Music & The Digital Age

By Desertcurmudgeon


Without stopping to think it through, I told Maz Misc to present me with a topic for an initial article to be posted on bizarredatanoise, indicating that no matter what she threw at me, I would attack it with enthusiasm.  Lesson learned for the 353,734th time: think before you speak.

Regardless, if nothing else, I am a man of my word, so I will now give you my thoughts about the current state of the music industry and the effects of online streaming music services.  As a primer, Maz forwarded me a very articulate article written by musician Danny Michel decrying the exodus of promising musicians from the industry due to an ever-increasing difficulty in being able to make a living through sales of albums, CDs and even extensive touring.  Though I am completely unfamiliar with Mr. Michel other than as a name I frequently hear mentioned by Maz, he did raise some interesting points, many of which filled me with sad nostalgia for what middle-aged, music-obsessed fossils such as me like to think of as a sort of musical “Golden Age” – before I adjusted my view to one slightly more objective and realized that a large part of that era for which we old hipsters are so nostalgic was simply the convenient and ubiquitous consumerism it offered.

Like most people in their late 40s, my obsession began with collecting vinyl.  At the risk of inviting all sorts of laughably righteous indignation at what I’m about to say, I DON’T MISS VINYL ONE BIT.  You heard me.  I did like the presentation – the lyric sheets, the gatefold sleeves, the large expositions of the cover art – but what I didn’t like was the very fragility of vinyl records.  It doesn’t take much to scratch, warp, cut, or scrape an album beyond listenability, and often, it didn’t even take that much when a brand new shrink-wrapped album for which you just paid the last of your paltry allowance came directly from the manufacturer with irreparable skips and other fatal flaws.  And to the new wave of passionate “Pepsi is far superior to Coke”-type vinyl enthusiasts cropping up everywhere to sing the praises of vinyl’s audio superiority, I challenge you to listen to an album on an imperfect vinyl pressing (a very common phenomenon) and then on CD and tell me with a straight face that vinyl has the far superior sound.  I can’t tell the difference between Pepsi and Coke, personally, but perhaps that’s due to the ravaging of my taste buds from years of cigarette smoking.  I CAN tell the difference between the sound of vinyl and the sound of compact discs: the one that sounds perfectly fine to all but the most hypersensitive of ears and is untainted by pops, skips, locked grooves and scratches is the superior of the two, hands down.  Not to mention, they’re smaller and easier to store.  Unless you’re an addicted asshole like me and you have about 3,000 of the things taking up space in your already cramped studio apartment.

Sooner or later, CDs will be phased out and my little (big) hobby will come to a necessary end.  I seek no condolences for this – the forward march of technology always has and always will have devastating effects on the technology that preceded it.  If I were to allow myself to feel saddened by something so trivial and inevitable, I would be similar to an old lunatic writing a letter to the CEO of Verizon decrying the extinction of the rotary phone.  However, when this does happen, the aforementioned 3,000 titles lining the walls of my home will still be there for my listening enjoyment – another benefit of the CD over vinyl.  However, I am obviously a person who enjoys music (and books…and movies) in a tangible, physical format, so the likelihood of me EVER subscribing to a streaming service is slim to none.  In addition to the points already made by Danny Michel, online services have also destroyed the entire notion of independent record stores (or ANY record stores, in the not-too-distant future).  Do I miss the old thrill of the chase in hunting for old titles amongst racks and racks of dusty used titles in a strip mall record shop?  I sure do.  Does this make me sad and wish for a return to the good old days?  Not at all.  Much like Vaudeville, this era had a beginning and an end, and attempting to resuscitate outdated modes of entertainment is not only futile, but progress averse.  Just because I miss the abundance of CD stores doesn’t mean they should come back.  In fact, it has necessitated that I get some new hobbies, and that’s always a good thing.

As for the musicians themselves, I am certain that sooner or later, regulations will need to be put in place regarding the uncompensated sales of their music online.  Once streaming and other intangible options become the only choice for music consumers, capitalist governments the world over will come up with a way to regulate it in a manner that’s more fair to the artists.  We’re just not there yet.  In the meantime, I’m sure it’s a rougher slog than ever for a young musician to make a living without holding down a day job.  But hey, if the US ever comes to its senses and starts to take real steps to protect the planet upon which we live, then coal miners and other workers in heavy polluting industries will need to adapt to the new paradigm, learn a new skill, and use their own innovation to continue to survive and thrive.  The immediate fallout is sad, no argument there, but unfortunately, it has to happen in order for the species to progress.  The same can be said for those wonderful troubadours, divas, madmen and riot girls who provide me with the entertainment that quite literally keeps me sane.  Do what you must to survive, but have faith in the inevitable rejuvenation of the industry in the not-too-distant future. Oh, and for fuck’s sake, if you really DO want to continue to sell your music in physical formats, encourage a friend to open a CD store in Albuquerque, NM.  I guarantee that my business alone will enable them to make a living.