Waiting for the Rhapsody

In BusinessWeek a few issues ago (I’m just starting to catch up on my reading), Peter Burrows was pushing subscription music services, trotting out some sensible arguments against being tied down to enjoying only the music you own — you can discover so much new stuff, sample music on whims, and listen to a lot of cheesy songs you wouldn’t necessary want on preserve on your hard drive. And you don’t have to worry about a hard drive crash erasing your collection, because you won’t have a collection: peace of mind through shedding belongings, which bring with them the anxiety of having to protect them. (This always makes me think of Spalding Grey explaining in Swimming to Cambodia how he conquered his fear of swimming in deep water by leaving his wallet in plain view on the beach. He was so worried about the wallet being stolen that he didn’t think about the danger of being too far from shore.)

It seems inevitable that eventually a wireless device will be introduced that gives you access to all of recorded music for a subscription fee. The technology seems to be in place; it just requires the right combination of design, promotion and cooperation among what’s left of the music industry. And this will seem like a great idea until people realize what a pain in the ass it is to select what they want to hear from the near infinite possibilities, and will long for the simplicity of radio stations one trusts to play good music. This, anyway, is what Sirius seems to be banking on, as their cocky commercials about their portable players implies.

For those who aren’t indifferent or open-minded enough to give over control over what music they hear to professional — to people who must play DJ for themselves (and probably their friends) ownership of music is essential for several reasons. First, making the purchase is a decision-making moment that in itself gives pleasure — it’s a moment in which one gets to make some piece of knowledge one has operational. The decision also invests one emotionally in the thing purchased, increasing the possibility for enjoying it. This is one of the sad realities of consumer societies, that putting money where your mouth is is way to fix your attention on something and be optimistically disposed toward its being about to please you. When you download a bunch of music off a borrowed hard drive, your investment in the music is zilch, and the effort to sort through it all is herculean — all those little decisions about whether you like this or that song as you weed through has less pleasure attached to it because nothing ultimately is at stake in the choice. In such a situation, when I’m trying to assimilate a large quantity of music, I find myself thrown back on my taste alone, and that taste is nebulous, contingent. When I buy music, I find I have more reason to try enjoying it at different times, trying to find the mood or occasion that suits it.

And the big collection is necessary if you want to impress people with mix CDs. You give yourself a much larger vocabulary to speak with when you have more songs to choose from and consequently more juxtapositions to play with. It’s nice to have a lot of music when you want to give it as a gift to someone else. I don’t know that any recipient of a mix CD has nearly as much invested in it as its creator, but some of the emotion that gets poured into making mixes must survive into the final product. And that residual emotional is a direct result of someone working hard to make the most out of their music collection. (The friend I visited in Seattle recently had a new friend who made him a bunch of compilations, and reading through the track lists, I almost felt like I was getting to know her without actually meeting her. But I didn’t ask to listen to them — accustoming to making the compilations myself, I get peevish having to hear other people’s; sad, really, the joy that I think compilations can give is something that I myself am generally shut off to.)

Collecting is a means for filtering, as is making the compilations, and both of these activities are about bringing knowledge to bear, making decisions with consequences. The subscription service removes the consequences, almost makes the idea of having selective musical taste superfluous. Not there is anything wrong with that; musical taste’s centrality to identity seems a peculiar quirk. Nonetheless, taste in commercial music comes down to what music you are willing to pay for specifically. If you are paying to have it all, you effectively have no taste.