Digital Music

The Limits Of Delocalized Music Culture

image from www.enroll.com.tr Logic says that if people can get something for nothing, they will. Every day, millions of fans download music and don't pay for it. Critics are quick to regard this as stealing. Fans are taking songs—without the permission of artists—and doing so without compensating them for their creativity. The primary victims of this act are major label artists. The most heavily marketed of them all. Then, since their sales are lowered, fewer up-and-coming artists get a shot at fame. The highest selling artists pay for the development of new talent. As sales decline, there're not enough additional funds to warrant additional signings. Thus, labels take less financial risks on less music.

To many, this is a matter of morality. They argue that fans have no ethics, a sense of right and wrong. That if we continue to let this behavior occur that not only they slowly deteriorate the music that they love, but that they will move onto other crimes, such as walking into stores and stealing or other kinds of property theft. They think—that if left unchecked—a generation of criminals will emerge. 

Lately, I've entertained a different view.

We've reached the limits of a delocalized music culture. In many places, fans lack stores to walk into and steal music from—even if they wanted to. It has little to do with morals. They're disconnected. They have no stake in the songs that are marketed to them. The primary vehicle for promotion is commercial radio.

Twenty-fours a day, seven days a week, this popular music gets played. They hear the same songs and all of their friends hear them too. The artists behind them don't exist in their local realities. Seemingly, they don't even exist in reality itself. To fans, that is—if they know who the artists are—they aren't even human.

The DJ presenting the songs could be an hour away or outside of the state entirely. Later that night, when they decide to download the hits songs they heard off a file-sharing client. It has nothing to do with rebelling against corporations, hating the major record labels, or the lack of values. They do so, because they have zero connection to it. Emotionally, they bond with the music. On a deeper level, they have no relationship to it. Music just exists. It inspires no action.

These kids aren't fans. They're consumers. The only thing they're a fan of is popular culture itself.  If everyone they know is talking about the latest hit single. They get it. No concept of supporting the creativity of the artist exists because they are so far removed from social exchange. Measured in dollars and cents, the music has no value. That it costs money elsewhere isn't considered. They don't want to own the song. They just want to have it. This isn't theft. It's consumerism.

They consume music in excess of their needs. Radio conditions them to desire a set of songs. They obtain the single and overindulge, playing it repeatedly. Once worn out, they eventually discard the song and move on. Ownership is pointless.

The music merits no long-term attachment. MP3s are divorced from their cultural containers, from the artists that create the music, and from monetary value. They can't be resold. They can't be held. The single is detached from physical reality.

It's hard to say why some decide to obtain the songs though legal means, while others don't. In smaller towns, these people aren't intermeshed in local ecologies.

By and large, they're just passive consumers. Some may desire to get music because it's part of their identity. Others are emulating the identities of others. Either way, their entire concept of music is delocalized. It's mediated to them through corporations and the values that they promote have nothing to do with supporting creativity and becoming an active participant in culture. At their core, they teach kids to consume more than they can possibly afford and to never think of the consequences. As teens, file sharing music is just a matter of partaking in the true ideology that's being marketing to them: thoughtless consumption. When they run out of money, file sharing simply lets them continue with their gorging.

This a continuation of Fostering Communities That Support Creativity. It's also a thought-experiment and is part of a much larger essay. I'm building on it as I go.

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8 Comments

  1. I think you nailed it with the crux of your piece: no connection to the artist–emotional or otherwise. I would add that the type of artists major labels promote to radio are not acts that engender that connection. Here’s your top 10 CHR chart this week: Usher, Nelly, Katy Perry, Far East Movement, Rhianna, Taio Cruz, Flo Rida, Enrique Iglesias, Neon Trees. Of those, I would say Usher and Enrique have (or had) some sort of real connection with fans. And all 10 are dependent on a succession of new singles to sustain their careers. Can you name all 10 of their current singles? If you polled kids at the clubs or moms in minivans, how many singles could they correctly name?

  2. “They consume music in excess of their needs.” What does that mean, exactly? First, a music recording is not “consumed”: not in the way food or gasoline is, or a car or a shirt which wears out and has to be replaced.
    Secondly, one can argue that the “need” for music is pretty damn close to zero.
    My experience is that the young, hyper-active music file traders are educating themselves across many styles, many of them historical. I find young people learning about big band swing and opera. They are building personal libraries for learning.
    Decades of advertising-supported radio and TV have taught people that they should be able to hear music for free. Make all the economic or legal arguments you want: to the users, it’s a box, you turn it on and music comes out for free.
    “The music merits no long-term attachment.” Except you finish that paragraph by talking about recordings, and why recordings have no attachment. But I expect that it is the music which no longer has the attachment to the culture, not like it did in the classic rock years. As Lefsetz might say, music was the Facebook of the 1960-1990 period: it drove the rest of young people’s culture. Music is never going to have that cultural role again.

  3. Compare the above current Top 10 list to this list of the Top Ten albums from December 20, 1969:
    No. 1, “Abbey Road,” the Beatles
    No. 2, “Led Zeppelin II,” Led Zeppelin
    No. 3, “Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas,” Tom Jones
    No. 4, “Green River,” Creedence Clearwater Revival
    No. 5, “Let It Bleed,” the Rolling Stones
    No. 6, “Santana,” Santana
    No. 7, “Puzzle People,” the Temptations
    No. 8, “Blood Sweat & Tears,” Blood Sweat & Tears
    No. 9, “Crosby, Stills & Nash,” Crosby, Stills & Nash
    No. 10, “Easy Rider” soundtrack (featuring the Byrds, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Steppenwolf)
    (List from a salon.com article)
    Six of those ten albums still sell significant quantities, 41 years later. THAT was a music that was connected to its culture. A significant number of songs from these albums still get played on radio, in restaurants, etc etc — they form part of the common soundtrack to our public spaces.
    If new music doesn’t have that cultural reach, don’t expect to make the sort of money that those artists did.

  4. I agree with much of what you say here, except your last paragraph. I think music (not necessarily the recordings) DO and ALWAYS WILL connect with people. I just don’t think it’s the music we are hearing on the top of the charts that’s doing the “connecting”. I see examples of music carrying on “that culture role” everyday online. The artists in these small culture pockets may not be making tons of money (yet) but they exist. All you have to do is go online and look for them.

  5. this only seems partially true to me, although i understand the argument as it pertains to commercial radio. but it seems to break down as soon as you think about the local show. even if the artist someone likes is “corporate” and heard on the same type clear channel stations across the country, the fact is that when the band comes to town, people listening to that station buy tickets and go the the LOCAL show. this article also paints a picture of music fans with no connection to their local scene, which i do not see as true in my work.

  6. I think you have it all wrong. I agree with you that teens don’t see music as a physical thing to own because there is no need for a physical mode of delivery anymore. Where you got it wrong is that that kids are delocalized from their music. Radio doesn’t really exist anymore in any form that we would recognize from our own youth. Kids don’t learn about music from the radio or MTV. They listen to Pandora or go to music blogs. Also teens of today have grown up in a world where music and other digital information has been readily available for free. I teach some students that have never been in a music store. The concept is as foreign to them as a dial tone. I would argue that music has become more localized because of the advent of free downloading and social media. Musicians now have a direct link to their fans through facebook and twitter allowing kids to feel a more grassroots connection to the bands they like. When we were young we had to rely on the major music industry to receive any info about our favorite bands newest releases and tour dates. Now kids can get that directly from the artist themselves. Free downloading has also meant that bands have to tour more to make an income instead of signing a three album 5 million dollar contract with a major. Touring more means a band has to maintain a closer connection to the fan base. Also, now that big major label contracts have been removed from the equation this means bands have to remain humble and keep their day jobs. All good art comes from some form of struggle and if band has to struggle to survive their music will be all the better for it. Finally I want to say that we as teens were delocalized from our music as well. Nirvana wasn’t quite a local band but I listened to them and loved them. I bought their albums because I had no other option. If I was able to download their music for free when I was a kid I know I would have done it.

  7. As a part of this generation, I think the reason people illegally download music is simple: they can. Even if there is an emotional connection, one that can be defined as participating in the artist’s online community or following their updates on sites like Twitter or Facebook, there are still illegal downloads because the idea of a sale in music is obsolete. If I want to see a famous piece of art I can either go see it in person or download a picture online. If I want a physical copy I buy a poster and post it on my wall. If music could be viewed this way by people of my generation then I think it could be saved but their are far too many limitations.

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