When I was a teenager, the stores in our town stayed open late on Thursday nights between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In 1978 I worked at one of the local hardware stores and I was on duty one of those Thursdays. I had earlier that day cashed my paycheck. Around seven or so, business was slow and I asked the manager if I could take 15 minutes and walk up to The Gramophone Shop. I went in and bought a record I had had my eyes on for a number of weeks: Dire Straits' first album. It cost, by my recollection, $8.98 plus tax.
Was that album worth ten bucks? It's a stupid question. That album was part of the soundtrack of my late high school years. It was probably worth $100 to me.
Now it seems that people who spend ten bucks on music are stupid. Free mp3's are everywhere, legitimately or otherwise. Subscription services and internet radio stations offer everything at the touch of a browser button. There's a sea of music out there, just waiting for a listen.
But paying ten bucks for an album caused you to make a decision. (Not that those decisions always worked out. For example: the Knack's second album.) You had to hear enough songs to get a good assurance that the album was decent, or take a risk that the one great song you heard was a pattern for the rest of the album. (Also not foolproof; see Sniff 'n' the Tears.)
Carrie Brownstein's recent post on NPR Monitor Mix brought this to mind. Carrie lamented the decline of the record label, in this case the decision by Touch & Go Records to stop distributing the work of smaller labels. Wrote Carrie:
We are careening toward a paucity of experience and a paucity of means with which to evaluate music. I mean, can we really engage with art on a Web site and in a vacuum, without ever bothering to contextualize it or make it coherent with our lives or form a community around the work? If we never move beyond the ephemeral and facile nature of music Web sites -- and let's not lie to ourselves, that's where it ends for a lot of us these days -- then that makes us worse than blind consumers; it makes us dabblers. We have become musical tourists. And tourism is the laziest form of experience, because it is spoonfed and sold to us. Tourism cannot and should not replace the physical energy, the critical thinking and the tiresome but ultimately edifying road of adventure, and thus also of life.
To me, the process of getting recommendations, listening to a friend's record, hearing something great on the radio (or a podcast), then making the decision to plunk down real money is, in Carrie's words, an adventure--and one of the great pleasures in enjoying music. If everything's at your fingertips, undifferentiated, you can sample, skip and flit around. You're, as Carrie said, a tourist.
And to me that's a bad thing. Free music isn't only bad for musicians, it seems. It's also bad for the audience.