In one of my nominees for the best book of 2016 (see my forthcoming column)–LOVE FOR SALE: POP MUSIC IN AMERICA–David Hajdu considers the fate of recorded music in a digital world. Although digital music is recorded, the way it is possessed differs remarkably from the ways things were “back in the day” when we lined our shelves with LPs and carried around Walkmans filled with plastic cassettes that gave us no more than twenty musical selections.
Although music on the radio was free, we still associated it with the physical object from which it emanated–be it a portable transistor radio or the one found in our cars. And radio (in those pre-Sirius days) put us at the mercy of what the DJ wanted to play and when he or she wanted to play it. And, those annoying DJs all-too-often made it their practice to talk over the instrumental introductions to hit songs–a good example being “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” This practice continues with satellite radio channels that still feature DJs, generally those who are recycled from the early days of MTV, seeing no benefit in giving their listeners the pleasure of listening to these instrumental introductions. But I digress.
In his very thought-provoking chapter, “Digitation: The Immaterial World,” Hajdu sees a shift from the pride that went with owning records and tapes to our current interest in having access to digital streaming services that redefine what it means to “own” our own music. “For all the material benefits of ownership,” Hadju writes, “a great many if not most music lovers are still more interested in having access to music than in having music in their possession.” I have to include myself in this group, having become quite attached to my streaming services, both for music and movies. Because I am very album-oriented in my musical interests, I especially enjoy services like AppleMusic and GooglePlay. I also enjoy services like Pandora, although they don’t give me the ability to curate my favorite music, only my favorite types of music. But it all comes out the same–I am becoming more of a person who wants access rather than possession of my music. When it comes to books and movies, however, I still like to possess the physical objects (printed books, DVDs, and BluRays). This doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t also enjoy streaming and digital book libraries.
Here I am reminded of an observation by the late Lester Bangs–the pop music journalist who belongs right up there with Hemingway, Steinbeck, Chandler, and Fitzgerald in the esteemed pantheon of American literature (as his writing style has been described, “Rock ‘n’ Roll as literature, and literature as Rock ‘n’ Roll”). Writing, in 1972, about his recent purchase of the multi-record box set of “Chicago At Carnegie Hall, Volumes I, II, III, and IV,” Bangs tells us that “I like this album because it’s on Columbia. I trust them, I believe in their product, because Columbia is the General Motors of the record industry.” And why is this so? “They consistently come up with the best of everything: best logo, best lettering in artists’ names and album titles, best photography, best cardboard.” After rhapsodizing about the virtues of the parent company, Bangs tackles the album itself. “Not only does the album weigh in at 3.23 pounds, but it’s so jam packed with sounds that it’s got grooves wide enough to satisfy even the most picayune of connoisseurs. Anybody that tells me it’s not the heaviest album of the year just doesn’t know his math.” After all this comes his confession: “Loving Chicago at Carnegie Hall as much as I do, though, I still don’t play it very often. In fact, I’ve only played it once since I got it, and never intend to play any of it again. But then, I don’t really have to; it is sufficient unto itself, an existing entity, and playing it too much would only put smudges and scratches on its pristine surfaces.” For Bangs, just knowing he possessed the album was enough. Listening to it was beside the point. I wonder how many of your possessions do you feel the same way about? Maybe that’s why I am surrounded by my books, CDs and DVDs.
Hajdu reminds us that “Digital data, in the way most of us tend to conceive of it, is a kind of nothingness, and we attach the appropriate value to it: none.” Perhaps that is what explains our preference for access rather than possession. Turning the clock back to the days of vinyl (when there was no real alternative, like today when vinyl has reappeared as a nostalgic trinket), possession a 45 of the latest Beatles’ single was a real status symbol, a visible message that you belonged to a very special group. Today, there is not much distinction in telling someone you have access to the newest Charlie Puth song on Spotify. Of course, when I was a member of the original vinyl generation and learning what to buy by listening to what was playing on my local radio station, I probably only experienced three or four new songs a week. Today, the choices are virtually unlimited, thanks to streaming and instantaneous 24/7 access. I can not only listen to every album I once owned (I haven’t tried to access that huge Chicago album yet), but can also sample songs from all over the globe. What was once a dream is now a commonplace reality. So, I guess I am happy we have made the transition from possession to access.
As you plan your Christmas shopping excursions, you might want to ask yourself if that special someone on your list prefers possessing to accessing. Just one more thing to complicate the process. Just remember that gift cards always work.
See you next week with more Christmas cheer.