Monday , March 4 2024
I love singles just as much as anybody. But today's music delivery system of choice is turning art into mere commodity.

The Commoditization Of Music: Marching Forward Into The Past

Much as I applaud the forward march of progress, and I agree that the traditional music business has failed to recognize the writing on the wall, to me there are problems with this whole concept of the instant access offered via "music by computer". To me the crux of the problem lies in the fact that music downloads tend to lessen the work of art one has to assume was intended by the actual artists themselves.

At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, I could easily go off on a tangent here about how the crystal clear sound of modern day, digitally remastered technology often sacrifices the warmth felt on the original recordings. Or I could, as an "old school" record guy, talk about how this whole business of downloading has put guys like myself somewhat out to pasture peddling cassette tapes at truckstops in podunk towns like Boring, Oregon (and yes, that is an actual town — in fact I was just there yesterday).

Rather than do that however, let me focus instead on how today's music delivery system of choice is turning art into mere commodity.

The idea of music as art being put on the proverbial chopping block in the name of "progress" spelled out in the far more accurate name of commerce, is of course hardly a new one. You can go back at least as far as the time of MTV as a reference point for that. Here, rather than allowing the music to create its own emotions in the listener's mind, music videos created those images for you.

In doing so, the music industry began it's rather determined march backwards toward an economy driven by single songs, rather than complete artistic works in the form of long play albums. Columbia Records in particular championed this new single driven approach in the eighties as it marketed albums such as Micheal Jackson's Thriller, and Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA with a single by single approach, racking up millions of dollars in the process.

But with the advent of the iPod and MP3 downloads, that once steady march towards a music economy driven by individual songs has become something more like a stampede. I submit that this is something which threatens to eradicate the artistic strides that rock music made towards it's eventual recognition as a respectable artform in the sixties and seventies with albums like Sgt. Pepper and Dark Side Of The Moon, or even with a single like Good Vibrations.

For starters, let's talk about the delivery system itself. iPods and the like are of course marvelous little devices, in as much as they allow the music consumer both instant access and total mobility. On the upside, this of course means that the world pretty much becomes your musical oyster.

The failure of record labels and radio stations to provide anything beyond narrow-casting tailored to the most homogenized demographics provided by "market research" of course paved the way for this. After all, why bother seeking out new musical frontiers when radio has already dumbed down your senses with the more familiar avenues provided by formats like "adult album alternative" (or triple A in the radio vernacular)? The downside of course is that new bands with the potential of making the next musical quantum leap stood less of a chance of actually being heard than ever. The instant access of downloading by computer basically has provided an instant, if somewhat stop-gap, solution to this problem.

However, this same concept of instant access tends to narrow the playing field in other ways. By allowing the listener to cherry pick the songs loaded onto an iPod, complete works of art as intended by the original artist are quite often discounted entirely. As a result, music marches ever forward into yesterday in the hopes of reaching the broadest possible audience. Yesterday's housewife vaccuming up the floor to "You Light Up My Life" becomes today's businessman riding the commuter train to Justin Timberlake or whoever.

Don't get me wrong. I love singles just as much as anybody. It's just that I love the idea of music as art a whole lot more. And with a music economy now dictated by the sort of instant access which allows the consumer to cherry pick songs in much the same way a music consultant programs a top forty radio station, what motivation does that leave the artist with?

With music now being delivered through speakers now often no larger than the size of your thumbnail, why bother at all with striving to achieve the sonic dimension of studio masterpieces like Born To Run? What does the next potential Bob Dylan waiting somewhere out there in the wings actually have to look forward to?

Beyond these somewhat obvious factors, there is the simple truth that the instant access of music downloading further accelerates the idea of music as a mere commodity, while discouraging the notion of consumers actually owning the product. It is one thing to be able to listen to your favorite song anywhere at any time. It is quite another to be able to hold an album or CD in your hands, and pour over detailed liner notes while you listen.

And as someone who briefly worked as a "content editor" for a digital music provider, I can tell you that by and large the folks bringing you this bold new revolution in music don't think of this as music at all. To them it is simply "content".

You might as well be talking about coffee pots.

About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

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