Monday, March 03, 2014

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Turn and face the Hard Drive)

A few decades ago, it was a common childhood aspiration to grow up to be a platinum selling rock star who practiced neurosurgery (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension); but in this day in age, it seems more young people would rather flip that model and be a neuroscientist with 93 million downloads.

Music has not been a catalyst for social change since the sixties, or for lifestyle choices since the collapse of grunge. In the meantime the ascent of Internet distribution has reduced the costs of production, distribution and access, so of course it has less value than it did thirty years ago.

We don't want or need a songwriter with a rap or protest song to start a revolution with, we have Twitter for that now.

Most of the time, we just want something we can listen to in our ear buds at the gym, or at work, or while in Starbucks drinking a No Foam Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte.

We no longer perceive songwriters as shamans or mediums capable of summoning a song that can transform a society, and those who continue to adopt that role feel oddly out of sync with contemporary culture. Nor is the song the thing now; it is now more likely simply the soundtrack for the thing; and if it doesn't suit us, we'll switch it out for one of the other billion economically worthless if still emotionally charged tunes in our pocket.

If you accept that premise, then the disruption we’ve experienced in recent years doesn't necessarily or only originate from the competition between a pay model vs a free model, but rather perhaps from the incumbents resistance to the notion that music has been re-assigned from its old position of valuable resource to a new position of complimentary service.

Just like water, when the logistical issues of a given region regarding supply, sanitation and distribution networks are suddenly resolved.

Consider at one time in the ancient world freshwater was difficult to come by, and therefore its value was commensurate with its scarcity. Then along come the plumbers, they lay down the pipes and suddenly everyone has access to water. Naturally, the cost of freshwater declines exponentially, and now, go to any restaurant in the world, sit down for a meal, and your waiter will bring a nice, tall, ice cold glass of freshwater for 'free'.

Well, the Internet is such a pipe.

There's money in the pipes, to be sure, if not the content.

That is to say, music like water is nice on the side, even necessary for life, but should by no means be mistaken for the main meal.

And this not to say that the creators of music shouldn’t be compensated; after all, even complimentary water isn’t free. It’s free to you, the customer at a restaurant, but someone pays for its collection and processing somewhere along the line. It may also be cheap, but plumbers are still expensive.

Ironic, though, at the exact same moment in history when the world is parched for content,  artists are asked to run the tap and give it away for nothing.

Perhaps we should ask not whether music has value; of course it does. Music possesses immeasurable social value, and as such, contributes to much human happiness.

But so does sex, and that's also 'free'.

Either way, we might re-consider both how we pay for music and how much we pay for music. It may be that we no longer buy it directly, but that it is provided, like water,  as a compliment to another purchase for another  item, service or device that provides access to music; this band courtesy of that brand or benefactor, and would you like fries with that?

In the past the LP, the cassette and then the compact disc served as containers for music, and few mourned the passing of cardboard and plastic once they got used to carrying a thousand tunes in their pocket.

The mixtapes of my own childhood represented not simply a playlist, but a painstakingly conceived piece of personal multimedia. Maybe portable screens and drives –or whatever sub dermal embedded doodad they think up in the future– will render all such packaging obsolete, and where we once relied on packaging to provide context, digital wireless media floating in the ether or implanted in our bones will suffice.

Of course, it's already happened, but there are still some people of all ages that push back, deny, ignore or otherwise resist the tectonic technological shift that all but shakes the ground beneath our feet (–he said dropping a piece of vinyl on the deck).

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