Spotify This!

A student wrote me recently and asked for my thoughts on online music services. The bleakness of my response surprised even me:

That’s easy to answer: it has completed the process, begun 50 years ago with the rise of modern technologically-based pop music, of transforming music into commodity. While all art has in some way always existed as part of a commercial transaction, the degree to which music has, over the last 15 years, become viewed exclusively as a demographically-targeted “product”, apart from any notions of its intrinsic quality or expressive purpose, is deeply alarming and heretofore unimaginable. Part of the proof of this is the medium in which most music is now consumed, and which facilitated the transformation itself: the shared digital file. Stripped of any connection with the physical, whether that be the CD-box or the physical medium of live performance, and shorn of most of the acoustical depth and complexity of all live and most recorded sound up until 2001, these files live in a world of pure commerce, no different than the bits representing money that fly at a million miles an hour across the trading floor. The marketplace rules every aspect of commercial music creation and consumption, and this is no less true of those less-traveled areas of the industry that self-identify as “independent.” They too must conform to the contemporary norms of production and distribution set in place by Steve Jobs and the gangs at Spotify and Google. Even classical music is being pulled inexorably in this direction, with bizarre, but predictable consequences: since data compression and corruption of sound quality are basic to the digital medium, a whole 700-year, still-evolving tradition predicated on a rich and complex relationship to sound is reduced to the same flat, grey-scale spectrum as any single by Justin Bieber. Never mind the larger problems of content, consider just for a moment this flattening: it is worldwide, pandemic, and has resulted in the utter incapacity of even many musically educated listeners to make distinctions between differing levels of sonic quality, in favor of a mute acceptance of sonic uniformity.

Then we come to the economics of the question, and those are simple too: to quote a recent article on just this subject in the American Federation of Musicians magazine, “everyone in the debate agrees that no one is getting paid for their music anymore”; the only ones making a profit (and a significant one at that) are the large media corporations, and of course Google, Apple, et al. Musicians are supposed to be mollified in this by the fact that unprecedented numbers of people are now able to hear their music, but this is like telling a heart surgeon that he or she should be delighted that their working for free will result in their ability to operate on greater and greater numbers of patients. This greater access is supposed to translate into greater profits down the line, but this rarely happens, and, when it does, only as the result of staggeringly large numbers of downloads translating into lucrative concert and media-spinoff deals, on a scale impossible for the vast majority of musicians to imagine, let alone reach. Quite simply, the current business model steals from musicians to line the pockets of digital media providers.

The next two questions centered on the future, on formats and on the public’s sense of the value of music. I found no comfort here, either:

That’s more difficult to say. With the pace of change in the digital marketplace, Google-glasses could be obsolete by the time they become affordable, so who knows? But I think things will move in one of two general directions: the digital colonization of the culture’s experience of music will become complete, and the vast majority of people will know music exclusively through digital media and its paralyzing business model; or, the backlash against the digital model will intensify and more and more people will return to “outmoded” media, such as CD and vinyl. With a critical mass of consumers headed in this direction the industry would be forced to respond, and digital’s stranglehold on formats, and hence profits, would be broken, or at least relaxed.

Music’s value? Another easy one! It went from the average listener’s vague assumption that music was free to the assertion of that belief as an inalienable human right. “Music should be free!” became the rallying cry of the download generation (and of the corporations that stood to gain from the harnessing of what young people saw as a revolutionary impulse). Hurled normally with a self-justifying sense of consumer victimization, “music should be free!” mistakenly tarred musicians as the greedy overlords of a usurious system of pleasure taxation, instead of seeing them for what they are: highly trained professionals who deserve to be paid for the work they do. People are now accustomed to and satisfied with the ease with which they are able to steal the work of musicians and deprive them of their livelihoods. Once out of the bottle, this turns out to be a very large and grouchy genie, and attempts to stuff him back in are going to be all but impossible. But it gets worse: consider again the nature of the new media, the quality of sound provided, the flattening of acoustical range and emotional affect, and the context in which most people listen (in a state of socially isolated distraction, attempting to focus on two or more things at once), and you have a much deeper sense of the degree to which music’s “value” has been compromised. For most it means nothing other than the daily diversion and immediate sensory gratification of a kind of sonic pacifier. Monetarily, emotionally, intellectually, and culturally, its value has been diminished to the point of near-irrelevance, background radiation in a culture of helpless, idiot distraction.

What on earth inspired such a screed? Certainly the current business model did have something to do with it. The notion that artists are the big economic losers here is no longer controversial. University teaching probably factored in as well: the spectacle of watching institutions of higher learning falling over each other to be the first to embrace every new technological trend, re-defining their societal mission as one of seamlessly inserting students into the new marketplace, rather than encouraging them to criticize and remake it, has a kind of tragicomic poignance to it that I’ve lately found unbearable. But still…

While I stand by my responses, in all their naked ugliness, when I step back from them I see them, of course, as representing only a part of the whole; like answers to the questions in a narrowly-worded poll, they bend toward a limited and over-simplified view of the larger truth. They also present a potentially distorted view of me and my own relationship to technology. Do I really hate all file-sharing? No, I use it on my own website; do I hate all pop music and pop culture in general? No, I love both when they’re good; am I after all just some kind of Luddite? No, I’m writing a blog, for Pete’s sake.

One way, of course, in which we all benefit from all these files flying around is in the opportunity it gives us to share what we do at WCM with a wider, virtual audience, and to allow our actual audience to go back to a favorite performance and linger over it, to savor the memory of it and call it up from the land of shadows. Our virtual performance space on the web is our own means of providing access to recovered time; it both preserves and activates the festival’s collective memory. This is certainly a good thing.

What’s important here, though, is that those memories are of a public, shared experience of music-making that is wholly distinct from the weirdly neutered perfection of a studio-produced mp3. In fact, the expressive numbing of the digital file is in part the result of the inverse proportion between its freeze-dried technical mastery (whether instrumental or synthesized) and the dull sonic frame through which that mastery is conveyed. Live performance provides the exact opposite: risk-taking, revelation, and the possibility of mistake, all conveyed through the almost limitless sonic richness of physical sound media sounding within a physical acoustic. For me this is the one-two punch that makes what we do as musicians and music-lovers (for it is an essential partnership) irreplaceable: the beauty of sound, the depth of sound, as a shared, social experience, music as a point of intersection rather than a wall of headphone-enforced separation. Revisited through headphones after the fact, the communal then becomes the personal in the individual memory, but even that memory is conditioned by its origin in public ritual.

Perhaps sonic flatness, lack of depth, of color, is the price we pay for the loss of that ritual; perhaps we as a culture have signed on to the notion that we no longer deserve the sensual and spiritual joy that broad-spectrum sound, especially when set in motion by superior artistry, can bring. No longer interested in the extraordinary, we seem to labor on a collective farm where the sounds provided to us render us quiescent, credulous, merely content. If this is true, then what we do and hear and remember in and from live performance is the only antidote, the only real corrective to what would otherwise appear to be an utterly insuperable cultural force.

The elephant in the room here, of course, is that paragraphs like the one above, to say nothing of their perpetrators, can seem awfully old. And the worst thing the old can do is hate the young. And yet so often this seems to be the issue, the prime mover in case after case: the old hate the young for their vitality; their stubborn optimism; their doe-eyed faith in the goodness of things; their unquestioning obeisance to their gadgets. Question technology, then, and one appears old; question it from the perspective of the classical musician and one seems cretaceous at best. Elitist then springs quickly to mind. But one needn’t be deterred by this. It is not a hateful thing to want to say “this is good, this is worth preserving, give this a second listen.” To cling to notions of ritual, and common experience, and to the belief that a deeper experience of something, a deeper engagement with both medium and message, actually matters. is not a hateful or, perforce, reactionary thing. It can be a loving, progressive thing, a current that pulls us back to an experience of living that is vivid and urgent.

It’s not just classical music that I want to experience in this way. I want it as much for Hendrix, Radiohead and Public Enemy as I do for Mozart, Mingus or Harbison. It’s not a matter of style, of new vs. old; longhair vs. short; street vs. concert hall. It’s a matter of the vibrant vs. the static; the striving vs. the complacent; the varied vs. the flat. This was all clearly banging around in there when I saddled that poor student with my rage against the machine. Where the business model, the money and who’s making it, is concerned I had good reason to go ballistic. But on the issue of sound itself, and on the question of the value of music, what I could have said was simply “come, just come to a concert, come hear us play. There’s your answer.