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Be everywhere now

November 09, 2009

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.

Comments

"Endless present" or not, when you are 17 and listening to music at midnight with your prom queen, music still has, and always will have "magical power".

When considering the song adoption formula (http://bit.ly/zDx5x), abundance may slow repetition, but the imprinting process is still going to occur.

Posted by: Bruce Warila [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 9, 2009 02:17 PM

I'm reminded of tales of poverty my mother told me.

Hunger is the best sauce, but that doesn't mean starvation is a net positive.

Posted by: Barry Kelly [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 9, 2009 03:04 PM

I'm with the optimists here. I'm someone who has filled that "endless appetite for music" for about a decade, with both piracy and legal technologies. One consequence of this is that I've explored my way into corners of the musical world that are both marginal and exactly right for me. Corners it would have been difficult to discover in traditional ways. Which means that without these technologies, without this gigantic buffet of everything, my musical life would be poorer than it is today. It would have been more of a compromise between what I like and what I would have had the chance to discover.

Amazon has allowed me to do the same with books. To me, Amazon and internet music are two sides of the same thing. I don't miss the days when good books were hard to find, even if it felt better when you made a discovery. It's the same with music.

And I don't think it's unfair to bring up the accusation of nostalgia. It's only natural that someone who grows up in a world of LP's will attach fond memories to them. But the fond memories sprang out of you, not the technology. Kids today still have experiences that become fond memories, and they attach them to whatever their world is made of. Who is really better off, they, or you, or an earlier generation, (who couldn't just put something on the record player, music was live and rare), is perhaps impossible to tell. But few people voluntarily choose to do away with whatever level of choice they've become used to. That tells us something.

Posted by: Bjørn Stærk [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 9, 2009 03:10 PM

Your (and my) fondly recalled worshipful journeys to the temples of our music, were built on, and indeed by, commercial "demand creation" marketing of the most mercenary sort. If we can make magic out of that, I think we'll survive returning to a world where new music is discovered via recommendations from friends and acquaintances we actually know and trust.

Posted by: Jack Repenning [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 9, 2009 03:29 PM

While I can appreciate the massive leaps that technology has made when it comes to procuring $INTELLECTUAL_PROPERTY cheaply and easily over the Internet, I think more is made of this capability than actually exists. While I am old enough to have my own tales of epic peddling quests across town in search of rare and rumored art (comic books, rather than LPs, in my case) I find that I can have just as much trouble finding something elusive on the Interwebs as I did in my youth. Google hacking and Pirate Bay surfing are their own complex arts now, and I can feel the same sense of triumph when I finally score a long-sought item there as from the dusty corners of the comic shops of my youth. Despite what teh technology mavens tell you, everything is not at your fingertips. I'm still hunting (online and off) for a particular song I overheard part of on TV almost two years ago. If I ever find it, I'm sure I'll experience a similar thrill.

It's a different sort of excursion, to be sure, and one subject to some derision from those of us who had to walk five miles uphill (both ways) to school in a snow storm, but as Bjorn says, let's not write off the endeavours of the current high-school generation just because they are different. Old fogeys of every decade have belittled what formative experiences their juniors claim, a trend that is unlikely to end here.

Posted by: Scott Wilson [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 9, 2009 04:17 PM

Bruce: My (admittedly very vague) memory of prom queens is that they had pretty shitty taste in music, even at midnight.

Barry: Tunes ain't food.

Bjorn: "Kids today still have experiences that become fond memories, and they attach them to whatever their world is made of." Absolutely, but what interests me here is what the world is made of.

Jack: It's against the rules to out-cynic me on my own blog. And, by the way, I believe it's debatable whether there's less "demand creation" going on today than in the past. I seem to remember that my musical buying habits were shaped by shared experiences with friends I knew and trusted.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 9, 2009 04:47 PM

I remember Roxy Music's first appearance on Top of the Pops (it was "Virginia Plain"), so I am obviously qualified to respond.

I think that Taylor's story, and millions like it, show that information scarcity is only rarely the bottleneck in determining access to culture. And if information scarcity ain't the problem, then removing constraints on information ain't the solution.

But I do like my MP3's...

Posted by: tomslee [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 9, 2009 08:30 PM

This is an interesting post. Thanks, Nick. I can definitely say that the abundance of music I now have available at my fingertips has been both a blessing and a curse for me. I can remember the days of saving up my allowance or my meager paycheck as a teenager to buy a single CD, then taking that CD home and treating it like a ticket to a show. 9 times out of 10 I would listen to the entire album, good or bad, because dammit, I'd paid to see a show.

Now I can get albums so cheap or even free that most of the time I skip through tracks, or never even finish listening to an album. I still love music, but my patience for things that don't excite me right away has gone down dramatically.

I think it's easy to approach music today the way we watch TV -- with a remote control. The experience of listening has been diminished by the prospect that something better might be on someplace else. All you have to do is change the channel.

Posted by: vertigokidd [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 9, 2009 10:59 PM

I can personally attest to John Harris' point about music that is now vying for our time rather than our money.

Thanks to some wonderful song-of-the-day podcasts, I'm constantly listening to new songs from bands I barely recognize, hoping to latch on to a new sound when it's still fresh and shiny. At the same time, when I do go ahead and purchase a full album like Wilco or Andrew Bird, I find myself struggling to find the hours to truly absorb the material like I once did.


I went on a road trip recently in a car that had XM radio and I could barely make it through a song before changing stations to make sure I wasn't missing another great song somewhere else. Sad, yes I know; but I do think the behavior touches on many of the themes I've seen on your blog, Nick. I am sometimes struggling to be not a skimmer but instead to dive deep into something in order to truly absorb it. Music is a prime example.


Great post, cheers!

Posted by: Tim Letscher [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 10, 2009 12:13 AM

Beautiful post. My Carnatic violin teacher, aged 60, told me the same thing. As a 20 year old, he used to plan his day around concert broadcast timings on All India Radio. The only trouble with abundance is we tend to take things for granted. We don't pay enough attention to the music, don't quite savor all the ingredients of food, don't take our time reflecting on a book. No doubt, more people have greater access to good things - this is good. But our keenness of perception goes down as our attention gets thinly spread. As the good things in life become commonplace, we look for newer reasons to say, "I had a great day today". Louis CK puts it hilariously, Everything's amazing, Nobody's Happy

Posted by: Sriram Narayan [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 10, 2009 07:23 AM

I still remember the first time I saw a front loading automatic turntable at my uncle's who was a true gadgeteer at the time - that was 1985 I think. I was so amazed and intrigued, I couldn't stop thinking about it. Yes, he also had a Philips top loading CD player, but without adequate material to play on it, it seemed to be more of a gimmick to me. But an automatic turntable? Now that was something! I used to carry my (not so many back then) records over at my uncle's and engage in the process of making mixtapes without any needle clicks or pops between tracks - I'd simply select the track I wanted and voila - it was playing as if by magic.

Fast forward 10 years and the CD is omnipresent. Track skipping is a listener's habit and there's also a function on every CD player called 'scan tracks'. And many people buy a new album on CD, only to claim with sheer confidence: my favourite songs are 2, 7 and 9.

Fast forward another 10 years and those little white earphones are also omnipresent. Most albums are available to download before their official release date and pretty much everyone is copying/exchanging music files by volume. It's not quality, it's quantity that matters now. My friend's 15yo son is proud of his 600GB music collection and when I said 'Oh, I see you have Grand Funk Railroad too' he replied: 'Do I? I haven't listened to it all..'

It's not about nostalgia or fondness of the LP era. It's about the fact that the average attention span is contracting rapidly.

Posted by: MechaNikos [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 10, 2009 10:31 AM

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