King Kong vs Spotify.February 7, 2019
“No one’s buying music anymore: They’re renting it.”—John Atkinson, keynote speech, AXPONA 2018
Streaming music isn’t new. US companies have been doing it since the 1920s, when it was discovered that multiplexing—the then-new practice of combining multiple signals over a single conductor—could be used to send live or recorded music over public power lines. The first of those companies was Muzak LLC.
File that away.
In the middle-class world in which I was raised, my family had a tidy little house, plenty of food, clean clothes, and excellent medical care. My sister and I attended good public schools, and we lived in a neighborhood where there were lots of other kids our age. Apart from safer cars, the ability to buy our favorite fruits and vegetables year-round, over-the-counter steroids, Gore-Tex, and cheap cashmere sweaters, the only thing we didn’t have then that we have now was unlimited access to whatever broadcast entertainment we wanted, whenever we wanted it.
That turns out to have been a blessing. We learned to cherish the nonessentials that mattered most—like hearing our favorite songs on the radio, or enjoying the annual television broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. Over time, the latter tradition was extended to the 1933 film King Kong and the 1955 video recording of the Broadway musical Peter Pan, broadcasts of which were reserved for Sunday nights. My dad would make popcorn in a big pot, and my sister and I would sit on the floor, closer to the television than we were normally allowed to be. That was a pretty big deal.
Those pleasures evolved but did not die. By the time I was 10, I had my own transistor radio, which I usually kept under my pillow. I would stay awake as late as possible, in the hope of hearing my then-favorite songs—like the Rolling Stones’ “Heart of Stone” and the Moody Blues’ cover of “Go Now.” Sometimes those songs would be played while I was still awake and listening, and sometimes they wouldn’t—and sometimes a new favorite would come along.
All of those things were events, like holidays in miniature. I remember being almost crazy with excitement when King Kong was about to come on the TV (and almost crazy with fear every time I’d sit through the scene where you couldn’t yet see the title character but you could hear his thunderous footsteps). Ten years after that, the words to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” held me rapt every time that song came over the radio. It didn’t matter that I’d already committed them to memory: hearing someone choose to play that record was different. And the walk from the tonic to the relative minor in Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” enchants me to this day, even though the same trick has been used in a thousand other pieces of music.
Did those experiences leave me with a sense of thrift in my approach to the recorded arts—a sense that being able to listen to my records all of the time, wherever and whenever, might actually be a bad idea? I began to think so during my college years. Around that time, on my occasional visits home, I’d hang out with my old friends, one of whom had a tape deck in his car: at the time, a rarity in my social circles. He’d mastered the art of fast-forwarding, usually while fast-driving, to the precise beginnings of every guitar solo in every song on every tape he had, rather than listening to the songs and the albums in their entirety. That didn’t make me hate listening to recorded music, but it did make me hate those songs. (I will happily live the rest of my life without ever again hearing Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” through no fault of Deep Purple’s.)
Today, 54 years after “Go Now” was released, the relationship between life’s essentials and its nonessentials is inverted. I know few people of any age who are not lacking in at least one of the basics—medical care, education for themselves or their children, affordable housing, a reliable living wage, a premortem retirement—and yet for just a few dollars and with the push of a button, we can stream or download every damn thing we think we want. In the fall, I used Tidal to stream an album by Serge Gainsbourg, with whom I was otherwise unfamiliar, but after five or six songs I decided it was crap and bailed. This evening, I used Netflix to stream, during dinner (I was the only one home), Giuseppe Tornatore’s brilliant film Cinema Paradiso (1988). I dammed that stream countless times, to perform such tasks as fetching the salt, refilling my water glass, and turning off the burner under the spinach.
Taken to an extreme, luxury means never having to fall completely under the spell of a work of art, never having to be captivated: that’s some sort of freedom, I guess. Yet in a world where no music is revered as special, everything is a commodity. Everything is just more product. Bread, meet circuses.
Maybe Serge Gainsbourg’s music isn’t crap. Maybe I just didn’t give him enough of a chance, because I was guzzling instead of sipping (footnote 1). Maybe the Bee Gee’s “Holiday” isn’t the brilliant single I believe it to be—maybe I believe that only because, in 1967, I heard it on the radio no more than once a week, instead of once an hour.
Then again, maybe it’s time to heave ourselves up out of our Lay-Z-Boys, find the switch that controls the sodastream of abundant everything, and turn it the fuck off. On the desert islands where we once longed to live our every waking minute, recorded music is the coconut we bash against the rocks with ever greater force, frustrated that we no longer get from it what we want. And the music industry, for its part, seems genuinely baffled that most consumers assign less and less value to music—and are far less willing than their forebears to pay for music itself, or the hardware with which to enjoy it.
Commoditization is not the cure. It is the disease.—Art Dudley”