On a recent road trip, my wife and I were listening to music from an iPod I have stuffed with thousands of songs and discussing the devaluation of the song in recorded form.
I was recounting the days when my friend Javier worked at Bart’s CD Cellar and we would take our hard earned 50 bucks and camp out at the Cellar for hours, each come up with 10 albums, race home and spend the next 8 hours listening to our treasures, arguing over who fared better, and reveling in the sounds coming out of the speakers.
Flash forward almost 20 years and I’m drowning in music. I love my iPod but it would be impossible for me to argue that it carries the same weight as my record collection, literally and symbolically.
If I had to pick between my 10 favorite L.P.’s or my iPod I would toss the gadget and keep the wax. The problem is, within a few weeks I would have the opportunity to restock my mp3 collection all over again..FOR FREE!
And that makes me feel dirty.
How can all this great music have so little value?
Am I simply dating myself to think that my old school way of listening to music carries more value than the ‘get everything all the time’ approach?
The generational argument
It would be convenient to blame the technology - “kids these days don’t appreciate music because its all free”. But I remember my time working at a record shop and, as I compiled hundreds of records at almost criminal prices, I began to lose my love of the music itself. It became a game of what rare album I could acquire, even if I was unmoved by the music. I had access to a massive volume of music and I was losing my love of the sounds.
Maybe in a way, having access to so much music devalues it in the listeners mind. I wonder also if younger music fans have a hard time grasping the amount of time it takes to write one song, much less record, produce, package, and sell it.
The quality argument
Could it be that the music just sounds crappier today? Lets face it, the big five record labels pulled the wool over our eyes by convincing us that CD’s sounded better than vinyl and then illegally increasing the price in the late 1990’s (remember when CD’s reached $18.99?).l
So when the mp3 came along we were more than happy to tell Sony to shove it, continue the qualitative downward spiral in exchange for convenience and a free price tag. We’d already lost the beauty of the turntable and the gate fold cover to the worthless Jewel case, so why not save on the crap and just get the music.
But when someone shows up at your house with a hard drive that cost $100 with 300 gigabytes of music on it (around 50,000 songs), it affects how you value that music. At the very least it has to undermine the idea of song ownership.
Accepting whats new
OK, why not? Make it free, pass it around, their value is already negligible. Remember that prior to the mass marketing of the CD’s as a superior solution to records, the industry was up in arms about the advent of the recordable tape. But in the last few years the L.P. has made a comeback, kids dig it, and it sounds great. Musicians make their money the same way they always have, from playing music, and industry insiders scrape to keep relevent in a world where their skills are more and more irrelevant. Technology creates the opportunity for innovation and that’s a good thing for creative people.
And luckily I don’t have to decide between my records and my iPod, I can use them both and spend my time trying not to get overwhelmed by what song to play next.