Confronting the Finite

One day he decided that his liking for poetry could not be fully expressed in just reading poetry or listening to poets reading on phonograph records. He decided to take the plumbing out of his house and completely replace it with poetry, and so he did.

He turned off the water and took out the pipes and put in John Donne to replace them. The pipes did not look too happy. He took out his bathtub and put in William Shakespeare. The bathtub did not know what was happening.

Richard Brautigan, “Homage to the San Francisco WMCA”

Anyone who knows me even casually knows that I am a voracious record collector; I’ve never done an exact tally, but in my 1000 square-foot NYC apartment I now probably have well over 20,000 recordings on either LP or CD. Composing music is probably the only voluntary thing I’ve done for a longer period of my life than record collecting. (Eating, sleeping, breathing, etc. are things I’ve done even longer, but they’re not a matter of choice.) So admittedly, since amassing recordings is something that at this point is as natural to me as my involuntary metabolism, I have not been terribly enthusiastic about the prospect of physical recordings becoming unwanted relics of the past. Even though there have been rumors that the major record labels will be discontinuing the production of physical recordings as early as next year, it’s difficult to imagine that there won’t always be a devoted market for the corporeal stuff that entrepreneurial independent labels will continue to service. After all, there are companies that are still pressing vinyl and folks (myself included) are still buying it.

But I must opine that as someone who has collected recordings for over 30 years at this point, the chorus of Cassandras announcing an irreversible format shift sounds surprisingly familiar. In the 1980s, when CDs were touted as the greatest evolutionary step in recorded technology, all the pundits jumped on the bandwagon to denounce LPs. I was a relative newcomer to record collecting at that point (I was only a teenager), but I had already amassed enough LPs to think they were pretty wonderful things and thought most CDs sounded impersonal and sterile, so I didn’t buy in. Ironically, the “death of the LP” helped me to acquire tons more vinyl at a fraction of its original value as stores depleted their entire LP stock and folks who were obsessed with keeping up with the trends discarded their LP collections for a pittance in order to replace them with state-of-the-art CDs. I have a smile on my face every time I read a report that LP sales have been soaring almost thirty years after people were supposed to stop listening to them forever.

Eventually, albeit reluctantly, I gave in to CDs (at some point in the mid-1990s) when so many recordings started appearing that were not available through any other means. After a while, I even came to believe that aspects of digital recording were beneficial to some repertoire, e.g. the number pieces of John Cage and the late massive works of Morton Feldman (both in order to clearly hear the very low volume of it, as well as to hear an entire piece without having to flip sides). I now have as many CD as LPs; each cover opposite entire walls in the largest room of my apartment—a constant reminder of the face-off between analog and digital technologies.

But if the self-appointed prophets of tomorrow prove to be incontrovertibly correct, in all likelihood I will probably one day have to give in to amassing future recorded music on my computer’s hard-drive, but only if I have absolutely no other option. However, I already can foresee the pitfalls of such a plan. I won’t even get into the argument that most music files currently disseminated without a physical carrier sound pretty awful when compared with CDs. (Remember I think LPs still sound best for most—though not all—music; if a recording is available on both CD and LP, I’ll usually try to track down the LP.) I actually think there is even a bigger problem. No matter how large a hard-drive I would get to store music on, I will inevitably fill it up. Before long my entire apartment would turn into piles of daisy-chained hard-drives. I contend that such a mess of anonymous-looking plastic would be far less attractive than my inviting shelves of carefully arranged LPs and CDs. And forget about my ever using a device like an iPod. For starters, the Walkman was never particularly appealing to me. (I prefer hearing the sounds around me when I am not at home focusing on what I am listening to.) I would never be able to decide how to fill such a device’s hopelessly tiny storage space (remember I have 20,000+ recordings). And the enforced obsolescence of irreplaceable batteries convinces me that my money is better spent acquiring additional recordings than constantly replacing the device on which I listen to them.

No More Couch

All that said, I know only too well that apartment space has its limits, too, especially in New York City. A couple of years ago, I ran out of shelf space on my opposing walls. There is room on one of them for one more shelving unit, but that means I will need to find a new location for my turntable. Over the holiday weekend, a friend helped me get rid of the couch that covered the lower portion of the wall joining the walls of LPs and CDs; this is the wall that has the room’s one window. (That window was how many of those recordings first arrived in my apartment when I moved into it ten years ago.) While eliminating the couch means that there are now fewer seating options at home, there is now some additional and much-needed space for recordings. But this too is finite. Unlike a music critic who faced a similar dilemma some years back and opted to cover his window with additional shelves, I have no plan to shut out the outside world that way. That would be going too far, even for me. After all, John Cage preferred the serendipitous sounds that came through his open window to anything contained on a fixed recording. The window represents possibility, the future, the real world, that which can never be captured on any kind of recording, much less on a computer.

23 thoughts on “Confronting the Finite

  1. j109

    I think down the road the future is really in streaming, e.g. Napster, Rhapsody, Spotify. Before digital downloading, recordings were exclusively physical commodities. Now the physical medium is no longer necessary (and often burdensome for listeners — by necessitating supporting devices — and for creators — by increasing production cost), but the era of physical recordings is so recent that many people still want to own recordings as objects, even if that means as a digital object. In that sense I think this is a transitional period, and future generations who grow up in a world of digitally abundant music will likely see no point in possessing an object that is already so readily available. Not to mention connection speed is increasing so fast that the technical issues in fluently streaming high-quality music are likely to be conquered. In this sense the listener’s music collection is only limited to what’s out there.

    There will always be a niche market I think for vinyl and CDs and anything really. There always is. That’s cool and I’ll probably buy the occasional release, but the reality (as you’ve pointed out regarding CDs) is that new music tends to be released in the new format, and it’s hard to fight the cultural tide. More importantly, and this is something that came up in a discussion here about Spotify, is that business models that treat recordings as profit-generating commodities are I think in for some hard times. The reality is that if recordings stop being seen as objects to possess, then few will see the logic in paying to possess them. It will seem more reasonable to pay for a service like Rhapsody, in which you’re not so much paying for music as you are paying for its organization and consolidation.

    Reply
    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      necessitating supporting devices

      j109, Since when is a computer, a portable mp3 player, or a smartphone not a supporting device? I have owned my current turntable for more than 2 decades. That’s longer than the life of any of the computers or smartphones I have bought over the same period of time that are designed to be obsolete within years, months sometimes, in order for big companies to take even more of your money.

      The reality is that if recordings stop being seen as objects to possess, then few will see the logic in paying to possess them. It will seem more reasonable to pay for a service like Rhapsody, in which you’re not so much paying for music as you are paying for its organization and consolidation.

      That’s an additional part of what’s wrong with this picture. It seems much fairer to me to pay the folks who created the music (mostly individuals, the 99% sotospeak, like you and me) than large multi-national corporations. Yes, I know, there have been all sorts of terrible stories from the past that have now become legend about how large record companies took advantage of certain recording artists and reaped the profits therefrom etc. But much of the music I treasure and collect is issued on small independent labels who are very equitable with artists and these labels are also run by individuals, again people like you and me. These folks are finding it harder and harder to issue this music as a result of the mentality that a service provider deserves payment for connecting you to stuff but the stuff itself is not worthy of money. The results of a study published earlier this month on Digital Music News, which specifically addresses Spotify’s negative impact on the purchasing of music, is disturbing to me on a variety of levels.

      From my point of view this is a completely upside-down paradigm. I get annoyed every time I have to pay my phone bill, but I buy recordings for pleasure and with pleasure. It’s also a great pleasure to give someone a recording that I have bought specifically for them, something I am reminded of now that the holiday season is upon us.

      As far as organization and consolidation goes, that kind of curation is something I take pride in doing myself.

      Reply
  2. Kern Waxman

    Frank (et. al):

    One would hope that physical objects won’t disappear because their presence confirms that we actually listen to the music and go out searching to possess it. I’ve now collected recording material for about 50 years (oof — I was a child when I began). I haven’t held onto everything obviously. But the pure physical act of finding a CD, placing it on a device and perhaps reading the notes as the music plays is a confirmation of its quality and uniqueness. Sticking it on a hard drive where it shares space with notes, pictures, charts etc. reducing its distinctiveness. Furthermore what if the hard drive dies? Does all the music die with it? These sorts of devices would seem to be designed for people who listen to certain, let’s say “pop” music for a while and then happily wipe the proverbial slate or hard drive and start again with new “pop” sounds.

    This is why I figure the so-called music business “crises” that is leading to the supposed demise of physical product is related to this attitude. Record companies are designed to sell the largest amount of music at one time in the least expensive way. Thus if they have seven million people downloading one Rolling Stones or one Michael Jackson song, it’s better for the bottom line than if those same people buy eight million or even 8,000 different pieces of music. The industry is oriented towards those eight million sales. However many music creators today are putting out CDs or LPs in batches of 500 or far fewer, even creating individual CD-Rs. The physical act of the creation confirms that they value their music enough to preserve it uniquely, and our collecting of it confirms our appreciation of it.

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  3. Paul Muller

    Well, let’s see. The average CD holds about an hour of music and is approximately 600 MBytes. A GByte is 1000 MBytes, or 1.66 hours of music. 1000 GBytes is a TeraByte and that would hold 1666 hours of music. You can buy a 2 TeraByte drive for around $100m and thus put 3332 hours of music on that one drive. If you have 20,000 hours of music in your collection, then six 2-TeraByte drives should be enough to contain everything. These drives are about the size of a textbook, so with a modest amount of shelving you could save the considerable amount of space now occupied by CDs.

    And the above is based on storing the music in the same format as is on the CD – no compression. Also – CDs, I understand, are not forever; they may degrade after 20 or so years.

    Perhaps the bigger philosophical question is why the prices for music fell so quickly when it became possible to obtain the artistic experience apart from its physical carrier? Our culture is trained to assign value to physical goods and so we have let the value of music be determined by the wrapper it comes in – hardly a healthy state of affairs.

    Maybe the new unit of value will be time – if I am listening to something it is important to me because it requires my time and my attention. Hard to put that on walls full of shelving, however.

    Reply
    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      Paul,

      You make very valid points about the possible lifespan of CDs which has caused me a great deal of concern for many years. However, I will contend that the 20 years is a longer life than any computers or hard drives I have owned. (It has yet to be 20 years since I brought the first CD into my home.) Also, I have LPs that are now 60 years old and they play just fine and sound great. They are still my format of preference.

      As for that $100m, where do you think I’m going to get that kind of money? And if I had such a wad of money to spend I’d much rather spend it on supporting the work of creative artists than on buying yet another piece of non-biodegradable hardware manufactured by some large corporate conglomerate undoubtedly underpaying its employees in some country with less stringent labor laws than folks here are willing to acknowledge most of the time. Yes, LPs and CDs are non-biodegradable also, but I won’t be throwing them away for the rest of my life. I shudder thinking about the landfill that contains my Apple IIGS (never again), my Dell laptop, etc. (BTW, my latest machine home machine was assembled from independently produced components, but even that will die sooner than the recordings on my walls.)

      But the thing you wrote that surprised me the most was this…

      if I am listening to something it is important to me because it requires my time and my attention. Hard to put that on walls full of shelving, however.

      I wholeheartedly agree about time and attention. Those things seem much harder to store on a computer which vies for your attention with constant emails, Skype messages, and the like. The computer seems to me to be the place least likely to focus one’s attention, although it is the greatest place to initiate one’s attention otherwise I wouldn’t be here. The wall of shelves, on the other hand, is a constant invitation to personally discover something (and let’s not forget the notes and booklets that come with those recordings which rarely come with non-corporeal music files). When I put on a record, I always listen from start to finish. The technology forces me to do that since lifting a stylus in mid-play can damage grooves. How wonderful, the technology makes you focus and listen rather than distracting you. If only we could do THAT with the internet!

      Reply
      1. Paul Muller

        Sorry, I left a typo in my first reply. The retail price of a 2 TeraByte drive is around $100. I just quickly checked Amazon and they had them listed for anywhere between $85 and $150 each. So six 2 TByte drives would be on the order of $600 to $700. Not a trivial sum, but perhaps affordable for the determined collector.

        If I had $100m I’d be sure to give 10 or 20 million to NewMusicBox :)

        It might also be said that music delivered digitally has zero shrink wrap, no jewel cases, paper or plastic to wind up in landfills. The electronics to support both the CD and digitally streamed music, of course, will have to be disposed of carefully.

        The serious listener is no doubt prepared to concentrate on a piece in a quiet place, and I agree a computer screen can be distracting. But the sound coming from the headphones should be the same as from a CD. I see lots of folks on the train everyday with earbuds listening to iPads, etc The ability to move digital music worldwide directly to the ear of the listener – at essentially zero cost – would seem to be a compelling factor in its eventual acceptance.

        In any case the main task is to restore a perceived value to the music itself – and not how it comes to us. Perhaps in that way the efficiency of the Internet will remove everything BUT the artistic value of the music – and the payment paradigm will eventually reconstruct itself along strictly artistic lines.

        Reply
        1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

          If I had $100m I’d be sure to give 10 or 20 million to NewMusicBox :)

          We gladly welcome any and all donations however great or small ;)

          Six 2 TByte drives would be on the order of $600 to $700. Not a trivial sum, but perhaps affordable for the determined collector.

          But how long would THEY last? Again I’d rather spend the money on music rather than equipment.

          It might also be said that music delivered digitally has zero shrink wrap, no jewel cases, paper or plastic to wind up in landfills.

          The jewel case is a mixed blessing I admit. But I much prefer them to other means of storing CDs, so I can assure you that none of the jewel cases in the landfills came from me… As for shrink-wrap, it is an epidemic that is not limited to recordings. The use of shrink-wrap is a retail blight in most industrialized and post-industrialized nations. Many parts of the world sell recordings without obnoxious shrink-wrap and they sell just fine. It’s not necessary. And by the way, interestingly enough, those parts of the world that don’t use shrink-wrap are also not as obsessed with plastic pieces of technology as accessories. They can’t afford them.

          The ability to move digital music worldwide directly to the ear of the listener – at essentially zero cost – would seem to be a compelling factor in its eventual acceptance.

          But it’s not zero cost if you have to pay for the service or the hardware, which keeps getting upgraded every year or less. How many iPhone iterations are we up to at this point? I lost count. And paying to access the music you want to hear with the money going to the folks who give you access rather than the folks who made the music still seems to me like paying the wrong folks. And ultimately with services like Spotify etc, you don’t own the music, but the service owns you. As a very astute used record salesman said to me about a year ago, “At least if you no longer want a record you bought you can resell it. Try doing that with a digital file.” He admittedly has a vested interest in the perpetuity of physical recordings, but his point is valid. A tangible object is a part of one’s personal history as well as history at large that cannot be erased or re-written.

          For better or worse, in a capitalist society, worth is determined by supply and demand. Once the supply exceeds the demand the value drops accordingly. And when there is infinite supply, well, you do the math. That’s not to say that I don’t want more people to have the ability to discover the joys of music. Au contraire, it’s what has kept me being involved with NewMusicBox since its launch online in 1999, a website which is free to peruse for anyone with internet access (which I know is not every one in the world, but we do the best we can). But an important part of serving the cause of music is ensuring that there is a viable support system for it.

          Reply
  4. Daniel Wolf

    I couldn’t let this pass (& please excuse my florid digression here):

    “For better or worse, in a capitalist society, worth is determined by supply and demand.”

    This is simply not true for all goods and services and my strong opinion is that, at root, it is not true for music, either. There are some goods or services which do not exist in a metric determined by supply and demand and are thus impossible to value in terms of a currency sum balance — whether credit or debt — when received. In our lives, we enter into countless exchanges of goods and services for which credits and debts are real yet not reducible to a monetary value. A human life, given, saved, lost or taken, put into or freed from slavery, for example, cannot be valued in terms of currency, no matter what the actuarial wager may be. Yet we can readily identify our debts to our parents, our teachers, our cultures and societies, to the abundance of our planet, perhaps to some creator(s), although these are not debts to be repaid or even to be imagined as repayable. Or a gift — anthropology has told us much about this alternative economy — in which value is in the act of exchange between partners, not the object or service trading hands, and no reciprocal act is either necessary or expected. May I suggest that the inevitable tendency for the recording to move towards an infinitesimally small price may, in fact, be providing a decisive impulse towards getting music out of its moribund pseudo-market, in which, as a commodity, it has never fit well, and returning to its own gift-like economy in which live production of music is at the center and valued on its own terms, much as we value the laughter of children playing outside or the warmth of the sun as it breaks a cold morning, experiences for which there is no recorded and commodifiable substitute?

    Reply
  5. Joseph Holbrooke

    “May I suggest that the inevitable tendency for the recording to move towards an infinitesimally small price may, in fact, be providing a decisive impulse towards getting music out of its moribund pseudo-market, in which, as a commodity, it has never fit well, and returning to its own gift-like economy in which live production of music is at the center and valued on its own terms, much as we value the laughter of children playing outside or the warmth of the sun as it breaks a cold morning, experiences for which there is no recorded and commodifiable substitute?”

    Yes!

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  6. Colin Holter

    May I suggest that the inevitable tendency for the recording to move towards an infinitesimally small price may, in fact, be providing a decisive impulse towards getting music out of its moribund pseudo-market, in which, as a commodity, it has never fit well, and returning to its own gift-like economy in which live production of music is at the center and valued on its own terms, much as we value the laughter of children playing outside or the warmth of the sun as it breaks a cold morning, experiences for which there is no recorded and commodifiable substitute?

    Of course you may – but as you know, the wages of a gift economy and the necessary provisions for survival in a late-capitalist economy don’t square with each other as well as we might like. People deserve to be paid for their work; until my landlord starts accepting the laughter of children in lieu of my monthly rent, it’s going to be difficult for me to embrace such a utopian view, no matter how attractive.

    Reply
    1. j109

      But what if your work is itself overly utopian? If building Lego castles is what you consider to be ‘your work,’ should you be paid for that?

      I think what’s happening is that modern realities are increasingly exposing what Daniel has pinpointed, and that those who have learned to rely on the musical ‘moribund pseudo-market’ for material support are naturally terrified.

      Reply
  7. j109

    I appreciate your response, Frank.

    Since when is a computer, a portable mp3 player, or a smartphone not a supporting device? I have owned my current turntable for more than 2 decades. That’s longer than the life of any of the computers or smartphones I have bought over the same period of time that are designed to be obsolete within years, months sometimes, in order for big companies to take even more of your money.

    I guess I hardly consider smartphones and computers to be supporting devices for music listening. Technically this is true, but it would be like calling a house or an apartment a supporting device for a bed. The reality is most people need some sort of digital workstation anyway (computer, for most) to even function in the modern world, so music listening is merely tacked onto that; there is no need to go out and buy a task-specific musical device like a CD player or turntable (of course, they do exist for digital media, e.g. the iPod, but they’re unnecessary).

    The simple reality is: you presumably own a fairly up-to-date computer and a great turntable; I own a fairly up-to-date computer and no turntable. Which combination is cheaper?

    But it’s not zero cost if you have to pay for the service or the hardware, which keeps getting upgraded every year or less. How many iPhone iterations are we up to at this point? I lost count.

    The important point is not iterations of hardware but format compatibility. Developers have done a great job of making sure that media functions across many generations of devices. I only listen to music on my computer and I update that once every five or six years. Never had a problem.

    And paying to access the music you want to hear with the money going to the folks who give you access rather than the folks who made the music still seems to me like paying the wrong folks. And ultimately with services like Spotify etc, you don’t own the music, but the service owns you. As a very astute used record salesman said to me about a year ago, “At least if you no longer want a record you bought you can resell it. Try doing that with a digital file.” […] A tangible object is a part of one’s personal history as well as history at large that cannot be erased or re-written.

    These are meaningful points to you and even to me, but I think within ten years or so most young people will respond to them with a ‘so what.’ I’m in my 20s and just about all of my friends pull up YouTube when they want to listen to something, even if they have a strong attachment to it. They don’t break a sweat about not owning it; they just want to hear it and — because the industry is starting to adapt — 99% of the time it’s perfectly legal (see the ubiquitous VEVO). I think that arguing for the ownership of tangible music (or even digital downloads) will increasingly become like trying to conjure religious guilt in an atheist.

    ; ~23:45 ). I’ll quote a bit of it here:

    “…The corollary to that is that most people are much less willing to pay for the privilege of listening to music now. The entrenched record industry has fought that tooth and nail, and it’s sort of like arguing with the weather: the weather is going to change, winter is going to come no matter how much you’re going to hate it when it gets here. […] The paradigm has changed; the music business is no longer about selling […] physical product. There will always be a market for high quality […] vinyl records for people who want to listen to them and own them as artifacts […]. It’s not going to be the principal financial engine that drives the music business anymore.

    The bands themselves now are the product, and their direct relationship with their fans is going to be where virtually all the commerce happens. Whether it’s live shows, web presence (where the fans buy access to the band in some way), […] or having a direct relationship with their audience where their audience can listen to their music for free and in exchange their audience is inspired to buy T-shirts and trinkets and that sort of stuff.

    […]

    It’s not likely that physical CDs and LPs are going to sell in numbers that are going to support an industry that records them. The recording is going to be done as a service to the bands, and the bands’ direct relationship with their audience is now going to be where the commerce takes place.”

    Albini is of course talking about the non-classical world but clearly this has ramifications there as well. If creators want to earn money from their recorded music, they have to come up with some sort of culturally-relevant business model. If they can’t, then what they’re doing is no longer commercial, even if it would have been ten years before. I don’t see any valid ethical dimension to this; the whole thing is just a bunch of cultural chips falling where they may.

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  8. Daniel Wolf

    Colin,

    As a freelance composer, I insist on being paid for my work. This comes in the form of commissions and license fees. But I am under no illusions that my pay will be reliably calculable (e.g. from my material and labor costs multiplied by my enthusiasm to make the particular work and my “brand name:/”track record” as composer and factoring in the ability of the commissioner and licensee to pay, performers and presenters to create more licensed events, as well as my rights organization to collect licenses (GEMA does this reasonably well, but still requires some prodding from time to time), rather that all of this is negotiable and contingent on an incalculably larger number of variables.

    Sometimes I earn much more than I’d expected, sometimes much less/ I earn, often by cajoling, schmoozing, even romancing and a lot of plain luck, but never by any recognizable rules of the market with rational players. Does this pay the mortgage, feed the dog, and shoe the children? (A reasonble question.) It’s taken a long time, with very frugal living and many years in which the balance of labor fell on the day job side, but — fool persisting in his folly — it has worked out, to its own set of rules. Mortgage paid, dog fed, children barefoot only in Summers.

    My main point here, however, is that meaningful income for a composer through sales of recordings can no longer be assumed to be a substantial or reliable part of one’s take-home pay. Recordings are useful, as documents and as PR material (among composers, they seem to have replaced calling cards; if you ever gift one of your cds, note that the opened shrink wrap has become the measure that the cd on the giftee’s shelf has actually been listened to.) Most composers will have to get by, as they always have, on their day jobs, be they playing, teaching, publicizing, or managing music or doing something extra-musical (Teaching English to bankers, playing the ponies… one composer is even known to have sold life insurance…)

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  9. Colin Holter

    Daniel, I agree completely with the premise you’re setting out – but my feeling is that the solution is to find ways to make the sale of recordings, etc. profitable to composers if only marginally rather than abandon the possibility altogether. Martin Scherzinger (possibly citing someone else’s work, I’m not sure) suggested that microtransactions might be a workable model – price downloads much lower but give all of it to the artist.

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  10. Daniel Wolf

    Colin (with indulgences to FJO for taking up his comment thread):

    I don’t doubt that the path will be towards more direct sales from the composer and performer to the consumer, eliminating most if not all of the intermediaries (record companies, distributors, retailers) who have traditionally earned the greater share of revenues. However, even a huge volume of micro-transactions ends up as only a very small amount of money for the artist.

    The only plausible working alternative of which I’m aware is La Monte Young’s model of selling (or actually leasing) art editions of his recorded works, limited, numbered and signed and beautifully packaged. The idea, essentially, was to lend the recording as much of the uniquity of a live performance as possible by treating the recording as much like a work of visual art as possible. To be honest, I think this early approach of his reflected a more realistic understanding of his market potential than his subsequent, conventionally marketed recordings which have long since gone on to be the objects of torrent exchanges and the like, eternally present online and forever out of the composer’s revenue stream, which, at a time when the composer is less able to perform with any frequency, is a real problem.

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  11. Terence O'Grady

    It’s always a little difficult for me to take the “Don’t expect them to pay for the music, sell them T-shirts or autographed scores instead” argument seriously, but I realize that this is largely (although not exclusively) a generation gap issue. When it is so easy for people to acquire the music they love for free, I suppose that the natural result is that they will lose any sort of compulsion to pay the composer or musicians that provide it (instead, opting to pay some corporate entity to organize it for them). I certainly don’t feel that way but that (as it turns out) seems to be more a function of my advanced age than anything else. A number of conversations published on this site make it abundantly clear that one side (predominantly a little older) is not going to convince the other side (predominantly a little younger) that this is in any way a moral or ethical issue.

    But there is some hope that not all 20- or 30-somethings feel that it’s perfectly OK to just borrow the music they love and let the composers and musicians somehow fend for themselves. My son, in his mid-1920s, buys everything (his tastes run from jazz to pop and folk, occasionally a little contemporary classical). If for some reason he wants two copies of a CD, he doesn’t dub a copy, he buys another copy. Why? Because he believes that musicians and composers should be paid. Is he in the minority? Absolutely. Are there enough people like him to keep things like CDs and vinyl alive (he’s also a fond collector of vinyl)? Maybe, just barely. But I have this fantasy (it’s probably no more than that) that as the 20- or 30-somethings get a little older, they’ll begin to realize that recorded performances of classical music (new or old) will simply disappear if we don’t support them.

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    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      Terence, I appreciate your observations. However, I contend that the disparity that exists between the willing-to-pay-for-something and corporeal-things-are-not-anachronistic and the lets-put-our-entire-lives-on-our-laptops camps is more than generational. A fascinating report I read earlier today provided data revealing that European online consumer behavior lags far behind that of the United States; the writer of the article posits that “Europe has too many services chasing too few customers.” Reading that confirmed something that I had been feeling in my gut from all of my travels in other countries in recent years: the obsession with all things computer-related is largely an American phenomenon.

      Cities like Hong Kong, Seoul, Dublin, Amsterdam, Oslo, Zagreb, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Santiago (Chile), and Wellington (New Zealand)—to name only places I have traveled to in the last four years—were all great places to buy books and records (CDs, and yes, LP records) in actual stores. And those stores had people in them who were buying things at least they were when I was there. Sheet music stores, too. Such shops are much harder to find in most American cities these days (although San Francisco still is a book and record mecca which is why I travel there whenever I can afford to). Where I live in New York City, once one of the world’s great places to find all of these things, most of the book stores are gone as are most record stores and only one storefront sheet music retailer is still in business. The denizens of all-things-internet-all-the-time think that such a scenario is perfectly fine. They actually seem happy about it gloating that it is easier to acquire music now than ever before. But internet acquisition models are largely based on finding what you want. I prefer finding stuff I didn’t know about before. (And yes, I have stumbled upon great things I didn’t know about previously online, but it has actually led me onto further searches to find them in the real world.)

      A curious aside: I’ve also noticed that it is unusual for an email I send outside U.S. borders to get answered with the same rapidity as one sent to someone in the states. This is not just because of time zone differences. It is also not because folks in these places are “technologically behind” us—Hong Kong and Oslo were two of the most technology-saturated places I’ve ever spent time in; even picturesque Medieval Tallinn felt extremely high-tech. In fact most places I stayed abroad had free internet connections in the hotels, something that has been somewhat rare in my experience here where internet connection is an excuse for some company to charge an exorbitant fee (while folks whose intellectual properties are enjoyed over such connections earn nothing from the transaction). Rather, I would argue, it’s because in other parts of the world the internet is a part of life rather than a substitute for life. Here we feel compelled to be connected at all times, whether in front of a work station, a traveling laptop or a smartphone, and frequently at the expense of other experiences.

      There’s no argument to the reality that computers and the internet are a vital part of our 21st century communication landscape. They have made the creation and dissemination of all kinds of things much easier than ever before. But there is also a wonderful world beyond the internet, and that is where humanity and art (its deepest and most profound manifestation) largely resides. Someone else in this chain (the person who uses the moniker “j109”) compared artistic creations to “Lego castles” and questioned whether this was something that deserved payment. And the extraordinarily articulate (and extremely talented composer) Daniel Wolf posited that art exists in a realm that should be economically unquantifiable. To return to recordings: I have paid as little as 25 cents for a LP and as much as 75 dollars for a single CD, and nothing for many other recordings on both formats. The price tags on them have nothing to do with their relative artistic worth only with their scarcity in our society. While I treasure the notion of nothing being scarce, let’s start with food, medicine, drinkable water, decent places to live, maybe even internet connections (!)—all of which folks are earning way more money on than any of we Lego castle builders (a favorite past time when I was ten years old, I confess ;)…).

      Reply
      1. Mark N. Grant

        I stand 1000% with Frank here, to which I would append that I notice that nobody has suggested that paintings be physically destroyed and replaced with their digital replicas. To those that say there’s no analogy there, I say, not quite so. There is no substitute for live unmediated humanly experienced three-dimensional sound. We are losing the war there because so much new live performance is itself electronically-mediated to the extent that natural acoustic balances are being destroyed and even forgotten. The sound space/theater/auditorium as a physical musical instrument is on the way out just as CDs are; the Poisson Rouge-style venues dependent on electricity rather than natural acoustics are taking over.

        With the increasing contempt physical objects such as CDs, LPs, and live concert experiences in spaces devoid of sound design are viewed, we as a culture and “civilization” are inexorably progressing to a general stultification of perceptions and a barbarity masked as a new form of cultivated taste. Physical objects command respect and attention to a degree that virtual objects cannot and do not. Respect for the monumental traditions of the past is being eroded with the assumption that the baby-toy-device styles of the new technologies are sufficient frigates to bear the freight of the artistic heritage without a fatal compromise of gravitas.

        We don’t raze churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques and replace with them with downloadable, virtual counterparts, either. As Ingmar Bergman said, “Art is a form of worship.”

        Reply
  12. j109

    I hope that in arguing against some of the points here, I’m not giving the impression that I am contemptuous of physical media, music, composers, etc. Mark is right in his observation about acoustics and in the power of physical objects vs. digital. I also think Daniel is right that there will probably be a move towards highly-artistic physical media (there already kind of is). I am actually very excited about this and even though I compose I have little desire to share my music digitally (I usually just burn CDs for people). I have purchased CDs directly from artists I’ve wanted to support, and the crux of the Albini quotation above is that the musical relationship between artist and audience will become more pure, instead of being manipulated by corporate intermediaries.

    The ‘Lego castles’ comment was really just meant to illustrate that music is one thing among many that we humans do to enrich our lives. Many times such activities bring happiness and a paycheck at the same, often times they do not (see flower-collecting, Civil War re-enacting, etc.). If changes in technology undermine the paycheck-bringing aspect of being a musician, then that’s something to address as a practical issue in your life, but just because your wallet is being threatened doesn’t mean something is morally awry. If you’re a European calligrapher in the mid-1400s and the printing press is looking to rock your world, you could wave your fist and extol the virtues of a hand-crafted manuscript (and you wouldn’t be wrong necessarily), but if you’re honest with yourself then you know, hey, you might have to find a new gig; the enormous utility of this new printing thing may lead future generations to willingly sacrifice the virtues of calligraphy, even if those virtues are very real (and hopefully they do survive in some form just because of their meaning to people).

    So I don’t mean to offend anyone (thank you, Frank, by the way for engaging this general discussion; I realize it’s kind of tangential to the article), I’m just calling it how I see it. I don’t mean to demean art; music is way more important to me than are Lego castles, but I’m willing to entertain that lots of things can generate meaning and happiness in people’s lives, and whether or not these things generate income is just a practical issue, not a moral one.

    P.S. One thing I think would be amazingly cool for musicians to do is to adopt the Rhapsody model for themselves. Like, form ‘streaming labels’ in which you pay a monthly fee a la Rhapsody for access to that label’s library, or even label collectives based on style, shared ideals, etc. Maybe allocate any profit according to a musician’s percentage of the total share of listening. If a thousand composers got on board and did this I would be the first person to register. I don’t like putting money in a corporate exec’s pockets anymore than anyone else, but it’s up to musicians to step up and create a mechanism for compensation that doesn’t demand adherence to increasingly obsolete modes of access (not BAD modes of access, just ones that are becoming more niche). No sense in arguing with the weather, better to prepare for it.

    Reply
  13. Colin Holter

    As Ingmar Bergman said, “Art is a form of worship.”

    Broadly speaking, I agree with you, but your mustering of this quote in support of your point makes me not want to. I think it points to a much larger ideological divide (i.e., larger than our attitudes about recordings or even about music or culture): I don’t think anyone should worship anything, ever. I don’t think worship is a way of relating to culture or institutions or people that dignifies us as human beings.

    I think liveness without mediatization (to invoke Baudrillard and P. Auslander) and all of the incremental steps from one to the other, including LPs and CDs, should be kept alive and afforded respect precisely because they offer insight into particular subjectivities (i.e., not because they are empirically and self-evidently valuable). Similarly, I try to understand the short- and long-term ramifications of emerging cultural technologies in terms of their impact on consumers’ and producers’ material conditions and capacities for revelation. The formulae that output those variables are vast and incredibly complex. In other words, “the freight of the artistic heritage” can’t be measured only in gravitas, I don’t think – it has a whole lot of dimensions, all historically specific.

    We may have to agree to disagree on this one. And that’s OK, because this is America and our First Amendment rights are inalienable.

    Reply
    1. Mark N. Grant

      Sure, let me be clear I didn’t mean “worship” in a religious or specifically theistic sense. I’m speaking metaphorically, as was Bergman. I meant the sense of the numinous that creators feel and convey to others through the act of expression. A laic sense of elevation and celebration and the transmundane. In my view the preponderance of works in the western canon of art (and I don’t mean religious works) attest to this. Perhaps some people are made uncomfortable by this suggestion. Definitions may vary. So be it.

      Reply
  14. Paul Muller

    Great discussion – thanks to Frank for starting this.

    I think all of the musical paradigms discussed here – pure live performance, recordings sold as CDs or digital streaming – will co-exist, but they will have the processes of natural selection operating on them as time goes on.

    It has been said that every technology ever invented is still in use somewhere on the earth. You can, for example, still see a play by Shakespeare at the Globe in London, but that art has also evolved: we have live musical theater, radio, movies, broadcast TV, Netflix, digital streaming, Pixar animations and YouTube. Nothing has been lost, per se – but the focus of attention has shifted as the choices increase. Music, IMO, is subject to the same evolutionary pressures.

    Look at how far ‘Cars’ or ‘Toy Story 2′ is from Shakespeare at the Globe. Yet a compelling story is able to overcome the lack of live human performers and long historical traditions. Might be something for composers in the 21st century to keep in mind.

    Reply
  15. Joseph Holbrooke

    Seems to me that the divide between perspectives on this really comes down to each of our outlook on the trajectory of human progress. If you are excited and optimistic (as I am) about the general direction of our culture than it is very easy to accept some short term losses for what we perceive as massive long term gains. But if you don’t think things are going very well every loss must feel like another nail in our species’ collective coffin.

    I’d love to be able make a reasonable argument for my own optimism, but I’ve found that it is just too complicated a topic that mostly involves anecdotal evidence bullying our emotions.

    On the other hand, I am thrilled that people like Frank are so serious about collecting records. I predict that in a decade or two, when digital music finally implodes, Frank will provide a treasured musical service, perhaps hosting listening events, getting paid well to share his unique collection. The future is so exciting because we can have it all.

    Reply

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