By: N. David Pastor
If I try to imagine the kind of person that still pays for music, I would probably describe them as thoughtful, yet slightly impractical; in other words, someone with a very unique priority in the age of digital music streaming. They’re basically spending money on something that has consistently lost both monetary and sentimental value in the last two decades. Maybe to them, a scratched-up CD is nostalgia-in-the-making; or an iTunes library is an index of what’s worth having on your computer’s hard drive when the Internet is down and streaming services fail. This feeling is also attached to the resurgence of vinyl, the DIY culture of cassette tapes, and so on. More than anything, it’s respect for the artist…which doesn’t directly translate to a better music listening experience, but it does establish, or re-establish if you prefer, proximity.
This is the kind of aesthetic concern that goes all the way back to Walter Benjamin’s essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Essentially, these attempts to establish proximity are attempts to reclaim the aura of the music, the visceral contact between music and listener that can be described as the warm crackle of vinyl or the lyric booklet that comes inside a CD case, the cover art, and well…I hope you get the point. Aura was the original hype-machine before social media took over, the experience inside of the experience so to speak.
But without delving further into theory, let’s shift toward the actual statistics of who is still buying music? This first question is fairly straightforward: not teenagers; middle-aged people and older generations. My guess is that your father has asked for your help buying songs off iTunes. Hipsters and audiophiles buy vinyl, wait in line for Record Store Day. Then there are the people who make music…that also tend to buy music. Solidarity is yet another incentive in this case. But those are just a bunch of stereotypes I made up. The rest of the population relies on streaming services and digital radio stations like Pandora (there is also most likely an insignificant minority (.00001%) that purchase music at Starbucks and download the complimentary “song of the week”).
Anyway, so here’s another question, the obvious question that sort of ruins the experience of being a musician: why would anyone ever buy another song? It’s a really tough, but honest question to ask. Look, even Jay-Z asked himself and failed miserably.
*Quick note on Tidal: the reason Tidal has been such a disappointment thus far is the assumption that a niche, a rather large and profitable one, exists that would cater to music listeners lost in the void of Walter Benjamin’s aesthetic nightmare. Neil Young had a similar revelation. The problem is that the promise of an aura through digital content is as absurd as scratching a lotto ticket using an iPhone app. There’s no connection to a physical object and therefore, a diminished incentive to establish any connection whatsoever. You just can’t manufacture intimacy. This tells me that not only can you not recreate the aura of a work of art, audiences will reject the very premise…sometimes without even realizing it, but that shouldn’t make a difference.
So where does that leave musicians and the folks that support them? I suppose the idea of closing the gap, creating a sense of intimacy, is just another creative challenge for the artist. It’s an evolution in process, i.e. If I can make someone buy my music, then I can make them feel connected to something (even something abstract like a Kickstarter campaign). In this regard, the assumption is that this person, this thoughtful consumer, exists. And they do, in limited numbers and in limited context. Music-heads know who they are and the significance of paying for music. It’s tied to a few different things: identity, taste, community, and status among others. But most importantly, it precludes the sense of entitlement associated with the accessibility of art in a modern context. Why should I pay for something that only has value if and when I decide it does? This is an important distinction with regards to Tidal and Neil Young’s Pono Music Player: you can’t force value onto an object once its value has become decidedly arbitrary. And even though that probably happened with the advent of illegal file sharing and the mp3, it has become an even more acute realization in the era of streaming.
I’ve spent the last couple of years buying my music, trying to inculcate a sense of purpose in my music collection. I was never really a fan of Spotify or any other streaming services. I’d also given up on maintaining my CDs and a record collection is a luxury for someone with disposable income…and a record player (I have neither). For now, I rely mainly on iTunes and Bandcamp to purchase new music, with preference to the latter. Otherwise, I pick up an album here and there on iTunes against my better judgement. High quality mp3s over a trip to the local record shop. It’s only slightly hypocritical on my part. Occasionally, I do end up buying physical copies when I go to see concerts, but that is much more of a spontaneous, visceral experience.
To be honest, the reason I buy music is somewhat selfish, but at the same time, practical: I want to appreciate it and unfortunately, spending money provides the initial incentive. I also avoid the distraction of having to choose from an unlimited playlist. I just don’t have the patience, nor the self-control. (It’s the same experience of trying to select a movie on Netflix) So as a result, I’ve found a way to self-impose some of the discipline I don’t have. Makes sense, right?
After that, the criteria for buying music becomes much more nuanced, possibly uninteresting. For example, I recently bought Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly purely out of respect for the artist (and after reading this article, for the musicians who made the album possible). It also seemed like a safe bet so I went with my instinct. I’m sure there’s some kind of correlation to be made here, but it’s not that important. I bought John Frusciante’s Acid House debut Trickfinger for similar reasons, though he belongs to a list of musicians whose music I will always buy no matter what. So far, we have two categories: a zeitgeist album (that will transcend and/define its era) and sentimentality. This month, I also downloaded UNENJOY by CARE after seeing them perform live and not having enough money to buy a physical copy–though I believe it may have only available as a cassette.
Whenever I’m unsure, I can always just preview an album before I purchase it. That’s the least creative advantage to this process, but it does force me to limit myself to the essential since I can’t afford to make too many purchases that I will regret. As far as music that I won’t pay for, I only have one rule. I won’t pay for anything on the radio. If music is produced with a commercial audience in mind, let a Target commercial or whatever pay for it. I’d much rather that money go to artists on Bandcamp.
In a way, I know my experience is not typical of an obsessive music listener. I know that I won’t get to listen to every great record released this year, but at the very least, I can ensure that the quality of my experience…one paycheck at a time.