Despite my predisposition for vinyl and aversion to a digital only music consumption, I've not yet been labeled a Luddite. In my last post on the subject, I lamented the passing of vinyl, and yet I know that we cannot go back, that we live in a digital age. I am remembering for two reasons: first, I want to know what it is I have lost and whether and to what extent it matters; and, second, if I have lost something that is important, I would like to consider how to recapture some of that in a digital age. As a Christian, I look at remembering not as a wallowing in nostalgia, but as a way of meeting the future, of preserving the good we may lose if we don't take care to translate it into the present. I do not want to be unaware of a cultural shift that negatively transforms the way I think and live.
I also made the audacious claim in my last post that vinyl was more biblical. I did that because there is something about that whole experience that is more satisfying and seems to better embody values consistent with Scripture. Whether you read Neil Postman's Technopoly or Jaques Ellul's Technology, the lesson is that any technological change has not only positive but negative consequences, yet they don't always cancel each other out. Sometimes change is much, much better (for example, there is absolutely nothing important that was lost with the passing of the 8-track tape), and sometimes the consequences are more negative than positive. I think the latter holds true with the move from physical media to digital media. What we lost is greater than what we gained.
So exactly what is it that we lost, or stand to lose, and how do we translate these values into a digital age? I can think of four areas of loss and opportunity:
- Permanence. God is not opposed to change, and yet Scripture gives priority to the permanent, to things that do not change. The ease with which we buy and sell in a consumer era breeds contempt for things that endure. Something I can have immediately and relatively cheaply (like an ITunes download) is cheapened, less important, more easily dispensed with. When I used to shop for LPs in stores, the delayed gratification and anticipation fostered a more enduring appreciation. I waited to find it, to buy it, and finally to listen to it --- all the time thinking about it, anticipating it, and, after buying it, reading it and holding it until I could get it home to actually play it.
- Respect. Because I cannot easily skip tracks that don't immediately connect with me, I listened through an album, first one side, then the other. I appreciated the sequencing of songs, the lyrics, the quality of production. Repeated listenings built appreciation for the more understated and yet powerful songs. In the late Sixties and Seventies, artists took full advantage of this kind of listening, paying attention to album concept and sequencing so as to produce an integrated work of art. Consider Side 2 of The Beatles' Abbey Road, where each song anticipates the next. Or rock operas like The Who's Tommy or Quadraphrenia. Somehow skipping over songs with the click of a button just wouldn't have been respectful: the artist had produced a whole work of art.
- Community. As I've alluded to before, buying and listening to records was not an individualistic activity. When you had a record, you had a visible assemblage of recorded sounds, something you could more easily share with another person, something you could pore over together. In fact, record stores were great places to hang out and discover new music. There were simply these large, tangible items that attracted us and around which conversation was fostered.
- Accountability. Like it or not, producers, record companies, and disc jockeys served as quality control for what we heard. The downside of this is that some good music never made it to its audience; the upside is that a lot of mediocre or just plain bad music stayed where it belonged (in the garage). I should know. I was in a band in high school that needed to stay just there, in the garage, a problem only for the next door neighbors. These days, when anyone can record inexpensively at home and have a MySpace page, good music is difficult to find in a barrage of noise pollution. No one is accountable.
- A Richer Incarnation. The artist who released an album on LP knew he or she was working with a larger palette. The artistic work, if done well, not only was a collection of sounds embodied in discrete three to four minute songs but could be focused on a concept or theme, with cover art, liner notes, and sequencing of songs that fostered surprise, diversity of sounds, and anticipation to create a richer, multi-sensory experience.
Can you add to this? I suspect that there is more than this to be said, as well as some counter arguments about digital music. Yet I have the overwhelming sense that I have lost something, and I want it back. As we can't turn back the clock, how do we carry these values into a music culture of disembodied sounds? I'll deal with that next!