The BBC has recently featured two thoughtful takes on how the Net is altering people’s experience of popular music. What’s particularly interesting (to me, anyway) is how the two articles examine the same phenomenon – the ability to listen to pretty much anything that’s ever been recorded, immediately and for free – but see very different consequences.
In an article that appeared a week or so ago, John Harris proclaimed a new “golden age of infinite music.” And he made a compelling case:
I [recently] had a long chat about music with the 16-year-old son of a friend, and my mind boggled. At virtually no cost, in precious little time and with zero embarrassment, he had become an expert on all kinds of artists, from English singer-songwriters like Nick Drake and John Martyn to such American indie-rock titans as Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. Though only a sixth-former, he seemingly knew as much about most of these people as any music writer.
Like any rock-oriented youth, his appetite for music is endless, and so is the opportunity – whether illegally or not – to indulge it. He is a paid-up fan of bands it took me until I was 30 to even discover – and at this rate, by the time he hits his 20s, he’ll have reached the true musical outer limits …
As the great digital revolution rolls on, bands are no longer having to compete for people’s money. Instead, they’re jockeying for our time. And the field is huge, crossing not just genres, but eras. Who do you want to investigate today: TV On The Radio or Crosby, Stills and Nash? Do you fancy losing yourself in the brilliant first album by Florence And The Machine, or deriving no end of entertainment from how awful The Rolling Stones got in the 1980s? Little Richard or La Roux? White Lies or Black Sabbath?
As one of my music press colleagues use to say, there’s no longer any past – just an endless present … Really: what’s not to like?
Today, the BBC is featuring an equally compelling article by John Taylor – yes, the Duran Duran bass player. “Something the internet has most definitely done,” he writes, echoing Harris, “is bring more music from more places and more eras into the hearts and minds of us all, but young people in particular, which is great … My stepson is at New York University (NYU) and he was telling me how he’s currently into Cole Porter, music from the 1920s and swing music from the 40s. So the availability and accessibility of music on the internet today is truly incredible, and I applaud anything that can inspire interest or curiosity in anyone.”
But rather than simply heralding this as the arrival of an endless and endlessly bountiful “present,” Taylor takes a more nuanced view. He wonders whether such easy abundance doesn’t lead to a flattening of experience: When everything’s present, nothing’s new.
He recalls a formative experience from his own youth:
In September 1972, Roxy Music appeared on prime time TV in the UK. It was their first national TV exposure, a three-minute appearance performing their first single. And the way they looked and sounded stunned me, and a generation of mes.
But we had no video recorders, and of course there was no YouTube. There was no way whatsoever that I could watch that appearance again, however badly I wanted to. And the power of that restriction was enormous. The only way I could get close to that experience was to own the song. I lived in the suburbs, so I had to ride my bike for miles before I could find a store that sold music, let alone one that had the record in stock. It was a small trial of manhood and an adventure.
But once I had that song, I could play it whenever I chose. I had to go on a quest of sorts to get it, but my need was such that I did it.
The power of that single television appearance created such pressure, such magnetism, that I got sucked in and I had to respond as I know now previous generations had responded to Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show, or The Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix. I believe there’s immense power in restriction and holding back.
That “immense power,” which in an age of abundance can easily be misperceived as mere constraint, is draining from culture.
I have sympathy for both views. Like Harris, I appreciate, and certainly indulge in, the ability to leap easily from song to song, artist to artist, with no temporal or physical limitation on the experience of music. There is a sense of liberation in being able to be everywhere now – to be able to indulge in what Harris terms “completely risk-free listening.” But I have also shared Taylor’s experience of, quite literally, going on a ten-mile bike ride to a record store to purchase a yearned-for record, which would then spin for weeks on my turntable, pulling me ever further into the depths of the music. Taylor’s right: it was “a quest of sorts.” And as with all quests, there were risks involved.
There are those who, in their desire to sell themselves and others an idealized version of progress, are quick to dismiss all fond personal memories as nostalgia. But some of those memories are not sentimental distortions of the past but accurate records of experience. Taylor argues that, when it comes to music or any other form of art, the price of our “endless present” is the loss of a certain “magical power” that the artist was once able to wield over the audience. I suspect he’s right.