When I was a teenager of 14 or so, a big event for me was the purchase of a record album. At that time, music was a full-orbed experience: I saved my money, looking with anticipation to buying an LP (my first, as I recall, cost $3.49), I went to the record store (at that time, The Record Bar), handled all the various LPs of interest on display, talked to other shoppers and the manager, made the purchase, walked home with that large LP tucked under my arm (anticipation swelling), plopped on the floor of my room (often with a friend), took the plastic off, carefully slid it out of its sleeve (I can still smell that new vinyl), put it on the turntable, settled in to listen all the way through each side, and perused art, lyrics, and liner notes as it played. It was a great experience! The impression it made upon me is confirmed by the fact that I can remember many of those early purchases --- picking up the box containing George Harrison's All Things Must Pass collection with the bearded ex-Beatle seated on front, relishing the unusually sunny disposition of Neil Young on the cover of Comes a Time (at which a very long-haired hippie said to me, "hey man, he's smiling, can you believe that?"), waiting eagerly for the release of the Concert for Bangla Desh only to discover with dismay that the whole first side of Disc 1 was taken up by Ravi Shankar playing the sitar (sorry, sitar fans). I could go on. I know, you must think it pathetic . . . but remember that I was only 14.
Those days are gone, of course, and for those younger than 40, perhaps never existed. Since that time I have witnessed the advent of the compact disc, a development which truncated the tactile experience of buying and listening to music to a smaller, less impressive package but, nevertheless, still a visible, tangible commodity. I have the seen the advent of the internet and online shopping, which reduced the communal experience of the record store to just me and my computer and exposed me to a plethora of often mediocre music competing for my attention on the internet, a virtual flood of noise. Finally, I have seen music made portable and ubiquitous. It's on my phone, PDA, and IPod, where it can be instantly purchased and downloaded. It blares at me in every store I enter, from discreetly placed speakers along the streets of our new shopping centers, in restaurants, when pumping gas, and in doctors' offices --- disembodied sounds divorced from context, from tangible package, from artist, from community --- simply floating through my life and rarely coming to rest.
Given the ubiquity and portability of music, it is no surprise that the music industry is in a severe decline, as Mark Geil documents in a "Music in Recession," a summary of the state of the Christian music industry featured in a recent Christianity Today. On every front there is bad news --- artists can't make a living, touring and festivals are cutting back, record sales are crumbling (and have been since the CD reissue market peaked and declined), record labels are folding or shrinking, and commercial radio is down 30 to 40 percent. And yet while the article takes a shot at the amount of illegal downloading and what that has cost the industry, no where does it ask why people regard music as not worth paying for. It doesn't take a genius to conclude that when something is everywhere and at all times available for free, devaluation is inevitable. Even without illegal downloading, music is so plentiful that you can have all you want. So why pay?
As wonderful as it is to have music so accessible and new music so readily discoverable, the disembodied sounds we listen to nowadays are nowhere as rich as what was had in a time when they were heard in the context of a complete album, when buying and even listening were often communal experiences, where listening was multi-sensory with the packaging an extension of the artist's craft. In the end, when you had an LP, you really had something --- a physical work of art that you could hold, persue, talk about with friends, and see on your shelf. I know little about most of the artists whose songs I listen to now, but then I could have told you a great deal about them from perusing their lyrics, liner notes, and art work, supplemented, of course, by Rolling Stone Magazine, then a counter-cultural newspaper, or, in Christian circles, by True Tunes, an art-zine focused on the really cool music of the Christian culture. When I download a song now, I sense that I have almost nothing, sound divorced from context, from artist, from anything tangible that I can hold. I value it little, and that is why I am unlikely to pay for a download unless that is the only medium by which I can hear a song.
For my teenage son, this way of thinking is incomprehensible. That there is no physical product is no big deal to him. That there is no context is also not problematic. He cites the lower cost and portability of downloads as far superior to the album culture. He is interested in the song, not the artist, and certainly not the album which may contain songs he does not want. Lower cost, portability, and selectivity are certainly benefits of the digital music era, but it is difficult for him (and I surmise others of his age) to see that there is a cost. They do not know what they have missed; there is no love lost for albums when there is no loss.
Albums were a richer experience, but you might say so was listening to live music in parlors, street fairs, church, and home sing-a-longs when music to be heard had to be heard live. No one would want to turn back the clock to that era, even if we could. The phonograph and radio were a natural outgrowth of peoples' desire to take the music with them. And yet in all technological progress there is loss. Music has become cheapened both by its ubiquity and portability, more often a subjective, individual experience (think ear buds) and less often a communal experience. Even our buying of music has become an individual experience: one man, one computer screen. Any virtual buying community is a cheap substitute for hanging out in the record store talking about music. That kind of community is consigned to record collectors viewed as eccentrics by most.
We can't turn the clock back, but I suggest that the economic downturn actually can help restore value to music. As Geil notes, the industry collapse can get rid of the stardom mindset that some artists have, lead to greater improvisation, and weed out people who don't have anything to say in favor of those who do, and I would say of those who have not only an inner calling for the music but one confirmed by their community of faith or patronage. It may also restore greater connections between artists and their fans, artists like one of my acquaintances, Luke Brindley, who eschew labels and ask fans to financially invest in their recordings. I also still think a lot of people want to hear music in community, and house concerts retain a following in part because of their intimacy, not only with other people but with the artist. Finally, by buying physical product (CDs or even special vinyl releases), we can let artists and labels know that we care about context, that we want to know more than a song title and artist name. Perhaps we might not only save the CD but also preserve vinyl for those who care.
For Christians, the respect for and love of the physical is bound up in the Incarnation. In Jesus God was not simply a voice but a person one could see, touch, and hear. Christianity is, rightly understood, a sensual religion: the stuff of everyday life matters. Thus, a musical product which is a fuller and more sensual expression of the artist's imagination is more incarnational, and in this case more is better. The analogy is imperfect, of course, but I don't want a disembodied music any more than I want a disembodied Jesus. Just as we have an embodied religion, we need an embodied music. We're made for it.