thesis vomit #2

February 15, 2012

David Suismans Selling Sounds is an in-depth look into the first few decades of the music industry. It dissects the organizations and businesses that helped turn music into a cultural commodity, thus changing the way America listened to music. Arguably, we are witnessing a revolution of similar proportions in the music industrythe internet is altering musics value and changing our listening habits.

But are these changes really so new?

Earlier this week, I met with Avi Zahner-Isenberg, the frontman and “weird little genius” (as my friend put it) for Avi Buffalo, one of the few Long Beach bands to make it outside of the citys music scene since the 1990s. At 18, the members (then seniors at Milliken high school) got signed to Sub Pop Recordsthe Seattle-based home of Nirvana and Sonic Youth, among othersreleased a self-titled record and toured the world.

Despite Avis far-reaching musical influences, he admitted to me that he wasnt very tactile with his music and mostly downloaded it online. This surprised me, mainly because of my experience with other Long Beach musicians (see my previous post on Dennis Owens) and their voracious vinyl collecting.

Reading Selling Sounds, though, has put this assumed consumption in perspective. Music recorded on discs was not the traditional way music was listened toin fact, music was always fixed in a certain time and place of its performance, not embedded in objects. But we have lived for more than a century with music being audible in so many environments and with the economic value of music so extensively and meticulously cultivated (p. 240) that imagining a world where recorded music becomes intangible is almost blasphemy.

Avi, of course, doesn’t see this intangibility as another “affront to the integrity of the listening experience” (p. 245)as many critics of mechanization in the musical soundscape argued in its early years. Instead, he just sees it as a way for him to be able to have multiple musical experiences he wouldn’t have otherwise had. In actuality, the internet and music downloading have reverted us back to the time periods covered in Selling Sounds in two ways.

In one way, we are returning to a time of musical temporality, where live performances created music that existed in the consciousness of those who experienced it similar to the way that music is stored in the ethereal “cloud” of the internet. Today, as then, music does not necessarily exist physically. In another way, however, downloaded songs have reverted us back to the Tin Pan Alley days of single-song consumption. Avi’s generation is not downloading entire albums, but individual songs, similar to how sheet music and 45s were sold in the early days of the music industry.

Whether or not the music industry “created a culture of degraded listening” (p. 255) is still up to debate, but what is certain is that today’s music consumers are still consuming. It may not be in the material way that we have grown accustomed to (the foundations of which are laid out in Sounds), but it is still consumption. Now what to make of Spotify…?


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