On Spotify, digital music, and how we listen now:
Over on the Twitter, there’s been a flurry of discussion as to whether Spotify is an improvement over illegally downloaded music or if it’s basically the same thing. I’d like to propose a third stream: that the problem we face is not one of economics, but of the spiritual nature of how consume music. That is to say: what Spotify and illegally downloaded music have in common is that they both spiritually devalue music by making a surfeit of it too accessible. With the proliferation of sites/apps like Spotify comes the demise of curation as it applies to one’s music collection. What irritates me is not that people steal music, but that they steal so much of it that they don’t listen to any of it. If someone ripped my CD because they couldn’t afford it, I would feel cheated, but not as cheated as I do knowing that the value of a carefully curated collection of CDs, tapes, records, what-have-you—- has gone to zip thanks to the gluttony of 21st-century consumers who don’t know when to stop downloading and start listening.
And the fundamental problem, as I see it, is that we as a society have gradually (d)evolved to the notion that universal access qua quantity is axiomatically good. As Butthead once queried Beavis, “if nothing ever sucked, how would you know if something was cool?” By the same logic, how are we to assign value to any music if we have access to all of it?
There is another problem, which has to do with the common defense of Spotify that argues that its service allows people to “check out” music and then decide if it’s worth purchasing. This would be all well and good, except it seems to me this puts music that may require several listenings in order to get under one’s skin at a real disadvantage. In the “old days”, if we bought a CD and didn’t take to it immediately, there was an economic imperative of sorts to grow to like it, i.e. “I paid $15 bucks for this record, so I better give it a second spin to see if it takes”. Nowadays, the only records that people seem to give second chances after an initial reaction of indifference or dislike are those given the stamp of approval by select tastemakers in the blogosphere, i.e. “Umm, I don’t really get this BadgerDance record, but Pitchspoon gave it a 9.7317 so it is good and therefore I will listen to it until I understand the music slash find it relatable.”
So I imagine a near future wherein Spotify has become ubiquitous, and the listeners of the world simply bounce around from one immediately satisfying songlet to another, and anything that is truly visionary/difficult/new will probably get tossed aside.
All of which is to say: if someone wants to use Spotify the way he or hse once approached the purchase of physical albums, I’m in full support. But if it’s just a means of sampling music at a surface level, folks might as well just download illegally, because the damage to
serious listening has already been done.
Updated with a rebuttal to the rebuttal:
An intelligent but excitable (and maybe slightly nasty?) fellow over on the Twitter has posted a rebuttal to the thoughts above thatimplies that I’m an elitist and that I am attempting to tell people “how to listen”. He also makes some assumptions about why I feel the way I feel about easily accessible digital music and that it has something to do with my feeling neglected by the public.
I regret using the word “serious” in conjunction with “listening” at the end of my post. I was intending to write somewhat of a polemic, but by using that word, I feel I left myself open to accusations of elitism and prescriptivism. And more importantly, the modifier “serious” shifts the piece from an observation about how we listen to a judgment. And my intention was really the former, if admittedly with a bit of a reactionary slant.
Poor Mr. Kahane. Perhaps he’s reacting to poor sales of his own recordings, which may not be the darlings of the “blogosphere”… The man comes off as a snob with a grudge, and saying that the world doesn’t appreciate Art is nothing new.
So, why do I take the position I take? Is it because I’m frustrated with poor record sales? I mean, sure, I’d love to sell more records, who wouldn’t? But frankly, the observation I’ve made about how we consume is rooted in part in watching my own listening habits suffer. Like the gentleman who accuses me of being a cultural elitist, I buy a lot of music, and in fact, I buy more music than I can listen to. From time to time, I glance through the “Purchased” column of my iTunes and am reminded of all the things I’ve downloaded that I haven’t and perhaps won’t get around to, from Kelly Clarkson to Morton Feldman.
When I was a freshman in college, my classmates and I developed a habit of walking to the hulking tower records at the corner of, I think it was Mass Ave and Newbury. We would spend a good deal of time walking amongst the oppressively lit bins and leave with a disc or two or three. I’m not going to belabor the oft-recounted ritual of unwrapping, reading the liner notes, the aura-of-the-thing to quote Benjamin. Like so many kids of my generation and generations before it, I felt an emotional rush from these acts, and from the assemblage of a collection. Each disc was endowed (whatup Nick Hornby) with a kind of emotional timestamp, whereas nowadays, I can’t even tell you what I own in part because the act of purchasing has been reduced to the click of a trackpad. Despite being in possession of thousands of hours worth of music, I listen now, curiously enough, to less music than I did when I had more limited resources.
Mr. Kahane should be delighted that his music, rather than being available only in a handful of downtown record stores, is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world.
Yes, of course there is a part of me that is delighted that people have such access to my work. But the salient point, and the point that I think is lost on the writer, is that by making it so universally accessible, the spiritual value is lost. We are moving inexorably toward a world in which music functions largely as aural wallpaper. People have been making this observation for years, but I think in the context of this conversation it bears repeating. When music is everywhere— at the cafe, in the supermarket, in the elevator— it is necessarily less special. On Twitter, someone suggested:
@Andy_Doe Andy Doe To argue that streaming services are bad for serious listening is like claiming that public libraries are bad for literacy.Except there’s a fundamental difference. We cannot read Proust or Harry Potter while cooking dinner or writing emails or blogging defensively. Reading requires active participation in a way that listening once did, but no longer does. There is no such thing as “background reading”.
All of which is to say this: my intention was not to make a critique of how we listen, but rather that I think the music industry and musicians alike have aimed their sights at the wrong target: by focusing their efforts on how to stop people from downloading music illegally, they overlook the crisis of spiritual value that faces us when a cultural artifact becomes too readily available. As Walter Benjamin argued in his landmark essay:
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.In his view, the phonograph record was the culprit. Now we’ve gone from a physical object (CD, tape, 45) that one might have argued was itself “a work of art” to a mode where a series of bytes stands in for the work and is infinitely, if not immediately, reproducible.
Some people will use Spotify in the way they’ve used their record collections. Some people download illegally in an honorable (!?) way, checking something out on spec before buying. Fundamentally though, the convenience and excess of choice we’re afforded by such services is ultimately inconvenient to our spirit and to the tradition of valuing a work of art because it is unique and uniquely worthy of our attention.
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