Cheapening information

When the Internet first made mass anonymous music giveaways a reality with digital compression and newsgroup postings, I knew of people who would spend hours and hours in front of their computer obsessively — maybe even religiously; free stuff was a matter of faith for them, a kind of God-given miracle — downloading everything they could find, much of it stuff they would never listen to, and storing it on CD after CD as though the future of these songs depended on their devout archivism. It was as though the Earth was to be destroyed any minute, and they were hoping to take the collective output of Western society’s musicians on the escape pods with them. I attribute this to a kind of collector’s mania, a disorder brought on by a consumer society that emphasizes the pleasures of possession over use. But what they would tell me is that free music can’t last forever, that eventually the Man would figure out how to stop it, and in the meantime they were going to get it while they can.

But the development of information technology continues to make it harder to control and possess rather than easier, and free music is always getting easier to access. Information is becoming impossible to contain, becoming almost sentient in its pursuit of free movement, or at least becoming, as was argued in an article in the most recent Harper’s, like weather with its massive, uncontrollable and difficult-to-predict movements. Informational fronts sweep the earth, raining down obscure bits of knowledge in unlikely locales, visiting unwieldy information upon the terrain like a sign of God’s wrath, sending Butterfly effects rippling through cyberspace at 11,000 kbps.

So the avenues for finding free music keep increasing, with peer-to-peer trading systems evolving into social-networking sites, and blogs, thanks to file-hosting services sich as Rapidshare and Yousendit, becoming veritable libraries of people’s favorite music, making random individuals into so-many Santa Clauses, sharing albums ripped from cherished vinyl or advance copies snatched from industry insiders. The file-hosting technology is just catching on; many of the blogs sharing full albums have archives that only date back to October at the most. What Rapidshare allows one to do is upload an entire album as an archive file for free, regardless of size — and widespread broadband access makes this time-efficient. So any record worth mentioning can almost as immediately be posted to share — the data is already probably on the writer’s hard drive (the massive increase in disk space also has abetted the great music giveaway) and a few clicks is all that is needed to send it out to the world. After one stumbles upon one of these blogs, one can race through their archive and then through the archives of all the blogs they link to, and so on and so on, and you can add fifty albums to your collection in a few hours. Add DownThemAll to Firefox as an extension, pay the 10 euros for a premium Rapidshare membership, and you can multiply that by 10, if not more. If you want to have a big, comprehensive music collection, and you own a computer with a fast connection, money no longer stands in your way, and time and knowledge don’t really either. A chance Google link can alow you to harness the collective geek-knowledge of the entire world’s legion of record collectors, and you can obtain in an evening records people once spent years of their life pursuing as personal grails, all without having ever having heard of them before. (Example: Search for once-difficult-to-hear Beatles Christmas records.)

Why do these people give away music? Why spend the time? Sheer altruism? Maybe that’s part of it, a belief in some transcendent community that supercedes relationships created by the marketplace (as well as geography). And perhaps part of it is an anti-authoritarian sentiment, a grass roots anarchism against the hegemony of property. But most of all, it could be a benevolent kind of potlatch oneupsmanship, to build prestige by making the most boutiful gifts. You’ve given away every Beach Boys bootleg on your site? Well, maybe I should give away every Teenage Shutdown compilation. The more gratuitous and extravagant the gift, the more prestige it affords the giver. This gives record collectors a new way to use their collection: posting obscure LPS to the Internet and thereby earning admiration and gratitude. This reinforces the secret Alexandrine motivation behind every collection, to become a kind of personal curator to the world, to feely chiefly responsible for the cultural survival of the important things fortunate enough to be discovered by you. The MP3 blog of obscurites becomes a personal museum wherein to show off your exquisite taste and the depth of your holdings. The free audio files is just bait to get people to keep coming back and observe your shrewd choices and pay homage to your wisdom. The Internet gives collectors what they always need, what they live for, an ever eager audience to marvel at their munificence. They no longer need to lure like-minded people from the record store to their basement to hear them spin rare 45s. Now they can just start a blog and get a decent site-meter to track the traffic.

What is happening is that the prestige of the music itself is waning: what one has heard no longer even signifies effort or devotion or particular interest or knowledge. Anyone who finds a couple good blogs can have virtually every garage rock record recorded in the 1960s, and untold numbers of kitsch exotica LPs. But though knowledge of the music is becoming less impressive, less likely to give you an air of distinction, owning the physical LPs is gaining in prestige: who has the space? who has the diligence? who wants to spend the money for a purely ornamental artifact. Records are more than ever an object for conspicuous consumption, because their usefulness is becoming moot. So the cheapening of information through Internet technology has made physical ownership more impressive than knowledge. Owning music is better (for the purposes of wowing others, and in our competitive, status-driven society, what other purposes are there?) than listening to it. Cheap information, free music (and books and movies, etc.) only enhances the prestige of raw, unrefined brute ownership.

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