Nothing Left to Lose: What Happens When Music Becomes Worthless?
by Jay Babcock
Posted Oct. 1, 2007 at Yahoo!Music’s weekly ARTHUR Blog
In a few days Radiohead’s new album In Rainbows will be available on a pay-what-you-like basis to anyone who wishes to download it from them. Take it as an acknowledgment of what everybody already knows: in the digital world that the transnational entertainment-communications conglomerates have done so much to summon in the last 25 years, without apparent regard for the long-term consequences, recorded music—music that people used to buy—has become free. For established artists like Radiohead—or Prince, who launched his new album via a CD tacked on the front of a British Sunday newspaper, or his lordship Paul McCartney, who debuted his latest album through Starbucks, or (worst of all) the Eagles, who are releasing their new album exclusively through an anti-union discount store chain that shall remain nameless—this is all fun ‘n’ games. Like most artists, they’ve witnessed the music industry’s legendarily shady accounting practices for years, incredible feats in which record companies stayed in business yet somehow, when it came time to pay the creators, never made a dime. So it’s gotta be a big kick for all of these dudes to be able to thumb their shapely noses at those who have been screwing them for years. They ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more, and they’re telling us all about it.
Well, good for all of these guys (except the Eagles, of course). It’s hard to shed a tear for mega-corporations whose record companies are run by beancounters who are bad at math. And most of us weren’t likely to buy a new Radiohead album anyway, so “free” just means some of us will download it, listen to it and delete it. No loss there for anyone, I guess. Meanwhile, Radiohead will receive tons of applause from not just their loyal fanbase, but also the “information wants to be free” internet booster contingent. They’ll be the subject of every music-related conversation for weeks. And will rake it in at the turnstiles, as they always do, when they perform live. Though their music is now worthless, Radiohead’s value as an income-earning entity has increased. Savvy.
But hold on. What happens to those no-to-low-income artists, many of them doing significant work, who haven’t established themselves in the pre-burn/download era? Going deeper, what happens to the entire infrastructure of artists, enthusiasts, record labels, live venues, stores and media (TV, radio, print, etc) that made Radiohead’s ability to give away their music possible in the first place? What happens to this ecology, unbalanced and out-of-whack as it already was, when its currency has become almost completely worthless?
The most immediate effect is already apparent: there are fewer and fewer mediated (or, curated) places devoted to music. In America, which has an underdeveloped commons, those places are marketplaces: in other words, record stores. And the really good record stores in this country—the ones owned and operated by knowledgeable enthusiasts, staffed by dayjobbing musicians and music freaks, local clearinghouses of art and information, where meaningful discoveries and lasting connections have historically been made—started disappearing a few years ago and extinction seems to be nearing. What’s going to replace these stores? The schools got rid of significant art appreciation and application long ago. Public libraries, our repositories of cultural knowledge, are criminally underfunded and understaffed. Publicly funded performance venues of all sizes exist all over Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, but good luck finding such spaces in the USA.
These spaces are important, because by containing elements of both chance and quality control, and by being in the real, physical, analog world, they increase the quality and complexity of communication between people. You take those away and you guaran-goddamn-tee a society of atomized, alienated consumers, disconnected cubicle people who gaze at computer screens more than each other’s faces: humans, in other words, in love with machines. Which, I guess, is what “Radiohead” means. Goodbye, art, community and communion: hello, paranoid androids.
THERE’S MORE TO THE SONG THAN MEETS THE EAR
by Jay Babcock
Posted Nov. 1, 2007 at Yahoo!Music’s weekly ARTHUR Blog
“You proved to the world what can happen with a little bit of love and understanding and SOUNDS.” – Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock at the peaceful three-day festival’s close
Following up the earlier post on the subject, a few more reflections on Radiohead’s In Rainbows end run around the existing music industry…
There’s a good case to be made that music is humanity’s oldest form of communication, its earliest artform. For the tens of thousands of years that homo sap has wandered the planet, always in groups, sitting round campfires every night, music has been present only when three things were present: performer, listener and peace. Outside of the solitary performer-listener—call him the Lone Whistler—music was necessarily a social, peaceful activity: an occasional but integral part of the sound of being alive in the world. It was something that even seemed trans-human, in that animals made sounds that sounded like music to us (birdsongs, doghowl choirs, etc). The songs could be old, or new, or both, but they only existed in one moment: the here-and-now. They grounded us with each other.
If this sounds too abstract, try this thought experiment. Imagine if machinery suddenly stopped working–the grid goes down, batteries don’t work, oil’s stopped up. We’re back in the Paleolithic. Where and when would you hear music? You’d only hear it in-person. That is the way we humans have successfully lived for 99% of our history on this planet. It turns out you really did have to be there. You wouldn’t encounter music otherwise.
Furthermore, in this scenario, which likely obtained across the 100,000 years of human history, and which is still present in some surviving first people cultures on Earth, music accompanied times of peace. Yes, there is music that accompanies combat or suffering—warsongs, field labor songs—but Music seems to be a quality of human culture that flows most and fullest and most pleasantly in peacefulness—in that existential moment of fundamental non-aggression between performer and listener. We break bread together, we smoke together, we reason together, we goof together, and we make music together.
For all of this time, then, there was more to music than meets the ear. But the communication technology manufacturing revolution of the last 150 years has changed everything. The transmission of sound across time (through recording playback machines) and space (through electric communication—telephone, radio, internet, etc.) is the new norm. It is the way music is experienced by most humans, most of the time. And with it comes a detachment from the here-and-now, a detachment from the act of music’s production itself, and of course some kind of detachment from other humans altogether. Music used to shorten the space between us. Today, most of the time, for most of us, music actually widens the gap.
Music is no longer an emblem of peace, something we pretty much only encounter when in peace with others. We now encounter it everywhere, all the time, as a disembodied fact. This lessens our incentive to be in peace with each other, and in peace with our environment—music is no longer one of the sweet rewards for having found a way to get along with each other. In food terms, we’ve traded organic sweets for industrial sugar. The result is the same: cavities. Society rots as we enjoy a second-hand lifestyle of cheap highs.
The coming end of the global music industry’s physical infrastructure, hastened by Radiohead’s recent selfish action, which will only make it even harder for our best musicians to do their work, needs to be seen in this moral, or at least historical, context. Does music as free, disembodied computer file close the gap between humans—and between humans and their environment—or does it further widen it? Does it bring Music any closer to the temple of peace? Doubtful. The so-called digital revolution is not just killing the music industry—it’s killing Music herself, by reducing and degrading our experiences with her, by removing almost all of the social, physical and analog aspects of music that have been so historically beneficial to human well-being. Her grace lost, her gifts abused and cheapened, Music does survive, here and there. But you’re less likely than ever to encounter her essence. What have we lost? Well, you’ll know when you feel it—and I bet you won’t be alone with your iPod when it happens.