Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Music Discovery Stories (10 Nov 2009)

Nicholas Carr linked to Duran Duran bassist John Taylor's essay (!) for the BBC about how the internet changes music consumption. He relates a story about seeing Roxy Music on television in 1972 and riding his bike for miles to go to a shop where he could buy the record.

We had no video recorders, and of course there was no YouTube. There was no way whatsoever that I could watch that appearance again, however badly I wanted to. And the power of that restriction was enormous.... The power of that single television appearance created such pressure, such magnetism, that I got sucked in and I had to respond as I know now previous generations had responded to Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show, or The Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix. I believe there's immense power in restriction and holding back.

The moral is familiar: On-demand culture deprives cultural-industry product of its aura, and consumers are left with a shallow and superficial relation to it. That seems to sell the power of the product itself somewhat short -- if the songs are really good, the aura artificially secured by restricted access presumably shouldn't matter to our aesthetic response. The would-be John Taylors of today should be listening to "Virginia Plain" over and over again despite downloading it. As he points out, the internet can free us from the tyranny of what's popular now and let us discover and become obsessed with culture from a diverse range of eras and locales.

What's lost is the monoculture -- the idea that everyone saw the same TV program and then could differentiate themselves in their community by their diverse responses. In today's cultural environment, everyone seems to be expected to be magpies, amalgamating all sorts of ad hoc bits of culture for themselves. (They are creating their own economy, as Tyler Cowen would say.) So distinctive gestures of musical taste are in some ways harder to find; people find it harder to interpret what your being into Roxy Music is supposed to mean. In the 1980s, it did mean a lot more to be into obscure bands, but much of that meaning was snobbery and exclusivity -- "I know someone who's got a lot of SST records and seven-inches." (I remember feeling weirdly betrayed when certain CD reissues started to come out -- "But I worked hard to gain access to those Gang of Four records! I traveled!") With "restriction" in place, music can serve as a positional good, slating us into subcultural hierarchies. That the internet has assaulted that citadel is unequivocally positive.

Also, I think we will continue to generate stories to go along with the way we discover songs. It is just that the retail encounter will no longer be part of that story. The restrictions imposed by the artificial scarcity created by the music industry will no longer determine significance; instead our own mnemonic efforts will be crucial to weeding among the stuff we binge-downloaded to elevate the songs that signify more than our idle curiosity.

But that requires an effort that we are no longer forced to make -- we can follow the route that society seems to encourage (through marketing and media triumphalism about discovering new trends and such) and just pursue novelty instead of depth in our relation to culture. It seems harder to summon the willpower to impose consumption restrictions on ourselves now that money doesn't do it for us. (That doesn't mean I want to go back to being culturally poor, though.)

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