why i suck at blogging.

Hi, my name is Larry, and I'm a technophobe. But I'm working on it. Here's a column for Jazziz that hints at my progress:

Download This

By Larry Blumenfeld

A friend gave me an iPod as a birthday present. "This will keep you young," he said, "and connected." But at first, the white plastic gizmo made me feel old and alienated. I didn't want to download -- to listen alone, with no physical article related to the music close at hand, my mind encased by headphones (or worse, "earbuds").
Still, I shared a charmed moment or two with the thing -- like when, set on "shuffle," the thing spun out pithy segues: the Microscopic Septet riding comfortably in the wake of early-'40s Ellington; or Olu Dara to Fela Kuti to Randy Weston, like a well-turned double-play. But then, why shouldn't this flow? It was all my stuff to begin with. Yet I had to admit: I was hearing it anew.
My Luddite fears stirred again after reading of a study by University of Leicester psychologist Dr. Adrian North that concluded, "The download generation is apathetic about music." Easy accessibility and unrestrained choices, Dr. North reasoned, have led us to take music for granted. We've lost, as he put it, "a deep emotional commitment once associated with music appreciation."
I wanted to seize this as validation for my vague feeling that the wondrous availability and portability of so much music -- anything you want to hear, anywhere, anytime -- had erased both context and focus from the listening experience. But Dr. North, it turns out, monitored 346 people via cell-phone text messages. If, indeed, technology trivialized content, it was in Dr. North's method of inquiry; besides, he had no referential data regarding the "emotional commitment" of listeners past.
And then there is downloading. There's no question that it has changed the way we relate to music, which is inextricably tied to how we consume it as a product. According to Nielsen SoundScan, 2006 is the first year in which digital downloads (individual tracks) outsold compact discs (entire albums). Granted, these numbers are skewed toward pop-music listeners (who vastly outnumber, say, jazz consumers) but there's change afoot, no doubt.
"Is the album dying, or is it just passing into another plane of existence?" critic David Hajdu asked in a New Republic piece titled "iPod Blues." I've wondered myself why musicians even think about sequencing compositions anymore. Some say we've simply returned to the day of the 45-rpm "single" or its grandfather, the 78. And maybe the "album" needed to be slain, having grown -- because of the CD's capacity -- to 74 minutes in length. This bloated size contained innumerable tracks that should have been outtakes. "While professional recording artists are creating all the materials that end up on home-recorded CDs," Hajdu wrote, "the art of their assemblage -- of selecting, compiling, and editing (or even altering the tracks electronically) -- has shifted into the hands of the individual at home. The process is a kind of collaboration not unlike the old one between a Tin Pan Alley sheet-music composer and a parlor pianist: the first does the primary creative work, the second contributes interpretively."
While writing several drafts of this column, I've been questioning my fears: Might it be beneficial to let go of my attachment to the physical manifestations that make the music seem more tangible? I'm behind the curve: As reported in The Boston Globe recently, Cambridge-based Pyramid Research, young listeners "prefer to rent, not buy, music." As the Pyramid analyst put it, "physical ownership is no longer seen as necessary." If music lovers are diving into a vast sea of sounds, finding their own treasures, and creating playlists based on their own values (not subject to industrial convention), isn't that a good thing, a liberating thing?
Some pesky issues of context spring to mind. How often do you go online, and find, say, Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster listed as a 1997 release (the date of its reissue), instead of 1957 (the original Verve issuance). And what about the sidemen, who are absent from so many download listings? What about the connection between Francis Wolff's photos and the Blue Note aesthetic? Still, these problems seem easy enough to remedy.
Pianist Vijay Iyer thoughtfully summed up both the promise and paradox of the download culture in a recent e-mail. "In some ways it has become a more primal relationship," he wrote, "closer to what music has probably been for people, especially in terms of regulating mood. But it has also made live performance a more extreme, unlikely, and crucial occasion than ever before."
After all this, I've resolved to embrace my iPod -- just not to the point of fetishism. Technology becomes music, but never the reverse.

May 31, 2007 1:39 PM |


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