irreplaceable 8-tracks (including the Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl) AND an 8-track player to play them, because I haven't figured out how to match the output impedance of the Lafayette 8-track... and now I have a .320TB hard drive that has nothing but music on it. NONE of this takes into account playlists burned mix tapes made, etc... at some point, if it really IS about the music, you learn to forget about the format and just focus on getting as close to the song as you can. I almost NEVER buy CD's, anymore - with one exception: when the artist(s) is/are there, and I know the money is going to them (and I can get it signed... the best thing I may have gotten out of my last relationship is the CD Chrissy Hynde signed for me at Sonar)

Also, to me, iTunes is worth it because the quality is so much higher than standard mp3 encoding, and there are plenty of ways to rip the songs once you have paid for them...

Less than 15 years ago, I was really more of an audiophile - my sound system was worth several thousand dollars MORE than my car: and it sounded amazing. but after a while, I realized I was listening to music less. Now, i usually have my iPhone, or a couple of pretty decent studio monitors hooked up to a Mac, and that's it... but I listen to music a lot more. As long as that's what it's about, it doesn't matter what format you employ.

And by the way, kids (sorry): CD's ARE digital. I remember well when everybody was afraid "digital" was going to ruin the industry, the music, the artists... they were talking about CD's. Almost 30 years later, CD's sound pretty damn good. (Though vinyl still rules, and if you truly love a song, find a way to a 1/2" master tape. THAT will blow your mind.

Dialectric said...

By the way - I left out the most important point; GO SEE LIVE MUSIC.