As a working musician for over twenty years (blimey, has it already been that long?), I am not overly thrilled with the way the music industry has changed in recent times. My argument against illegal downloads has always been to ask why any intellectual property created as art with a nod towards commerce should be pilfered for free? I’m assuming you wouldn’t walk into a shoe shop, pick up a python boot and walk out without paying. I feel music should be thought of in the same way, it’s still all about sole.
But there is a double standard with art. I’m sure fellow guitar teachers would concur that over the years we have all had the occasional student who does not turn up for their appointed lesson, does not call ahead, but also does not expect to pay. I suspect these same individuals would not do this if they had a doctor’s or lawyer’s appointment, but because playing music is fun and for many people a hobby, there is a disconnect with notions of common courtesy.
I am actually a user of a streaming service (Spotify), even though it pays artists next to nothing. I know this as some of my music is published there. It’s not just us small indie artists, word on the street (wherever that is) Beyoncé doesn’t make much from it either. Luckily she can still dance. Yes, I am old fashioned when it comes to music, I still have a closet filled to the brim with CDs and I was one of those people who sniffed their vinyl. There’s probably a term for that. But more importantly why do I use a streaming service?
The way I use Spotify is to indulge my ever-revolving musical genre whims. I really like the fact I can dig into the back catalog of many artists and access music that I may not have heard. I become excited about discovering an artist and obsessively listen to their collected works. I still like to listen to albums from start to finish, which has become a very foreign idea. By the time my 3-year-old daughter is old enough to listen to the music of her choice (rather than the current daily musical brainwashing she receives from me) she’ll probably be listening to several ringtones simultaneously whilst watching a video projected into her mind’s eye from her Google glasses and levitating. When I find music I’m interested in, I tend to buy it on CD in part because I know the blood, sweat and tears that go into making a record (even if it’s not an album by Blood, Sweat and Tears). I’m one of those people who obsesses at 4am that the second rhythm guitar needs to come down in the mix by 1.5db. Just ask my wife, I’m not exaggerating and I like owning a physical product, harkening back to the days of the gatefold and linear notes.
My eclectic musical tastes often go beyond what’s currently available on streaming services, so that’s another reason I buy music on CD. Therefore I’m justifying my use of a streaming site as the lesser of two evils. I refuse to download anything for free, well, unless a musician genuinely expresses that they want it that way. In this industry sometimes that’s the only method to get your music out there, especially if it’s a little left of center, as my music often is.
Now you could argue that the record companies were always ripping artists off since the dawn of time and yes, that’s true, but at least people had a choice to amble down to the crossroads, have a friendly chat with the ol’ cloven hoofed one and sign on the dotted line. These days an album is often available on illegal download sites before the musicians have even had a chance to promote it and in some cases even finish mixing it! Imagine if one of your favorite novels was released before the final draft. Who knows what changes the author made whilst editing? Perhaps in the penultimate draft of George Orwell’s 1984 the final few paragraphs saw Winston enjoying a fruity cocktail with his sense of self still firmly intact, feeling optimistic about the future. Luckily we’ll never know.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, I do think this is a great time to be a fan of music, never before has so much different music been so accessible at the touch of a button, or the swipe of a finger and that’s a positive thing. Mainstream radio is long dead and the media offers us the same four artists, not so cleverly repackaged as alternative rock, punk-pop, or country, so it’s fun to see what’s out there. But with great power comes responsibility. So my suggestion would be to use a streaming service as if you were on a record-scouting trip like the ones my friends and I used to make on a Saturday afternoon as teenagers. Find an album that sounds interesting and listen to it, yes all of it, maybe even in the order it was intended. And if you love it, or are at the very least intrigued, then buy it as a download or a CD, sit quietly and listen to it again from start to finish. Maybe even twice! Sometimes music takes a while to grow on you and in some cases I find you have a richer more rewarding experience from hearing an album unfold over time. Sometimes it takes a little listening work to really hear what’s there, which is in direct contrast with our fast food society. Case in point, it took me about ten years of listening to really enjoy traditional jazz and now I love it!
This also pertains to learning to play the guitar. I spent a lot of my teenage years lifting the needle (that’s a vinyl reference, not to heroin) and rewinding my cassettes trying desperately to figure out what the last lick or chord was. Of course I’d also have to spend a fair amount of time fixing the tapes with a pencil after they vomited in my cassette player, but you get the point. There is so much tuition material online presently it’s important to find an effective learning path and stick with it, build a relationship with your teacher over time and try to avoid being pulled in by the force of instant gratification. The sense of achievement and fulfillment you’ll attain from working on a technique or a song over time and watching it slowly come to fruition, will likely trump (ahem, that’s a bad choice of word these days) any quest for instant gratification.
I see this in other forms of art as well. Compare mainstream movies over the past twenty years and you’ll see less slower-paced, script-based films today with the fear that if we don’t “get to the chorus” in the first 20 minutes the audience will lose interest. There is a lyric in the song “The Dreaming Tree” by Dave Matthews Band that seems rather apt: “Now progress takes away what forever took to find.”
Hopefully this will be food for thought if there are some other digital dinosaurs out there like me.