The Barriers of Music Listening: Past and Present
There was a time when songs were songs. When there were the albums that you owned and those that you did not. When there was a distinct difference between the music that you liked and the artists that you didn’t care for at all.
There was a time when the music you that collected was actually a physical thing; it represented your identity and served as a mirror of your taste. When the albums you had access to, beyond those that you owned, were limited to that of your friend's and family's. When the only way you could expand your collection was to purchase more music or temporarily borrow a copy of theirs.
There was a time — one I barely remember — where these boundaries defined my music experience, but those days are gone now, and we can never get them back. Once the album format fractured and individual songs became the focal point of music consumption, companies like Pandora, iLike, Last.FM, iMeem, and others began the process of discerning the unique characteristics of each song, and building recommendation engines around them.
In effect, what happened as a consequence of their efforts is that each song transformed into a portal. These “gateways” that could be opened up, which enabled fans to travel almost effortlessly from one sphere of musical influence, to another similar sphere.
From that particular sphere on, if traveled, it would take them to spheres of musical influence that existed outside of their current taste. Here, individual songs not only became the primary way that fans consumed music, but songs also became a vehicle for music discovery.
Prior to this shift — brought forth by the MP3 format — individual songs only existed within the context of the other songs on the mix tape, radio playlist, or album. Since, more often than not, the singles from the album were the only songs that existed outside of the album, most of the casual fans of an artist never listened to or came into to contact with the other songs on it.
In the pre-MP3 era, the act of collecting music consisted solely of the ownership of the whole album, of the stack of jewel cases that sat next to your stereo. If a fan wanted to grow their music collection, the only barriers that prevented them from doing so related to the the location of the nearest record store and money. Since music was a relatively costly thing to collect on a per-album basis, most people had relatively small collections — in comparison to the more diehard or “true” fans — if indeed they collected any music at all.
Barriers of Music
Then, in the span of about 10 years, the proliferation of the personal computer; the shift from Dial-Up to high-speed Internet; the increased processing power and hard drive space in computers; the falling cost of blank media and external hard drives; the widespread use of CD burners; the social phenomenon of the iPod and iTunes; and the epidemic of file-sharing occurred. And, with these societal and technological shifts, all of the barriers that defined music experiences of previous generations and the act of collecting it fell.
To anyone who had access to and was literate in these digital technologies and services, or simply knew someone who did, music became ‘democratized.’
Here, the act of collecting music shifted from being limited to the access that a fan had to music and the money they had to buy it, to the amount of time or number of social connections that they had. There were no longer the albums that they owned and those that they did not, but those that they had, those that they aspired to have, and those that they just didn’t have yet.
Let alone, the song that they heard on the Pandora five minutes ago — which they then downloaded onto their computer, listened to, told their friend about over IM, and shared it. And now — within a few mouse clicks — both of them are listening to that same song. It’s a part of both their collections.
The barriers of music consumption between the two friends are gone.
Essentially, with these shifts, anyone who truly wanted to engage in the act of collecting music could. And, in the matter of a month, or even days, they could amass their own collection, one that, by comparison, dwarfed those that previous generations considered to be substantial.
Soon enough, the process of burning downloaded music onto blank media could be skipped, and it could be transferred to their iPod in the matter of minutes, or an hour. And, once this barrier fell, file-sharing was “reduced to a frenzy of acquisition that [had] less to do with the sharing of music than it [did] with filling the ever-expanding hard drives of successive iPods.”1
At first, it was the matter of filling an iPod with 5 to 10 gigs of music, but today, it’s a matter of acquiring upwards of 40,000 songs on the average iPod.
With the barriers to the act of collecting music set so low, if not nonexistent, another subtle but significant shift occurred: the psychology behind the acquisition of music changed.
For those of previous generations, they collected music with the notion of longevity in mind, as it best reflected their taste in music at that moment. In contrast, for those who engaged in the act of acquiring music through other means, like file-sharing, their taste encompassed past, present, and future interests. Their collections reflected not only their inherent taste and disposition towards certain types of music, but that of their peer group and those whom they surrounded themselves with.
Thus, distinct differences between the music that they liked and the artists that they didn’t care for at all became increasingly blurred, and so did the contents of their music collections.
In a sense, though, the collections of those who were born digital are not complete. They’re fractured, consisting of bits and pieces of everything, of songs divorced from their origins and physical packaging. These songs stand alone — void of everything but the artist’s name, the album’s title, and the digital cover art. Where the jewel case, booklet, and liner notes served to embody culture, to communicate its identity, and to mirror the taste of its owner — the iPod is merely a container for culture. Its contents reveal the personality of the owner, but say little about the soul of the music.
While it may seem like strangers greet physical music collections and iPods with a similar sense of awe and reverence, it’s important to recognize the disparity between the two. As the emotions that they experience in the presence of unique works of art, and those that they feel while holding an iPod — that happens to contain art — shouldn’t be confused as if they are the same thing. Especially since one relates to the “aura” of the music, and the other to a piece of technology. In the first scenario, when those of previous generations encountered a physical collection, they pored over it, investigated it, and held the works of art in their hands — works, which, weren’t of their own, but still provoked meaning and were intrinsically tied to their story.
Now, those who were born digital don’t hold the works of art, they embrace the iPod. And, when they encounter the collection, while they do still pore over it, and investigate it — as they scroll through it — that sense of awe and reverence is lost. The music in the collection is presented devoid of its aura, “it has been removed from its context — from the material processes of its creation.”2 Their emotional experience relates not to being in the presence of unique works of art, but solely of the moment of social connection and identification with the other person. This understated difference — in how works of art are experienced — relates to yet another shift in music culture that separates those who were born digital from those of previous generations.
Internet is Freedom
For some, these shifts mean the dawning of a whole new era. For others — having come of age during the proliferation of digital technologies; the social epidemic of file-sharing; the explosion in music choices; the splintering of genres into niches; the rise of the personalized music experience; and the increased emphasis on recommendation engines and social filters — this is the reality they’ve come to know. But, for the rest, those who’ve lived cradle to grave in the digital era, this is the only reality they’ve ever known. To them, there is no before file-sharing and the Internet — only these societal and technological shifts, and their aftermath.
Those who were born digital don’t remember a world in which there were the albums that they owned and those that they did not. The music that they collect isn’t a physical thing anymore, it’s just files. Sure, they represent their identity and serve as a mirror of their taste, but also of everyone that they surround themselves with. Initially, they may have been limited to their friends' and family's collections, but as they became literate these digital technologies and services, they were only limited to their imaginations, curiosity, and desire to explore.
To them, the Internet is freedom. And, the record industry won’t beat them. The industry can’t keep trying to rebuild all of the barriers that defined music experiences of previous generations and the act of collecting music, as if, once restored, those who were born digital will revert back to “normal.” To them, the way in which they consume music is normal.
In the digital era, the record industry has tried to enforce ever more vigorously the barriers to music that defined the experiences of previous generations upon those who were born digital. And, in turn, they have only resisted ever more destructively. But, before we attempt to deny the very nature of the barriers to music in the present by changing them back to the past, we need to recognize that those born digital — those who immersed themselves in the social ecology of music culture that’s forming online — are, in fact, different now.
And, to understand why that is, we must first examine the biases of the traditional music consumption system, and the specific delivery mechanisms that govern it. Then, compare them with those of this “other” music consumption system that those born digital also experienced. Only after we’ve done this, will we be able to come to terms with the truth, that, it’s not those who were born digital that are “broken.”
Rather, it’s our traditional music consumption system that’s broken. And, it’s about time that the record industry stops pretending that its barriers still define the way they experience music.
- 1-2: Rushkoff, Douglas. (2009). Life Inc. New York: Random House Inc.