There is a scene in the coming-of-age movie, Almost Famous, in which the 11-year old boy discovers his older sister’s record collection. As he feels his way through the large covers, pausing at times to move his hand across the cover art, we can almost sense the director’s tenderness thinking back, and the boy’s wonderment, about the mystery that lies inside the sleeves. That sense of anticipation, the discovery, flipping through the now-classic albums and those big square images, is brought to a climax when the needle of a plastic turntable arm drops upon the vinyl – thump – and the crackling of dust and static serves as a second-long intro to the opening riffs of Tommy.
Some of us who are old enough to remember the sensation may see the present-day parallel as a very thin shadow of it – an online sample, the click of a mouse, a Pandora suggestion, or in a best case the purchase of a tiny CD to hold, though probably not in any store where at the cash register some dude who has heard all the records is prone to pass judgment. You can still find a few such stores in the Village, but for the most part the richness and texture of the analog experience has vanished.
These observations are not merely meant to be nostalgic, although undoubtedly there is that, or to condescend on the new modes of entertainment consumption – which, despite the nostalgia and musings, offer convenience and exciting new toys, discovery tools, and (albeit virtual) social interaction.Â Nevertheless, if one web music machine after another is either shut down, restructured, or sold for nothing, we have to ask ourselves why this is. There must be more to the answer than merely “iTunes”, because other parts of the media/entertainment spectrum seem to function reasonably enough with multiple competitors.
So, I am hereby wondering if the answer lies in the contrast between the album experience (illustrated with, admittedly, some romance above), and the more purely utilitarian and way more rapid digital music experience today. Perhaps the very nostalgia contains answers – or at least poses a question or two – about an industry that has struggled to maintain its economic and cultural prominence lately.
It has been well documented that the music-revenue opportunity of both record labels and artists has declined, and in many cases drastically. There have been a variety of reasons presented for this decline, from piracy to product fragmentation via MP3 downloads to the legal availability of free content… but on a certain level all of these explanations really speak to the same issue: a consumer experience that has been cheapened.
The album art and liner notes on CDs are small and negligible, and in the case of downloads almost completely absent. The sound quality in low bit-rate digital recordings is poor in comparison to analog vinyl. Songs that would have been “out-takes” in the 8-10 album-track era now make up tracks number 9 or 10 through 15 in the much greater memory bank of a CD. And the number of artists who have found an outlet on the web, almost impossible to keep up with, means that fewer and fewer can really make it “big”.
There may be solutions in the music sector, and perhaps among the new products emerging in this field by the day there will be a breakthrough, or some new style, which will cause the industry and its fans to rediscover the grandeur of a previous era… or more likely a new form of grandeur that will make us forget the old. Still, with the experience of music behind us, one can’t help to see the trends and technologies popping up in other forms of entertainment – online television and eBooks, for example – and wonder whether these will take both the business opportunity and the consumer experience down the same path.
Music, at least, will have had a head start, and could be well positioned to show us the way out. How ironic.