Digital Music and the Benefits of Abundance

I sympathize with Steve Almond’s reflection in the Boston Globe (“From vinyl to digital, my obsession lives on”) on the pleasures of music as a physical object. I sometimes wonder if my students can appreciate the beauty of an album, when their iTunes libraries are stuffed with hundreds of playlists and thousands of tracks by a hodgepodge of artists. Is it possible for them to care about the subtleties of an album’s sequence of songs, or the mysteries of cover art and liner notes? Or is music just a matter of immaterial mp3s floating in the electronic ether?

The generation gap in music appreciation really comes down to the difference between the joys constraint and choice. When music was material, finite, and scarce, one could enjoy the thrill of hunting for a record, finding it and possessing it.

I grew up in the age of cassettes and compact discs, and I recall the excitement of running to the record store to buy a new album as soon as it hit the shelves. In those days, one could not find the music leaked online a month before its release. But the advent of Napster was just as exciting for me as finding that long-desired B-side buried in the racks of an indie record shop. For the first time, I could download those individual tracks I had always liked, but which had only been available on albums full of filler.

The same applied to emerging artists who sparked my curiosity. One always had to ask if it were worth risking fifteen bucks on an intriguing but untried musician. File-sharing made it possible to sample new music that would never appear on the radio or MTV, and then decide about whether to buy the CD.

Jeff Tweedy of the rock band Wilco, which was dumped from its major label for being insufficiently commercial, understands the advantages of file-sharing. The Internet has become an outlet for music otherwise muted by the mainstream media. “I look at it as a library,” Tweedy says. “I look at it as our version of the radio.” Indeed, digital music has opened up access to those who never had access before. For years, small town listeners had to depend on the narrow choices at the local Wal-Mart, or drive to a big city to find a store that might offer the work of independent artists.

Now one rarely hurts for lack of music, indie or otherwise. It is abundant and immediate. If anything, there is so much available that listeners scarcely know how to sort through it all.

Does this lead to a devaluing of music? Perhaps. Twelve songs on a playlist do not mean the same thing to me as twelve songs in a CD case with a unique design, but that may be a function of my age. I trust that the younger generation will love music no less than past generations – including those who lived before the age of sound recording. They will simply love it and value it in different ways. They will mash it up and share it with their friends. Perhaps their playlists will someday evoke a time and a place in much the same way as an earlier generation’s lovesick, teenage mixtapes.

The band Radiohead has already pointed the way to a new musical future that is thoroughly defined by choice. They surprised the industry in 2007 by letting fans pay whatever they want to download the album In Rainbows from their website. Some chose to give nothing, while others ponied up more than the ordinary price of a CD. The album was also released as a regular disc. And the band offered its hardcore fans a deluxe box set complete with two 45s, a bonus CD, and extra artwork for a cool $80. There was something for those who wanted only the mp3s, as well as those who wanted something they could touch and treasure.

In this age of choice, the material and immaterial are not mutually exclusive. Although formats come and go – and sometimes come back, like the newly hip vinyl record of recent years – the joys of feeling and touching music live on.

Alex Sayf Cummings