24 October 2009

Hidden Tracks (i)

I often think about how the relative fortunes and career trajectories of musicians of different generations are affected by technology, and when I say this, I'm thinking purely in terms of their paths to "success," whether defined by themselves or someone else. Obviously, technology affects what we create, not just our success or failure in being recognized for it, and that's certainly a fertile area for discussion, but it's also worth pondering whether or not a musician is in the right place at the right time relative to technology, and how that affects, for lack of a better term, their business decisions.

I was born in 1982, started playing music around 1993, and consider myself to have gotten "serious" sometime in 1999. It's often difficult for me to distinguish what has actually changed since then from what I was simply ignorant of, but to my recollection, while record labels still meant something, everybody and their brother was already recording, producing and distributing their own discs back then, and it was obvious that sooner or later, having a CD out would cease to mean anything at all. When exactly that threshold was reached is probably impossible to determine; it probably happened at different times in different places, and may, in truth, have already happened most places by the time I even became aware of it. Suffice it to say, then, that I've always felt just a bit screwed over.

Whether or not that's justified is another story, for I've benefitted in innumerable ways (most importantly as a listener, I think) from the increased accessibility (lower case "a") of recorded music. It's no coincidence that my getting "serious" about music happened exactly when I started spending substantial portions of my time listening to music, but the cruelty of that scenario is that I was allowed to become enraptured with a world that was already dead and gone. Even though I've tried many times to accept that fact and move on, part of me will never forget the feeling of staring at the paltry stack of discs that comprised my collection circa 1999 and looking forward to the day when I could offer the world such a document of my own. Every one of those discs mattered to me, so the idea of making one myself seemed significant. Little did I know it was already too late.

So, my relationship to technology is a bit like the milk commercial where the guy arrives in what appears to be heaven (for those who haven't seen it: besides angels, there are brownies and chocolate chip cookies everywhere, but when he opens the fridge, the milk carton is empty, and he's left wondering where he actually is). Such is life as a musician who came of age during digital distribution's pre-natal stage, seduced by music when physical media still mattered, but unable to move others beyond casual resignation using the same format.

Truthfully, I could have jumped on the train just in the nick of time had I so chosen. There certainly were people my age and younger in 1999 who had discs of their own, and although it may already have meant next to nothing in the "real world," it certainly seemed pretty cool to other young people who didn't know any better. The problem with me was that I did know better. I largely resented these kids, first of all because their rich uncle had obviously bankrolled the project, and second because, though I had quite a ways to go myself, I could hear that their playing (and writing, in some cases) was not worthy of releasing a document.

I didn't want to be like that, and so it was something of a point of pride for me for a long time that I didn't have a disc. I wanted one, but I wanted it to be good, and seeing so many kids my age coming out with junk that they'd obviously be embarrassed about within the decade made me think twice. I'm glad I did, because anything I could have mustered back then would most certainly have had to be pulled of the shelves (err...servers?) in short order. I was quite self-righteous about this choice for a long time; it was the only way to console myself for being left completely in the dust, especially after it became obvious that people were tiling their bathrooms with these things, and that I'd passed on my only fleeting chance to make one that mattered to anyone at all.

The vestiges of that self-righteousness now have me thinking that this is just one of the many cases where I've been punished for doing the right thing. But was it the right thing? I saved myself some cash, and spared the few people who would have heard it the consternation that I felt for so many of their kids' recorded efforts. But in a sense, I was also fiddling while Rome burned. If I had the benefit of hindsight, I might have gone whole hog just to do my best to catch the twilight of the pre-digital age. It's a chance no one will ever have again.

I'm making it sound like I have an enduring fondness for physical media when that's not entirely the case. I've been dragging my feet a bit, but recently opened an iTunes account, and have purchased a few things that way. One thing holding me back is that I acquired more physical media over the last several years than I've been able to listen to, and so there's really no reason for me to start buying MP3's by the dozen (speaking of which, while the pricing is eminently reasonable, it is waaay too easy to spend a shitload of money on iTunes, so that has me being cautious also). The blossoming of digital distribution is just one part of the story: it's also cheaper and easier to record, edit, design and promote a record, and predictably, everyone is doing all of those things in copious amounts, hence saturating the market and people's attention spans along with it. So, I don't mean to get sentimental over the discs themselves; it's the particular conditions of the era they shaped (or perhaps my mistaken notions about it) that are more worth mourning.

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