Life in the Digital Age has provided us with many wonderful things. We are now capable of learning and sharing cultures with people across the planet. IBM just created a computer that beat the two greatest Jeopardy champions of all-time and will now go to work assisting in the diagnosis of medical conditions. It has never been easier to view pornography or videos of creepy pseudo-midgets lip synching Katy Perry songs. Perhaps best of all, the growth of technology has made music accessible through a series of keystrokes, mouse-clicks, and frustrated whimpering about download speeds and servers.
But somewhere between the miracle of lossless audio files and Amazon.com, we’ve lost something. Three things actually. Before browsing was a Web term, it was a term that someone called Webster defined as “to look over or through an aggregate of things casually especially in search of something of interest.” I cannot speak for everyone else, but the act of browsing for music was one of life’s great pleasures. And while I appreciate and respect the power of Google, sitting in a chair looking at a white screen is not the same as being in a room full of possible purchases that require the explorative use of your own brain.
I was reminded of this as I visited Music Millenium in Portland, quite possibly the last great record store in the United States. Walking into the classical section (which has its own storefront), I was reminded of two things: 1) If Hell had that amount of selection in their classical department, I would worship Satan effective immediately and 2) It’s probably best that I maintain a self-imposed retraining order on that place, because I would completely plow through my money if I lived anywhere near there (like a crack addict except the crack in this case is Bruckner symphony recordings). Shopping in a record store of this caliber is such a treat.
This trip, I emerged relatively unscathed, spending just over $40 (after talking myself out of an EMI Schumann Orchestral Works set that I will probably end up ordering anyway) with a used copy of Sibelius 4 and 5 with Alexander Gibson and the Scottish National Orchestra (replacing my “digital” copy), a DVD of Bernstein’s Sibelius ½ cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a Prokofiev disc with a decent story: when I was about 14 or so, I heard this piece called “The Meeting of the Volga and the Don” on the radio in Vegas. I didn’t know anything about classical music then, but it sounded cool, and I always remembered the interesting title. As far as I could tell, there was only one commercial recording available, with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra on Philips (coupled with the 5th Symphony), but it was out of print. Fast forward 10 years, and I call a Sunday afternoon show on KING-FM in Seattle requesting that they play the piece. They did, and like a 12-year-old girl I recorded it onto a cassette tape. In all the moving I’ve done in the last 5 years, that tape disappeared. There remains only one commercial recording as far as I can tell, and God bless ArkivMusic.com for re-issuing it.
But guess what? Getting it from ArkivMusic.com is not nearly as awesome as being at the checkout counter with your Sibelius stuff and seeing the disc you’ve literally been searching for for 15 years sitting on the counter for $4.50. And it is that serendipitous possibility that makes browsing a record store such a thrill.
The physical sensory experience of listening to music is also lost in the mp3 age. There is something inherently inviting about going to your shelf, searching your own collection, grabbing a CD or an LP, physically making it play, reading the liner notes. Scanned copies of booklets are not the same as booklets. A CD jewel case, while not necessarily space-efficient, still triggers a small kid-opening-a-present-on-Christmas-Day vibe every time you open one to listen. Plugging your iPod into your computer, syncing your music folders with your iTunes library, converting them to an acceptable format, and having 250 gigabytes of music on a device the size of a cell phone is nothing short of amazing. But it’s a complicated joy. I wish I had a cooler explanation or a psychological study or something to make this point seem stronger, but the truth is I just like the physical sensation that goes into the process and you can’t tell me I’m wrong.
Perhaps the greatest loss of all is the sense of ownership associated with a physical item. If I bought a CD of Karajan conducting Beethoven 5, that CD was mine to do with as I pleased (short of copying it for thousands of friends). I could put it on my computer. I could sell it to a used record store if I grew weary of it. I purchased it, and I owned the item. But now? The line between physical item and intellectual content of said item is now gone because said item itself is gone. You’re now dealing with a collection of data as opposed to a 4.7 inch disc. And do you own that collection of data? You paid for it, but what is your sense of ownership?
I purchased the new Radiohead album “The King of Limbs” a couple weeks ago via a digital download from the band’s website. For $14 I was given a ZIP file containing 8 .wav files. I burned a copy onto a CD that now occupies a spot in the 6-disc changer in the car. Is burning a copy of it even legal? Maybe. But even if it is, that’s the extent of your rights as the consumer. You can’t “sell” your downloaded copy of the album. You certainly can’t sell the burned CD copy. You don’t so much own it as you have access to it. And this is to say nothing of “cloud” services like Rhapsody, where the collection of data never even makes it onto your own hard drive.
Is this a big deal? Maybe it isn’t. But in world with crazy copyright laws (now including a push to re-copyright things that were in the public domain) and the ever-increasing destruction of record stores and music in physical form, I don’t feel quite as octogenarian as I may come off in lamenting the good-ol’-days when the process of experiencing the greatest music known to man was simpler and not filled with constant pitfalls and technicalities.
Now get off my lawn.