Digital Music — The Downside?
I’m in the process of compiling a bunch of old blog entries I did for a popular music website into what may eventually become an anthology.
As I’m reading through the entries, which were written from the fall of 2007 to the late winter of 2009, I can see that I was discussing a lot of things that, frankly, we’re still discussing today. Either some things never change or I was really ahead of the curve. I want to say it’s the latter, so I can feel good about myself, but it’s probably more of the former.
However, what I’m really noticing, besides being a veritable Nostradamus, is that I wrote a lot about music that I can’t even remember listening to. For example, there is one entry from 2007 about the producer/artist Terrace Martin, who is getting all sorts of acclaim now for his work on the recent Kendrick Lamar LP To Pimp a Butterfly.
I’m reading this entry, and I can see that I was favoring Terrace Martin’s LP Signal Flow; in fact, I went so far as to call him the best producer in hip-hop at that time, and implored his label, Warner Brothers, to start paying some him some attention. My pleas only went so far.
But that’s okay, I guess, because honestly, for the life of me right now, I can’t remember a damn thing about Signal Flow. Almost nothing about the album comes back to me. I even went and listened to some of the songs again, and it really does not feel like something I’ve actually ever heard. Now I’ve obviously heard it, and at one point was telling other people?—?in writing, no less?—?they should hear it, but it’s just not something I remember.
I started thinking about this, wondering why exactly something I once supported and probably listened to quite a bit, was not fresh in my mind. And then it came to me?—?none of the music I actually have from that time period is accessible to me anymore. It was all sitting on computers I no longer use, or hard drives that are no longer active, and to hear it again, I’d have to go back in a time machine and re-download it all. Who the hell wants to do that?
Part of the problem with digital music, to me at least, has been that for the life of the digital music experience?—?let’s just say, after the year 2000?—?it’s been a big mess. Sometimes I look at iTunes now and I have twenty versions of the same song. And then there are other songs I can’t find, because around 2011, I started heavily using Spotify, and there, I’m somewhat limited to what’s actually on the service.
I know I can have the songs I’ve downloaded come up in the Spotify browser, but for some reason, maybe just pure laziness, I’ve never actually gone forward with doing that. I think one time I tried it for a while, and the fact that songs were coming up on my mobile playlists that I couldn’t actually play, because the files weren’t also on my phone, really annoyed me. So I just nixed that idea.
But beyond that, there’s also music that I’ve listened to and compiled in playlists on YouTube, too. I feel like I’ve been using YouTube as a music player since long before it became trendy, and if I go back and look at some of these playlists now, a lot of the songs, some of which were unauthorized remixes and mashups and such, they’re all gone. So it’s like I sat there and meticulously put something together that I can’t even listen to anymore. What was the point?
There was certainly a time period, which many of us for one reason or another like to pretend never happened, but most certainly happened, and it was from around the years 2003 to 2009, when the internet was a free-for-all for downloading music. I mean, jesus h fucking christ, you could just type any album name into Google with the extention .rar and find it on a blog in two seconds. And nobody even cared!
Everyone remembers MegaUpload. And in those years, it was either torrents or file storage lockers or peer-to-peer networks like Soulseek?—?remember Soulseek?? —?where you could download pretty much anything you wanted, at will. You could reasonably scan someone entire’s hard drive and attain every piece of music they owned in the span of 2 hours. You still can, but it’s just far less explosive than it once was, because the internet cops are much more thorough nowadays, and the big record labels now love the internet, whereas before they kinda pretended it didn’t even exist.
The point is, with access to all that music, pirated music that was gotten via the internet and listened to while you were likely actually browsing the internet, there was something lost in the transaction of those acts. It was like, here, you have all the world’s music at your fingertips, and you didn’t pay for it, so it doesn’t mean shit, and you’re not going to sit with it and really embrace it, because since there was nothing really involved with getting it, why would you?
And I say this knowing that I have hard drives literally filled with music. Terabytes and gigabytes of storage space used up to contain these little mp3’s that are 3-minute vessels for some poor person’s hopes, dreams and most intimate thoughts.
I mean, do you really know what it means to make a record? I’m not talking about some little bleeps and bloops that someone pasted together in Ableton Live and didn’t know what to call it so they uploaded it to Soundcloud and tagged it ‘experimental.’
I’m talking about someone sitting in a quiet room late at night, all by themselves, practicing one guitar riff or one piano arpeggio ‘till their fingers get sore and they’re staring at the time, wondering how the hell they’re going to wake up to go to school in the morning.
I’m talking about someone having a messed up life and all sorts of pain and struggle and things they can’t ever talk to anyone about, and sitting there with a pen?—?or heck, nowadays, maybe a Google Doc open?—?and writing their deepest, most confessional thoughts in some type of melodic form, so that when we’re feeling some kind of way ourselves, we can put our fancy $300 headphones on and ride the subway listening, thinking: “Someone else out there feels the way I do too!”
A record is still a record. But man, we’ve really devalued it to the point where it doesn’t feel like one anymore.
The fact that I can’t even remember listening to this Terrace Martin LP, which I once enjoyed so much, kind of bothers me. I feel like that a lot now, about many albums. And that’s why I’m writing this. Because I have thousands of CDs and vinyl LPs, and I remember almost everything. I remember the garbage stuff, like things I bought for 25 cents at the Salvation Army, and I remember the good stuff, like things I cut school to go purchase on their release day.
Surely, I don’t remember everything I own, but I don’t think I can look at any CD or record I own and think, gee, I never even heard this before, where the hell did I get this from? Can I say that about the digital music sitting on those hard drives? Absolutely. In fact, if I was to go browsing through them right now, I’d venture to say almost 90% of the music I downloaded?—?for free, at that?—?I never even listened to! It’s all just sitting in a giant folder, and I wouldn’t even know it’s there unless I actually go open that folder and then start opening the subfolders.
Do you see something off about that? I do. And it seems silly to crow about this now, when digital music is so ingrained in the fabric of everyday life. Like, if you can think of a song you can almost hear it instantaneously these days. But that accessibility, that ease-of-use, it makes the music so disposable. You don’t hold it, so you kind of don’t care about it. You may legitimately connect with it, but once it’s gone, it’s very difficult to reconnect with. Because it’s not physical. In a way, it kind of doesn’t exist. It’s just temporarily there. It’s a momentary experience, something you feel in one moment, but likely don’t feel the next.
That’s sort of depressing to me. I want my musical moments to matter to me. I want to be able to hold them, to remember them, to know they actually happened. I want to one day be able to look back and say, you know what, there was this sound that I heard, and I can hear it again, and I can feel that way again, because I remember it, and it still feels the same.
That’s what people make records for. And that, my friends, is something we’ve really lost along the way.