A while back I wrote about the effect that art’s increasing ubiquity has on our appreciation of it. I closed with a paragraph about how we internalize price. When music becomes free, we don’t treasure it as much. We don’t listen to the same tracks over and over again because, well, because that’s all we have and we paid for them. In my case, paid what little money I had.

Of course, the media itself has played a role, moving from the CD on forward. When it came to tapes, it was a pain in the rear to find and listen and relisten to the tracks that you like. CDs made this easier, since you could forward and back straight to the song that you were listening to. MP3’s took it a step further, where you can simply eliminate all of the songs except the ones you specifically want to listen to. You could do that with tapes, of course, but it was a bit of a pain. And unlike with MP3s, you were paying for them either way unless you swiped them off the radio. Throw in Rhapsody, and you can listen to whatever you want, whenever you want (and are at a PC).

For my own part, it’s the case where the $10 it costs to buy an album falls into the “trivial expense” category. For a while I wouldn’t buy anything that I couldn’t screen first on Rhapsody or somewhere else, but it’s not a big deal anymore. It wasn’t a big deal five years ago, though that hadn’t sunk in yet. So I not only have access to Rhapsody’s entire catalog, but I can buy limited amounts of whatever I want, if I want it.

Yet, despite all of this, I listen to less new music than ever before. I think that some of it is that I can afford to customize my listening to limit myself only to familiar songs. A side-effect is that which does not immediately appeal to me, doesn’t get listened to. I think back to how I became a fan of Frank Black solely because I had a few of his CDs from eMusic and a limited amount of new stuff to listen to. I didn’t know what to think of it at first, but over time came to really like it. That’s the last time this has happened, and that was five years ago. There have been a few new artists since then, such as Son Volt and Richmond Fontaine, but even then I still haven’t listened to all of Fontaine’s work. I listen to the last couple of CDs of theirs and… then I relisten to them. But only the tracks I like.

Some of this is doubtlessly a function of age. The older you get, the less appealing the junk that these young kids today are listening to becomes. Pop music has become infused with R&B, which I don’t care all that much for. Popular country hasn’t changed much in the last decade, and if I’m going to listen to the same old thing, I might as well listen to the same old thing I already know the lyrics to. The independent music scene I was following all but died (maybe coincidentally, maybe not, but right around the time the smoking bans started hitting bars). So there’s probably an element of circumstance involved in this, as well as getting old.

But I really do think that at least a part of it is that without scarcity, I can hear everything, and therefore don’t have to listen to anything. And with access to everything I like, I don’t need to like anything I already don’t. Some of this is a function of my relative wealth, but you don’t have to be wealthy anymore in order to not be dependent on the radio to introduce new music to you. Rhapsody is under $15 a month. Spotify is coming to the US and promises to be even cheaper. You can nudge Pandora to only give you the stuff that’s either what you already like or a carbon copy of it. The radio, for all of its faults, at least made you give new stuff a chance if you were too lazy to change the station. Pandora, Rhapsody, and the others have functionality to allow you to do that, but Rhapsody, Spotify, and the others make listening to what you like so comfortable and easy that you don’t have to wade into the don’t-like-yet.

It does make me wonder what the music industry has in store for itself. To the extent that it’s a matter of my aging, they have nothing to worry about since young people are coming of music-listening age every day. But if there is something to the notion of ubiquity decreasing value, I don’t envy their position. And with Netflix, Amazon, and others offering the same for video, it’s an open question there, too. I think it’s less so for video, though, since I think that once we rise above a certain age, our capacity to keep watching the same things over and over ago diminishes in a way that it doesn’t for music, since music doesn’t require our complete attention.

Category: Theater

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