In recent weeks I’ve been waist deep in audiophile forums on sites like this, investigating the best sounding CD pressings of classic albums from the likes of Steely Dan, Alan Parsons and Miles Davis, to name a few. If you’ve spent any time perusing these odd zones, you’ll know that enthusiastic audiophile culture is best described as the serious application of alluring adjectives to categorise the fidelity of music (example: the first gen Japanese pressing has a sizzling top end and slightly squashed sound-stage that I find a little harsh when compared to the roundness of the US release by MCA). There’s certainly some weight to these views, as the Loudness Wars have proven, and in some cases early CD pressings can present more dynamic range and less fatiguing sound. That aside, the act of seeking out such music has put me in mind to ponder our current obsession with downloadable digitised music and download culture.
I’ve already written about the intimate web and how it results in culture cloning and provides us with corporate controlled direction in the absence of our own direction. But how does this apply to our enjoyment of music?
From Vinyl to the Cloud
In the same way that the corporate web nurtures consumer culture through redirection and the presentation of curated and selected information online, the explosion of music onto the web in the form of bite-sized chunks of music has changed the way we view the music experience as a whole. Do you buy music in a physical format anymore? If so, how do you listen to it? Do you prefer to rip it to a series of MP3 tracks and burn your own CDs? Or do you upload it to the cloud to listen to through one of a myriad of wifi connected devices?
In the great push to upload our lives, sites like Spotify have opened their doors to allow us to stream music just about anywhere. Apple’s ubiquitous iTunes is pushed as the go-to easy cloud based store for one-click purchases of your favourite albums, remastered especially for your wifi devices and tinny headphones. Even Steve Jobs, visionary and creator of iPod and iTunes, apparently never listened to MP3s. He preferred vinyl records and “…was surprised at the success of his own product — that so many people had willfully traded quality “for convenience or price…” (Science Shows There’s Only One Real Way to Listen to Music).
When I was a Kid…
The first 7 inch vinyl record I bought was I Feel for You by Chaka Khan, in 1984. Compact Discs had been invented, but were not readily available or cheap enough to be on my radar until I could afford them in the early 1990s. I was concerned with sound quality even back then, and also the longevity of the media. That’s why I preferred vinyl to cassette versions. So, when CDs were plentiful and CD players were cheap enough, I set about growing my CD collection at an immense rate. But before the revolution of the digital silver disc, I handled my vinyl records with the utmost care and attention.
To listen to and enjoy an album, I had to de-sleeve the record, walk over to the record player and carefully drop the needle into the groove. It was an entirely physical act, often accompanied by some thoughtful reading of the liner notes whilst listening. The fact that I couldn’t simply press a button to skip to the next track meant that I had to listen to the entire album if I was too lazy to get up out of the chair (raising and dropping the needle in the right place was an actual skill back then, as was fast-forwarding a cassette tape).
Before the web allowed us to research any band that ever was, and read endless interviews and reviews, one had to be content with the sometimes sparse information offered in liner notes; clues in the graphics; and scribbles in the end-zone of the vinyl itself (did Brian Eno really scribble that note himself?). Back then, we had to fill in the gaps ourselves to questions we had: What philosophical underpinnings does the band have? How did they get that sound? Will there be another album? How can I find out more about them?
And you know what? Sometimes it was a one hit wonder; one great album; a band that came and went mysteriously, which made them all the more alluring.
Looking for Patterns in Download Culture
The mental act of filling in gaps and looking for patterns is what our brains were made for. So, the act of playing a vinyl record, and guessing at the nature of the band and the music plays to our strengths as a species. It makes our brains work in the way they were intended to and provides us a sense of fulfullment that merely playing back a random list of MP3s on a digital device does not. Whilst waiting for the next album or single release from our favourite bands (sometimes one had to wait for years), we played back that album over and over again. Our brains continued to fill in more and more gaps. We evolved with the music and got to know each and every track like an old friend. These are feelings and acts not available within the click and collect experience of streaming and download culture and cloud-based music. This is not to say that our modern consumption of music does not have bright spots – ease of access, getting to know new music quickly, portability – but what we have lost I think is essential to the experience of interacting with and enjoying music at a deeper level.
In losing these essential listening skills, and intense ways of interacting with recorded music, we have become collectors of music. For too many people, the digital download is merely stored on a hard drive and played only once, if at all. The allure of all of that great music just one more click away maintains our interest but also results in a vaccuous feeling after the download ends. Before the web, our personal music collections were distinct and seperate from other collections; they were part of us and evolved with us. Now that we have such easy online access to all that ever was in the world of music, our personal collections are not so distinct anymore. They’ve merged with the cloud; they’re just another 8tracks stream for someone else to enjoy; they’re not personal anymore and don’t evolve with us in the quiet moments.
It’s in those quiet moments, when we fill in the gaps ourselves, that we truly listen. In the noisy online world of the early 21st century, I just wonder if we’ve lost something irreplaceable?