Negotiating the Dense and Boorish Clots, Or Shopping for Music
The Obsolescence of Collection (A Eulogy) by Mike Schiller - We are the lost, the wounded, the hungry, the forgotten. We are the unmentionables of the music world, beasts of burden whose ultimate, lofty goals contribute nothing to the corporate bottom line.... We are the music collectors, and technology is killing us.
"We must plant the sea and herd its animals using the sea as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about -- farming replacing hunting."
-- Jacques Cousteau
"The Internet is a great thing, but it can really fuck you."
-- Rob Zombie
We are the lost, the wounded, the hungry, the forgotten. We are the unmentionables of the music world, beasts of burden whose ultimate, lofty goals contribute nothing to the corporate bottom line. Even when our purpose seemed valid, we were willing to endure days, months, sometimes years of frustration for one single moment of euphoric payoff. And now we are being picked off at the pass, shot down one by one as our single greatest purpose in this life is being swiped out from under us.
We are the music collectors, and technology is killing us.
A little extreme? Perhaps. Still, I remember all of it happening rather vividly -- the collecting bug hit me as I started college, where the so-called Internet of my freshman year was an amalgam of wait times and dial-up frustration. Most collecting that year was done the old-fashioned way, searching used bins, finding new hole-in-the-wall CD shops, and the occasional perusal of the university paper's classified ads. My sophomore year is when the boom hit -- with the installation of Ethernet ports in every dorm room, living on-campus very suddenly became high-speed heaven.
At this point, I was really heavy into expanding my collection, and as far as I could see, the slow explosion of the Internet was only going to help my cause. Out-of-print Radiohead singles, pretty much the complete Pearl Jam catalogue, and a long-deleted KMFDM album were among my prize possessions, as newsgroup ads, online auctions, and access to online music stores like CDNow.com all enticed me (these were the days when Amazon.com was still an online bookstore). Every rare B-side, every remix, every single little out-of-print trinket that might have the unreleased version of Chris Cornell sitting on a whoopee cushion, it could be mine, thanks to this wonderful global network. And for a while, it was all mine. No price was too steep, no credit card too maxed out for me to obtain this, that, and the next rare two or three minutes from my favorite band.
My illusions were shattered by U2.
One of my many online conquests was an e-mail auction win (you know, back in the days before EBay made online auctions relatively sane), in which I won the CD single for U2's "All I Want Is You" for 35 bucks. Not cheap, but two weeks later I had U2's versions of "Unchained Melody" and "Everlasting Love" in my collection, so very much worth it. Still, after listening to it a couple of times, I picked it up and took it down the dorm hall to show off my new conquest to the other resident U2 fan. His reaction? A "hey, those tracks are pretty cool," as he showed me how he managed to snag those same songs via download, absolutely free, and put them on his hard drive for safekeeping. To this day, I still remember the slack-jawed, disappointed expression on the face I saw in the mirror as I left that room, and I can only hope I wasn't too much of an ass about what I had just seen.
Perhaps it's here that I should explain the "music collector" a bit, as there are two fairly distinct kinds. One, there are those who will grab anything that is deemed "rare", for the sake of having Cool Rare Stuff. The other kind is the "it's all about the music" collector, who will only go out of their way for something if it's got some rare unreleased nugget on it that might, just might be the single greatest piece of music ever recorded by band X. I mention this as it might seem that the current musical climate is ripe for the collector, as almost every single major new release coming out today is a "Limited Edition" of some sort, practically screaming from the shelves for the dollars of the modern collector. Further, the argument could continue that this current, supposedly collector-friendly corporate climate is thanks to the advent of legal and illegal downloads. Which is, obviously, ridiculous, as a) it's no fun to "collect" something that can be found on the walls of the local Circuit City, and b) there is generally no new musical content to be found on these Super-Cool Ultra Deluxe Limited Edition versions of albums.
Yet still, as displaced collectors, we fall for it sometimes. Or, at least, I do. I suckered myself into thinking a new limited edition Björk album would be worth the extra seven bucks. That's right, I paid seven extra dollars for a downgrade in packaging and an undersized poster. Oh, and for the privilege of saying I got the limited edition.
Good God, is this what we've been reduced to?
Adding further to the ideological conflict is the fact that new technology is generally a good thing, a realization that even the sloths at the Big Five are coming to realize. Artists' entire catalogues are being made available via paid download, iPod purchases, and subscriptions to download services. All of the B-sides are now at our fingertips, for a price, and it's all perfectly legal. As people begin to realize the treasures that have so long stayed hidden beneath radio-friendly singles, they won't be able to help turning off the radio, exploring the deep cuts, perhaps even discovering new bands that have been hovering under the radar for far too long. We shouldn't begrudge those who want to go beyond the mainstream their best opportunity to do just that, right?
At this very moment, my inner elitist is howling in pain.
The most disconcerting thing about the whole situation is that there is simply no going back now. Technology will only continue to improve, paid download services will only become more comprehensive, and we will only continue to grow closer to a global musical climate where everything released by anyone is available to everyone. It's time to accept it, to move on, to come to the conclusion that, hey, if it really is all about the music, we should be happy that the technology is available to us as well, that we can hear those old, rare nuggets of goodness just as easily as we can legally download the new Avril Lavigne album. It's a new golden age of music. The hunt is gone. We are witness to the eulogy.