Back in June, the ramblings of Emily Grant, an intern at National Public Radio in the US, caused a brief ruckus on Twitter. Grant wrote on the NPR blog: “I've only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs.” Her piece was positioned as an acute generational tale, a missive from the modern music fan. It suggested that Grant was emblematic of a generation who happily took music without payment. Soon enough, figures as disparate as Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos (“If we can steal, we will. Especially if we convince ourselves it's not stealing”) and ABC Radio’s Mark Colvin (“Read this and buy an album today”) took to Twitter to critique. David Lowery, of the briefly-known ‘90s indie band Cracker, produced a widely circulated slapdown on his blog. The hounds were released.
My own history of musical obsession straddles the online world, and hence allows insights particular to those of my vintage. I grew up with cassingles and CDs, my father’s vinyl LPs being consigned to the bargain bin. The tapes tore and broke, the CDs scratched and slowly I came to understand the presence of the vinyl sleeve and peculiar pleasure that came from putting a needle on a spinning disc. And yet, access was the problem. As a kid growing up in the country, records were scarce. Each great record begat another and my budget could never keep up with my appetite.
When file-sharing became a common practice in early 2000, I embraced it. Finally, I had it all. The live versions. The bootlegs. The remixes. These initial excursions were replete with justifications; yes, I downloaded illegally, but if I loved the record I would buy it. I would. Soon. Promise.
These excuses, alongside the more obvious and fraught, ‘I’m only downloading because record companies are vast behemoths and they can afford it’, don’t hide that point that Kapranos makes: we steal because we can.
So much of modern consumption is predicated on the inability to ever have enough. This is the subtext that informs every new season of fashion, every technological update, each refinement added to vehicles and kitchen goods and whatever objects you care to mention. How else can we keep up? When the dominant societal structure is telling you ‘more’ and your bank balance won’t abide, theft happens.
There’s a much longer piece to be written about the cultural shifts that have been brought about by the death of music’s business model, but one minor element strikes me as the most interesting; I stopped downloading because I couldn’t keep up. I owned a vast amount of LPs, CDs and MP3s but I was beginning to lose track of the actual recorded matter. I had too many records to listen to. Five years ago I could sing along, chart chord changes and bore you to death with notes on instrumentation. With the amount of music I had acquired I was losing my love for, and my relationship with, the most important bit of the package: the tunes. So I slowed the consumption down and turned to my record store – not my laptop – to provide the songs.
I’m not about to judge anyone whose record collection is made up of ones and zeros. But for me, establishing a relationship with a record takes time, and that relationship is strengthened by the physical object and the exchange of cash. Not only is it right, but it’s better that way.