The way music is stored and accessed has been transformed numerous times in the past, adapting to improving technology and the needs of consumers. Over the course of only a few decades, music recordings successively took the form of vinyls, cassettes and CDs. In a world where quite a lot of our data is stored digitally, I think it would be naive to expect music and its distribution to be limited only to such physical forms.
With the introduction of the MP3 format in 1998, music was stripped down to a couple of bytes of digital files. Soon after this appeared the infamous Napster, the first of the many file-sharing systems that made music downloadable and easily accessible, leading to the digital revolution in music distribution and taking piracy to a whole new level. (In such a short column, it is not possible for me to cover every branch of this issue, so I have chosen to avoid the legal arguments and am only examining the effects the situation has on us, the consumers.) Despite much effort and numerous trials, the authorities not only failed to prevent the act of piracy, but couldn’t even decelerate it. Even when they did succeed in shutting down a particular system, a better and faster one replaced it.
By this time, the transformation ought to have become accepted, because the download culture is evidently here to stay, and is still growing stronger. But what are the reasons behind such a shift, and the effects on the music industry? Depending on one’s perspective, it is possible to interpret the situation at one extreme or the other: that music is either experiencing its golden age, or is in a desperate condition and is consuming itself. I find myself inclining toward the more optimistic view, but I can see why others think the opposite.
Let’s first examine how the digital revolution has changed the way listeners interact with music. Previously, listeners could only access music that was physically available where they lived, and they needed to pay quite high prices. The choices were also much more limited, depending on the country’s overall taste in music and what distributors were interested in. However, with the digital revolution, music became mobile. Regardless of where he is, a listener with an Internet connection can easily find most of the commercial music that has ever been created. Moreover, prices fell dramatically, due to not only piracy, but also the alternatives to records that began appearing, such as legal streaming through services like Spotify, grooveshark and even YouTube, or the purchase of tracks through iTunes, which are either free or much cheaper than physical records. However, as music has become more accessible and cheaper, it has also become disposable. The value of an album that someone buys after months of research, and for a significant cost, cannot be the same as that of one he effortlessly downloads in five minutes. As digitization has spread, the everyday listener has started consuming music as fast as he accesses it, without truly enjoying and experiencing it. His perception of music has in most cases degraded to “casual background sound” or “some tunes to keep himself occupied.”
As people have gotten used to this trend in music consumption, they have also started recognizing the above-mentioned problems and begun looking for ways to utilize the digital revolution efficiently, instead of getting drowned in the unconscious exhaustion of being surrounded by too much music. Even though awareness hasn’t spread to the masses yet, the number of conscious listeners is increasing every day. I consider myself to be one, and so I would like to briefly describe how my relationship with digitized music developed and try to take you through the process to show how things can be turned upside down and how the digital revolution can in fact advance one’s musical taste and awareness.
When I was first exposed to digitized music, I was amazed. I tried to find every piece of music available and never listened to the same song more than a couple of times, since there were so many more new pieces to explore. That was when I unconsciously got familiar with many genres and started identifying certain elements, patterns and styles in music. However, after a few years of such rapid consumption of music, I realized that I was not even enjoying it, but only continuing to download and listen automatically. I decided to change my music listening habits, and started listening to music for its own sake, not as something to simply hear in the background. That’s when I truly began enjoying music and started to look for quality rather than quantity. Also during this time came my recognition of compressed MP3 files’ low sound quality, which caused me to begin buying lots of CDs and vinyls. After creating a basic music archive with actual records, I started enjoying the physical form of the music around me. I have been studying the cover art, associating the visuals provided with the music itself and seeing the music as a more complete work of art by doing so. I have understood what I had been missing with MP3 files, which throw away the visual and physical qualities of recorded music and simplify it to only its very core.
So after getting used to the digital revolution and developing my musical perspective, I became a conscious and responsible music listener, who goes to concerts and spends quite a bit of his money on records and band merchandise. After consuming artists’ labor for free for a few years, I turned to appreciating and supporting music and the artists that I like, and will continue to do so for a lifetime.
When we go back to the initial question asked by the title, the answer is “both.” The impact of the digital revolution depends on the listeners’ understanding of it. It does not have to affect all listeners in only one way or the other. One person may forever stay a casual music consumer, while another may see this as an opportunity for intellectual development and, after reaching a certain level of awareness, begin supporting art and seeking out the best. The digital revolution shouldn’t be judged on the basis of what problems it seems to cause, but rather according to what it can offer us in the future, and how can people properly make use of it.
Next time, we will consider the contrary perspective and try to understand what is happening to the music industry and economy as a result of the digital revolution.