Availability, Archivability, and Disposability
“[T]here has never been a society in history so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past.”
—Simon Reynolds, “Retromania: Pop’s past is taking over” (Los Angeles Times, Sunday, July 10, 2011)
“Could it be that the greatest danger to the future of our music culture is … its past? [Let's see if we can figure out why this is happening ... ummm... who still loves, cherishes and supports music enough to PAY for it?]”
—Songwriter Dean Kay’s comment to link on Simon Reynolds’s article in the July 25, 2011, edition of Kay’s listserv, The Dean’s List: Music, Copyright and New Technology in the News
“People are much more accepting of different genres. In the past, people used to actually hate people who liked different music to them.”
—Musician and TV presenter Jools Holland quoted in Vanessa Thorpe’s “Is music tribalism dead?” (The Observer, Sunday, July 24, 2011)
I’ve long believed that the parsing of music into various genres had more to do with marketing, listening modalities, and assumed audience response than about anything inherent in the music itself. But I’ve also never been able to reconcile the individualistic notion that artistic creations are mostly the work of specific practitioners with the ethnomusicological assertion that all cultural artifacts are the by-product of a particular time period or geographical place. As a result, I’ve never been content to limit myself to any specific musical genre and have also never been willing to hear just one artist from any one place or time period. Therefore my walls and now floor are completely overflowing with stuff from just about everywhere; adding to it, though, remains a never ending process since time marches on and knowledge of the past presumably increases as well. At one point in the otherwise extremely poignant article by Simon Reynolds which I quoted at the top of this essay, Reynolds claims there is a dichotomy among listeners between pioneers and innovators on the one hand and curators and archivists on the other. Life should be so simple.
I now have so much music at my disposal that if I physically could do so I would be able to listen to music 24/7 for three years without a single repetition of a recording and ten years from now I probably will have twice as much music around. Because of this, I tend not to listen to music in ways that presumably most people do, or at least in ways that pundits seem to think they do. I always try to listen to something once, ideally twice, and then return from time to time—sometimes years later—usually to refresh my memory. But apparently most people like to hear a very small repertoire of music over and over again in an endless recursive loop until they are so sick of it they never want to listen to it ever again and turn to other—though ultimately similar—things to listen to in the same obsessive way. Hence you can have hit songs that are ubiquitous over the course of a summer which are completely forgotten only a short while later unless they eventually get dragged out by an “oldies” radio station. For all of the rhetoric about “classical music” listeners being above the fray of the hoi polloi, classical radio stations and major live performance presenters (e.g. operas and symphony orchestras) cater to an audience that wants to hear the greatest hits of classical music again and again as well. In some ways they’re the ultimate “oldies” audience, since these listeners evidently never tire of the “masterpieces.” So it’s unlikely that, say, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture would gradually recede into the dustbin of history like MC Hammer’s “You Can’t Touch This,” the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell,” or America’s “A Horse With No Name”—to name things that once seemed like they were impossible not to hear at all hours. Although I suppose it’s reassuring that there will come a time when I will be able to walk into my local supermarket and will no longer hear Katy Perry’s “Firework” or Rihanna’s “The Only Girl In The World,” both of which I now have unwillingly listened to more times than anything in my own record collection.
Then again, with the constant availability of all things at all times, maybe today’s ubiquitous platinum records will always be with us. Even right now, all of the somewhat forgotten songs I referenced in the preceding paragraph are really not all that forgotten—they’re all only a click away on the internet. And in a future where everyone will experience music through this medium rather than through a collection that has been assembled personally and carefully over time based on financial as well as real estate limitations (both of which necessitate choices), as soon as something is remembered it will be instantly accessible and then just as quickly disposed. It’s great that it can be so easily recalled and has never really gone away (despite the things we wish would go away), but perhaps not so great that we can turn it off as easily as we can turn it on (unless we happen to be in a supermarket).
I can’t help but think that the ease of listening to everything has the potential of skewing the listening paradigm into something that will reduce our ability to actually truly hear anything. Although part of the myth of collecting things is the belief that you can somehow have it all, in reality you can’t ever actually have it all and that’s ultimately what humanizes collecting. Much as I personally hate to acknowledge this as a record collector, what I have been able to acquire is finite and perhaps that finitude is what helps me to appreciate it or at least have a relationship to it that I otherwise might never have had if I had come to what I listen to through other means.
I spent part of this morning trolling the “rooms” on Turntable.fm. Although within this tantalizing site I didn’t find most of what we go gaga for over here at NewMusicBox, it was great to stumble upon a track from Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle, an early 1960s piano trio recording he made with Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums. That said, I stumbled into it in the middle of the track and a few tracks later did not find it terribly difficult to stumble back out before the music ended. This is something I’d never do with a real turntable (for fear of hurting the recording by raising the stylus mid-groove) and also something I’d never do in real life—I’m still utterly perplexed by folks who walk out of concerts during a performance. Perhaps all this convenience has also made it convenient not to care about music as much.