THE PASSION OF THE CRANKS
Back in the days when music was something that was only available in physical form, Sal and I would ogle whatever new releases or used CDs came into NYCD and say "That's mine, I'm taking it home." (Hey, why do you think we got into music retail in the first place? So we could get first dibs on all the discs that came in.) Nowadays, rarely a day goes by that I don't hear my partner talking about how he goes to bit torrent sites to "grab" live shows by his favorite bands and "throw them on iTunes."
Those phrases are telling. Music has gone from something we "take home" -- shepherding it into our inner sanctums, in a sense adopting it into our lives -- to something we "grab and throw." Violent words. We could do the same thing with a ball, or a toy, or a piece of trash. And that, I think, is what the digital revolution has wrought. We're becoming less music collectors than music accumulators. The question is, is this a good thing?
On one level, of course it is. Having more music than ever before at our fingertips, at a lower cost than ever before, and without the hassle of having to store it in physical form, is liberating. A friend of ours is burning us 34 hours of Bob Dylan's radio show. God knows when we'll ever find the time or the inclination to listen to all 34 hours, but it doesn't matter. If it's next week or 40 years from now, the shows will be on our hard drives, waiting for us. And that's pretty cool.
On another level, though, having unlimited access to cheap music... well, cheapens the music.
The records that stick in my head the most are the ones I bought when I was eight or nine years old, when I had to save my allowance for a couple of weeks so I could go to King Karol or Woolworth's and buy one record. And I would listen to that record dozens, even hundreds of times. So I would have to carefully choose which record to get, because a dud would mean I'd wasted my six or seven bucks AND two or three weeks of my time and energy, which I invested in learning that record note for note. As a result, I'm still sick of Blondie's "Parallel Lines" 25 years after I last heard it, because I played the damn thing so much in fourth grade. But I still probably know it better than I know my favorite record of, say, 2004, which is... um... what was it again?
Now, I'm not saying that we should have to fork over a week's salary for a CD (the major labels already tried that in the late '90s) and force ourselves to listen to it 500 times. But there's also something to be said for a music collection that's really a collection, rather than a bunch of stuff you've burned from friends or downloaded from eMusic and plan to listen to eventually, if you even remember you've got it on your hard drive.
Maybe I'm a reactionary, or a sentimentalist, or a businessman running scared. Or all of the above. But I think there's something to be said for having to put a little effort into finding music you can get passionate about. Because lately, it seems to me, a lot of people just don't have the passion they used to have for music. Don't get me wrong -- they probably listen to it as much as ever. They may "grab and throw" more music now than they ever "took home" before. But how much of it really grabs US? How often do we even listen to full albums anymore, let alone absorb them and let them affect us the way we used to?
Obviously, things will never go back to the way they were. There are too many casual music fans out there who are thrilled that they'll never have to go to a record store again, delighted that they can now buy one or two songs from iTunes rather than having to invest in a whole album's worth of music, overjoyed that they can free up all the shelf space that used to be taken up by records, tapes and CDs.
In the meantime, Sal and I still ogle the new releases and incoming used discs, and still take home a big pile of them every week, where we lovingly place them on our overcrowded CD shelves (for all his talk of grabbing and throwing live shows, there are few people who love CDs more than Sal). A lot of our regular customers still do the same thing. But how many of us are left, and for how long will we even be able to do so? For all that we've gained in the last few years, something important is being lost as well. Something that a lot of us may not even realize has been lost, until it's too late to do anything about it.