Law in Contemporary Society
-- AdamGold - 03 Apr 2008

The Intangible Losses of the Move to Online Music Acquisition

There is no doubt that online music purchasing or sharing sites, such as iTunes or etree.org, have empowered new generations with unparalleled access to rock music (and other popular musical forms of the last century). Lower prices, easier and larger access to diverse genres, and instant gratification are a few reasons offered for the proposition that there is a net gain for individual music listeners.

However, the mainstream discourse concerning the merits of the process of digitalization of consumer music, as found in Rolling Stone and other prominent publications, ignores several intangible sources of loss to listeners. While these sources may approach nostalgic considerations regarding personal appreciation at the individual level, they, when aggregated in true Wickard-esq form across sections of the listening public, become increasingly objective in nature when analyzed.

Sources of Intangible Loss to Individuals

1) The Loss of the “Record Store”

As the recent closing of Tower Records shows, digitalization is moving the locus of music acquisition from a physical store to a personal computer. Record stores are, however, not just physical warehouses for commercial transactions; they are a part of the musical experience itself. While Mega-stores like Walmart have edged out mom-and-pop record stores continuously for the last decade (a phenomenon likely caused by the RIAA’s ineptitude), the relative speed with which digital acquisition is edging out remaining brick-and-mortar retailers establishes the nexus between digitalization and the “loss” in question.

The “indy” record store, i.e. the one from “Empire Records,” is a part of American culture.(1) Intangible value derived merely from the physical acquisition experience itself is lost due to the absence of human contact through digital acquisition. For example, online discussions via message boards might not be able to adequately replace the value of body language in an in-person debate about whether Clapton or Hendrix was a better guitarist. In this sense, it might be hard to replace the record store as the locus for fan related interactions with online forums filled with anonymous personalities behind avatars.

While many in-person facets of the acquisition process may have online equivalents, such equivalents, lacking the sounds, colors and textures of a record store, may not preserve the complete musical experience as it stands today. It is true you can get a club sandwich from almost any deli today, but most die-hards would argue that the experience of ordering from the Carnegie Deli is not the same as ordering from the Smiler’s chain in NYC.

2) Loss of the Physical Album

The physical act of holding an album differentiates in-person purchasing from internet acquisition. First, finding an item “in stock” on a check out screen or “active” on a peer-to-peer site may not approximate the excitement of discovering a sought after album in a bargain bin or finding the last copy of an album on a shelf because of the added sensory perception of touch absent in the online process.

Second, viewing an album cover online can inhibit a consumer’s ability to have a proper first impression of album cover art. Cover art is usually carefully chosen by the artist and it is, in most cases, meant to add a visual component to compliment the audio portion of the experience to complete one unitary work of art. A consumer only gets one first impression and a case can be made that the shock of walking into a record store and finding oneself face to face with a naked 13 year old girl on the cover of Blind Faith’s self titled 1969 album cannot be approximated by finding a small jpeg image of the same picture on itunes.

Third, a physical album is a permanent and tangible piece of art. Downloading music does not allow an individual to open an album jacket and view lyrics, liner notes and credits which provide line-up information, recording dates and studio details.

Finally, unless someone only downloads from “officially licensed” websites (which may not be the case for some downloaders), reliability with regard to sound quality, file integrity and knowing who is actually playing guitar on the mp3 labeled “Gimme Shelter” may be lacking.

3) The Loss of the Musical Album

An album is the product of a careful process of selecting which songs to place in the final product and in which order the listener hears them. Often, the artist’s creation is necessarily dependent on the consumer’s appreciation of the entire entity.(2)

Taken alone, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” cannot approximate the full experience of listening to Sgt. Pepper’s in its entirety. Perhaps the Beatles intended “Lucy” to prepare the listener, sonically or mentally, to appreciate the final, single note of “A Day in the Life,” which lasts for 42 seconds; a feat much harder to accomplish without the benefit of album context. While it is true that there is nothing to prevent one from acquiring an entire album as a single data file, it is equally true that there is nothing to force one to do so. This is troubling as online sources allow individuals to download a single song from a concept album, a work built around a single developing theme, which was expressly meant to be appreciated in its entirety according to the artist. Downloading a single song from The Who’s “Tommy” or Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” is tantamount to watching only one scene from The Phantom of the Opera; it may be fun, but it does not convey the full experience as designed by its creator.

Conclusion

Ultimately, online downloading may lead to a net gain for individual listeners. However, the debate over this premise must acknowledge that the art form as it was known pre-downloading might not be the same art form once it is nearly universally acquired digitally. In order to truly understand the ramifications of moving to a download-centric consumer music model, intangible losses to individual listeners must play a role in the overall calculus.

Footnotes

(1) http://www.jambase.com/Articles/Story.aspx?StoryID=13522

(2) http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,206566,00.html; http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/336682/led_zeppelin_to_itunes_in_the_fall.html; http://www.wired.com/techbiz/media/news/2006/08/71624

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r13 - 21 Jan 2009 - 22:53:34 - IanSullivan
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