Saturday, June 10, 2006

Meanderings of a Music Conventionalist: Is the Digital Revolution Good For Music?

I remember when I was one of the few people with a CD burner in my very small town. It was the late 90s, and the technology had become just cheap enough for the middle classes to purchase. I remember how it had taken me several grocery store pay checks before I finally accumulated enough cash to buy the then hi-tech peripheral and how I thought it was worth every penny, even though I should have been saving up for college instead.

Back then, whenever I was bored or in a transcendental state of mind, I'd spend hours meticulously choosing select tracks out of my not-so-massive collection that were classy enough to make the cut of my latest compilation. But there was more to it than just simply choosing songs. My routine was a well thought out process that consisted of printing out artwork, writing linear notes, and strategically distributing the finished product to friends and objects of admiration whom I wished to provide musical comfort to, or, more likely, just wanted to impress. These were the Romantic days of music swapping, a time before
MP3 players with hard drives bigger than that of my Hewlett Packard PC were invented, an era before iTunes, Napster, and other online merchants made buying mediocre songs for 99 cents fashionable.

Steve's Favorites, as my music mixes were boringly, yet aptly titled, made it to volume 9 before they fell out of style with my friends and acquaintances. By the time the last one rolled out, hot off my personalized music press, one of my friends apologetically informed me: "Sorry Man, but I don't really listen to CDs anymore now that I have an
iPod. Could you just send me the MP3s?" Like a child discovering that Santa Claus isn't real, it was at this moment I realized my time had passed. The iPod had killed the home studio engineer.

I can't complain too much that technology now exists, enabling me to carry all 300 of my albums in my pants pocket. And I guess I should avoid wallowing in the past for overextended periods of time, considering that the advent of
podcasts and MP3 blogs have provided so much to the masses in the way of underground marketing, band promotion, and the general egalitarian spread of knowledge. But being the music traditionalist that I am, I have to admit I kind of miss the days when your friends would hand to you a personalized and tangible compact disc rather than a few "you-gotta-check-these-songs-out-they-are-sooo kewl!' MP3s in the email. I miss the days when sifting for the perfect mix could take days instead of the mere seconds downloading one of Napster's pre-selected personalized compilations take. I miss the days when the art of the music mix was more process than product oriented.

"Get with the times, Steve!" I can already hear the majority of my readers screaming to me. And as I type this I'm already preparing to go into hiding in anticipation of all the
mac whores who will be offended by my slight distress at the success of the oh so holy iPod. (For the record, I love my iPod and have owned one for three years). Regardless, it must be acknowledged that the digital music revolution has changed music listening habits dramatically, and while most of these changes have been for the better, some have not been. Something special is lost when music is thought of less as a tangible art and more as a metaphysical flash of entertainment. While the MP3 has provided convenience and simplicity to music fans everywhere, I also believe it has displaced the durability, staying power, and sentimentality inherent in its antecedents. When the archaeologists of the distant future come to excavate our forgotten civilization will they think to look in the antiquated hard drives for Sgt. Pepper or will they be more intrigued by its compelling artwork and the rubbery touch of its vinyl contained on an actual record instead?

Technology scholar
Marshall McLuan coined the phrase, "the medium is the message," and I think his statement is quite parallel to what I'm trying to say here. Is the digitization of the musical corpus good for the human race? Or will the stripping away of all traces of human elements related to the production of a work spawn further disenchantment?

You already know my position on the issue, but, then again, what do I know, right? I'm a music blogger.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can take your reminiscing to a higher level and talk about the days of being a vinyl DJ on the radio, expertly blending one song into another and chatting over the opening music intro. I can talk about the first time I used an ampex reel to reel with the wonderful quality sound and the seemingly endless mix of music that only came with hard work and thought about content. Music was a passion not a sidelight and moments were catalogued by what was playing on the radio or stereo. I can remember a warm summer vacation, listening over and over to Bobby Vee singing, "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes" and knowing there would never be a better song...... naive, but peaceful in the innocence of contentment. Today everything is instantaneous, on demand, and fleeting with no regard to the quality of the moment. It's like driving down the highway at 70mph versus riding a bicycle at 15 mph. I recently kayaked 150 miles in Alaska and being able to "freeze frame" moments will sustain me for the rest of my life. Enjoy your memories of technology and take time to put together the songs that give meaning to the moment you are experiencing.