Convenience and the Cost of Free Music

We are prone to thinking of convenience as an expansion of our capabilities: it allows us to become more efficient in identifying and fulfilling our needs, therefore we fulfill more of them and we are happier. By this logic, convenience maximizes utility, which is a quantity of satisfaction. But actually, convenience is a reduction. It alters our wants and needs to only those things that can be fulfilled expediently, coarsening our desires and leading us to neglect those needs, which require more complex effort to fulfill, like having friends.

Of course, it is more convenient to watch TV or play Xbox than it is to have a conversation. If the market has completely conditioned us to believe that the most laudable choice is the path of least resistance, we may come to overlook the fact that convenient activities are often rather empty. The more complex desires provide a much greater quality of happiness, a satisfaction that resists quantification because there is no way to separate the effort from the reward. Often, these desires are those whose pursuit gives satisfaction in and of itself.

Convenience attracts us because it seems to indulge our fantasies of having mastery over our world, reassuring us that commodities are becoming ever more responsive to our needs, rather than vice versa. It buoys the myth of progress even as the quality of life for many regresses. Efficiency doesn’t necessary make people happy (even the most anal of people), but it certainly makes corporations happy, because it makes them money. Efficiency is typically where corporations will find their profit margins. So it’s in the interest of corporations that we elide their lust for efficiency with our own interest in personal happiness, and convenience is the trope that achieves this, reifying happiness into the sum of fleeting, trivial desires, easily and serially fulfilled. Our personal well-being becomes a product, something we try to manufacture with maximum efficiency, the way a company manufactures commodities. Gone is the notion that it might be better to love someone deeply and inconveniently than to buy a series of consumer goods that ultimately add up to nothing.

As a utility, convenience is parasitic, it claims as its own some of the pleasure originally afforded by what has been now made convenient. The result is that the original activity loses that much of its ability to give pleasure, while convenience has become that much more central to one’s existence. It attaches itself to any commodity and usurps whatever original function that commodity might have had. In this way the iPod becomes more important than whatever you happen to play on it. Music is diminished by whatever joy you take in its delivery system. The novelty of having so many music choices at your disposal makes all those choices more meaningless, and makes the substance of those choices that much less important. So the speed of life, and its attendant stress, continually increases, all in the name of pleasure.

In the ’90s, record companies reaped a windfall when they managed to convince people they needed to purchase all the music they owned all over again. When CD technology made the sonically superior but more inconvenient analog sound of LPs moribund, music buyers had little choice. We used to want records because we wanted good sound, now we want music only to demonstrate that it is at our command, and we want to carry as much of it with us as possible.

Surely there is justice in the fact the every digital technology that the industry introduced to sucker its customers into buying a shoddy version (smaller, poorly mastered, tinny-sounding, etc.) of records they already had has now enabled those same exploited consumers to pirate music effortlessly, with hardly a thought to the alleged criminality of what they are doing. The digital nature of music makes it routinely and eminently duplicable: the technology encourages you to mistake the copy for the real thing. It undermines the notion that there is a “real thing” to begin with. And by making music a shoddier product, the industry enabled customers to treat it like its worthless, to believe that it is unreasonable to be expected to pay for it. Any Marxist would have to be delighted to see how this exploitive industry, through its own rapaciousness, sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Maybe the reports of the death of the dialectic in post-industrial global capitalism have been greatly exaggerated.

By making music digital and synthetic, the record companies unwittingly further dispatched music’s aura, in the sense that Walter Benjamin explained in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, as the value of a work’s authenticity. The aura, as I experienced it, was a matter of access. It’s hard to remember how hard it was to hear the albums we take for granted in the age of reissues. It’s hard to remember what it was like combing used album bins looking for a copy of Love’s Forever Changes. Now, everybody has it. But when I was in high school, I knew only one guy who had that album. It was referenced in some record review I had read as though it was the greatest album there was, and so I had to pester this guy to tape it for me just so I could hear what it sounded like. The object itself, his copy of the record, was rare and precious. It had an aura. It made the music seem almost mythical, otherworldly. Now, I could hear Forever Changes immediately after a few mouse clicks. There would be no quest; the loss of quest means a certain loss of meaning for the music. But the removal of obstacles to musical access means you are not rigidly bound to listen to what you already know or what you can tape off your friends. You don’t need to be a strictly defined market segment. You can cross all genres, all periods; you can be into as much as you’re curious about. And it won’t even cost you a dime, if you don’t want it to.

But people must be willing to take advantage of the freedoms the record industry enabled. It never ceases to amaze me how many people show scruples about Internet piracy, people who seem to believe that because it is an entire industry rather than an individual fucking them over (in this case by offering shoddier products at higher prices), they should just continue to take it instead of fighting back. Certainly, some must fear our increasingly invasive government will track them down — a crime against corporations is a crime against the state, after all — but some people just feel its wrong, and I’m not sure if I should admire them for maintaining a personal ethical code in a reflexively hypocritical culture, or despise them for holding back the revolution.

Beyond ethics, I think those who refuse to pirate music are clinging to the value of the musical artifact. They are nostalgic for the aura, the kind of value that once adhered to unique objects, a value we only sense traces of in modern society, in the guise of family heirlooms and museum-kept works of art. Possessing something with an aura, with a patina becomes more attractive, not less attractive, as all of culture becomes more readily reproducible. Benjamin thought that “the masses” would celebrate the refutation of the aura, arguing that the object was now free to mean something new to each and every beholder/listener. “In permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced” (Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Schocken, 1969). Benjamin suggested the aura deadened art, made all art about its aura and not its more mercurial content, which could shift with whatever context an audience brought to it. But rather than rendering the aura insignificant, it may be that photographic, and then digital reproduction enhanced the aura, made it more powerful, and deadened works saddled with it even more. The meaning of art works is reduced essentially to their value at an auction. In terms of music, it’s only the albums that haven’t been reissued that retain any aura. But when you listen to something like the ultra-rare Hoboken Saturday Night by the Insect Trust, what you experience is the novelty of yourself hearing it, not the music itself.

But because of the parasitic nature of convenience, music that’s conveniently and freely acquired is obscured in the same way. Rather than give anything we’ve snatched off the Internet the kind of sustained repeated listenings required to really integrate it into our lives and our sense of ourselves, we think instead, well, what can I get next? The allure of readily available goods is simply too strong to neglect once you’ve leveraged its power. Enjoying convenience for its own sake is too powerfully addictive, even though the satisfaction it affords is utterly ephemeral. This may be what market culture aspires to achieve: it makes the method of acquisition as important as the thing acquired (if not more), making itself the source of satisfaction rather than any inherent quality of the commodities it distributes.

So some works are about nothing but their own unique status as objects, while all other things, so easily available and freely deployed in any way imaginable by anyone who uses them, lose their ability to have any collective, transpersonal meaning at all. In both cases, the discourse that we presume to be enabled by great art is obviated. There is no meaningful public debate about aesthetics. All “the good” is either purely subjective or a matter of collectibility.

Sadly, many people appear to be comforted by this; these twin principles constitute an aesthetics that they can understand completely, without study. If these principles reign supreme, these people believe, then no one can out gain them in cultural capital, in the knowledge required to have a public discussion about art’s purpose and quality. And most importantly, it protects the meaning of life as many have been brought to understand it and have invested their entire lives in pursuing: get as much stuff as you can, and to hell with shared experience. Thus the expensive, precious object reassures us that things can have a value in and of themselves that transcends us — that diamonds are indeed forever — that we can possess and thereby exceed and enlarge ourselves. And at the same time, the cheap, endlessly reproducible item, the pop song, reassures us that we, as individuals making our own private, purely personal meaning of things, are rightly and safely at the center of our respective universes.

Saturated with easy goods and so convinced these goods can satisfy us effortlessly, we lose touch with the effort necessary to actually make meaning out of them, to deal with what they are. And since we rely so heavily on consumption to define ourselves, we find ourselves ill-equipped to use goods to express anything complex about ourselves, to articulate our own desires to ourselves with any kind of depth or sophistication. Ultimately, that’s what free music costs.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.