Every time I learn about a new online music service that people are raving about, I just don’t get it. The same songs sound the same if I listen on Spotify, Turntable, Pandora (bad financial news for Pandora by the way) or if I purchase a recording from iTunes (which is still my current favorite). But these services are so very close to the idea of radio (minus iTunes) that the only real benefit I can see in them is that I can customize my listening. And this hasn’t gone unnoticed for me, but it really doesn’t add anything special to my listening experience.
You can accuse me of hanging on to the old way of listening if you want to, but I do prefer to purchase and own an artist’s work because somehow it legitimizes it for me. “Back in the day” my identity was pretty closely tied in with the music I listened to, as I suspect it was / is for many of you. I loved to show off my record collection and watch friends respond with disbelief at some of the gems I owned. It was a special point of pride for me to show off the records that most of my friend’s parents would never allow them to purchase… albums by Kiss, Van Halen, Ted Nugent, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, etc… where the subject matter was a little beyond my years, but was so much fun to listen to. And, back then, we had cassettes (maybe you’ve heard of them?), but Vinyl was my playback medium of choice.
I used to collect pop cans and save my dimes to buy vinyl. In Michigan, pop cans were worth ten cents. In the late seventies and early eighties this would add up quickly because new releases were a bit cheaper; they sat somewhere between seven and ten bucks. Since my Dad worked as a custodian for a big cement company he was responsible for cleaning up the cafeteria after lunch breaks, and every so often he’d bring home these industrial sized garbage bags full of pop cans for me to cash in… usually connected with some condition of yard work or room cleaning (the basic parental bribe). As the soul recipient of such a reward, I spent it as quickly as I could on records.
I know it’s a little cliché, but I loved the entire experience of vinyl. The smell of the ink on the record jacket, the belief that artists’ pictures or album artwork really said something about who an artist was… pouring over lyrics (when included) and discovering all the inappropriate innuendos I could share with my friends at the K-5; I started buying records at five years old. I even made it a point of pride to memorize all the musicians in each band, what they played, and whether or not they contributed to the songwriting process (guitar players were always my favorite). Between records, rock n roll magazines, and kiss cards I had a pretty expensive habit to keep up… and maybe it was the ink on kiss cards that smelled so good… I don’t remember if they came with bubble gum. Major digression, sorry…
When it came to music, some of my friends considered me a show off because I always seemed to know something as mundane as what year a song was released. For me the vinyl experience was an event… and, not just the first time I purchased and listened to a record, but every subsequent listen thereafter (except that one time I left Cheap Trick’s Dream Police in the back window of my Mom’s car on a hot sunny day) – vinyl does have its limitations.
Once I even snuck AC/DC’s Highway to Hell into music class for listening time, against my Mother’s wishes. I hid the record in the sleeve of the Bee Gee’s Spirits Having Flown album; Their song “Tragedy” was popular with the music teacher, so I was always taking that one in anyhow; Mom didn’t suspect a thing. Sometimes I’d carry in a “45 single” with Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”, which my music teacher also played. But my Mom hated me taking that one in too; the B-side was “Don’t Try Suicide” and Mom didn’t think that was an appropriate subject for fifth graders. Now that I’m I Dad, I agree with her. Even so, my kid will never have the joy of sneaking his music past me because I’ll probably always know what’s on his iPod… you know the iPod.. that thing that’s smaller than a cassette tape… that thing that can quite possibly hold an entire record collection worth of music?
But, again, with all these new music services, I can’t see how listeners can invest themselves like I could. And, when I say “invest”, I’m not referring to money spent (although this should be a concern to anyone who understands how hard an artist works on something to not get paid for it). What I mean is, digital music services have turned music into a digital idea, which you can either steal or you can purchase, with another idea (digital “money”). And, though vinyl is seeing a resurgence in popularity, mostly with collectors, hipsters and DJ’s, the listening experience is still often clouded by the free digital copy that comes with the insert code you can take to iTunes to claim.
Digital music services, free ownership of digital music (a.k.a stealing), and digital distribution have taken my beloved vinyl, and all the experiences that went with it, and turned it into ones and zeros. No more saving dimes, no more waiting for the record store to open, and no more scandalously sneaking around with disguised records to elementary school music class. The culture of vinyl is gone. And it has been replaced with something that has turned music into a culturally disposable form of media.
For probably a decade or more, the music business has been reshaping itself with new business models just about every week, and there are some good people out there trying to keep it moving in a direction that will benefit those who actually write and take the time to record their material. This is noble, but I’m not sure that online music services like those I’ve mentioned above are going to be the answer. We’re just trying a bunch of things right now and trying to see what sticks. I just hope we find a legit way to make music as big of a deal as it used to be so future music lovers can interact with their music in a more meaningful way. To me, good music should never be considered disposable, and digital music services certainly aren’t changing this much. So what’s the big deal? Anyone?