Imposing Limits to Music in the Age of Limits to Growth [part 2/6]

Imposing Limits to Music in the Age of Limits to Growth [part 2/6]

All digital reproductions are equally made with zeroes and ones, although some zeroes and ones are more equal than others

So for a guy like me who's making somewhat of a return to the world of music but who's fully aware of the already underway protracted collapse of industrial civilization, it should be obvious that putting myself at the mercy of a streaming service might not be the best idea if I wanted to retain a bit of access to some recorded music once the ability for streaming disappears once and for all (which for whatever reason[s] I believe will certainly happen at some point in my lifetime). So supposing I'm connected to a community grid and/or have the solar panels or whatever it be to power some kind of setup, owning my music – be it on CD, vinyl, or MP3s – would most certainly be the way to go.

That being said, and without being excessive, I could always do both (supposing I even have the money for any of this) – sign up to a streaming service to discover new music, then purchase what I want to keep for the long term. As the record label CEO quoted in part 1 put it, this is exactly what many people today are doing:

It used to be music discovery was mainly limited to the radio, but now people are free to look and listen to all sorts of music, so people are hearing so much more new or different music than they were before. They are finding music through streaming and if they love it, they are going out and investing in it in a physical format.

According to those in the know it turns out that while Apple's streaming service has the larger catalogue, it's horrible when it comes to suggesting new music to you: "Enjoyed XYZ band? Well guess what, you might be interested in listening to The Beatles!" On the other hand, although Spotify apparently doesn't have as extensive of a catalogue as Apple does its algorithms are purportedly vastly superior when it comes to exposing customers to new sounds.

Nonetheless, none of that is enough to convince me to subscribe to a streaming service, and that's not because of any fears of impending doom overriding my thinking. No. Because having previously owned roughly 600 albums (okay, owned about 150 albums and stole another 450 or so), it's the very prospect of musical abundance itself that makes me shudder, horrified at the thought of being swamped and overwhelmed by the "infinite" catalogue of a streaming service. If anything I'd be more interested in imposing limits to music rather than testing the limits to my sanity.

Having spent a decade in the "musical wilderness" it became rather apparent to me that (conspicuous) consumption can be just as rampant and soul-destroying with oh-so-harmless music as with anything else. It's thanks to the constant barrage of the never-ending availability of new music, the ease by which one can listen to music at any moment thanks to a set of headphones and a playback system, the sounds leaking out of store fronts, elevators, etc., that our minds are becoming so overloaded with music that they're arguably becoming obese on the stuff. From the point of view of someone looking at things from the sidelines it was hard not to get the impression that to a certain extent we're inadvertently – and sometimes purposefully – blocking out the act of thinking, to the point of even numbing ourselves blissfully stupid (which is probably not a good thing to be afflicted with when your civilization is starting to collapse around you).

So forget the idea that "music has never been more popular" (as quoted in part 1), because it's more like "never before has the over-consumption of a product been so viable", thanks in part to its ramifications not being glaringly obvious – like a beer gut or a closet full of shoes.

(drawing by Khalil Bendib)

"Back in the day" when music could only be played live, the expenditure that was required for agriculture-based civilizations to maintain a class of professional musicians – meaning farmers had to produce enough of a surplus so that yet another subset of people could be spared from full-time field-work so as to allow them the opportunity to learn, practice, and then perform their craft – meant that music was quite often limited to such things as celebratory occasions and to helping make things easier for those toiling away in the fields (supposing that said toilers didn't just sing to themselves and/or just make their own music). Music wasn't something to binge and gorge on but something to make those special moments even more special as well as to make the tough periods a bit more bearable.

What we currently have though is the situation in which incessant streams of music and other sounds are routinely used for altering people's moods and desires, often times for nefarious purposes of advertising. That's not to say however that it's just advertising that partakes in this perverse mind-altering usage of music, seeing how it's just as commonly self-administered. With personal catalogues of several hundred albums commonplace, and now the "infinite" catalogue of streaming services, some of the questions that routinely get asked are along the lines of "What matches my mood?" or "How do I want to influence my mood?" or "What mood do I want to be in?" One can get relaxing music, invigorating music, happy music, sad music, edgy music, dinner music, local music, world music, even music that sounds like anything but music, the lot of it often times rendering us into little more than wilfully manipulated au(dio)tomatons who are then just as easily swayed and coerced by those clever enough to influence us with the right sounds and cues for their own selfish and greedy desires.

Likewise, with Spotify promising the perpetual discovery of new music, do we really want to make music into the equivalent of the one-night-stand via the musical version of Tinder? "Dislike, dislike, dislike, like!, dislike, dislike, no definitely not you." When mentioning this Spotify-as-Tinder analogy (Tindify?) to a friend of mine I was told "Yeah, I have 15,000 MP3s [roughly 1,500 albums] and I never know what to listen to." Been there, done that, no thanks. (If I'm not mistaken Hotline was actually my archaic version of Tindify as I can't even imagine how many albums I deleted shortly after downloading and listening to them.)

So with all that amounting to the fact that there certainly wasn't going to be any streaming music service for me I was thus left with three issues/questions to address, supposing I was even going to actively listen to recorded music again:

  1. In which format(s) was I going to own my music, and through which method(s) would I purchase it if that were an issue?

  2. How was I going to place limits to music?

  3. What was I going to listen to, and how would I even find what to listen to?

Regarding the first question, my choice was between CDs, MP3s, and vinyl. First off, CDs would require me to invest in a CD player as well as a Discman (supposing the latter are even available anymore). CD players do however have an array of moving parts, and expecting to be able to find the spare parts for one of these built-to-be-obsolete gizmos at some point in the future – if not in the present – is a complete joke. On the other hand an iPhone's battery will eventually be rendered useless, but so long as you keep it plugged into your power source (as a CD player also requires) you should be okay. The iPhone may of course mysteriously conk out and render you SOL, but that's how these things (don't) work. So as both options are rather equal in their futility, the convenience and portability of the iPhone – and the fact that I got a free ("obsolete") one – makes it the way to go. (As an aside, I would never actually purchase a brand new Apple product.)

Does the iPhone beat out vinyl though? For my present purposes of portability it obviously does. But for the long-term (and by "long-term" I mean at least several decades after collapse really kicks in) it may be vinyl that takes the cake here. Fact is, my iPhone is going to become un-operational sometime sooner than later, its files are going to become corrupted or succumb to digital rot, or whatever. Vinyl, as long as you manage to take good care of it all, is going to last. Yes, record players also have moving parts, but find yourself a sturdy-enough model from the 70s or so (as well as a few extra needles and such) and if something goes wrong with it you'll pretty much be able to repair it with a bunch of bailing twine.

In summation, MP3s are the way to go for the present and, if available, their equivalent on vinyl for the longer term.

Already got it on MP3s, but I'm going to have to make sure my preps are stocked with a vinyl copy of that one

Next up, where to buy albums from? Apple's iTunes store is absolutely out of the question since its DRM (Digital Rights Management) means you can only play your purchases on your Apple hardware and/or with Apple software. Another option is the rarely mentioned Google Play service, which like iTunes has both downloading and streaming services but which comes with the added advantage that one's MP3 downloads/purchases can be played on any device. I of course hate giving Google even a penny of my money, so when possible I'd much rather purchase albums/MP3s directly from a music label or musician's website, even if for whatever reason said purchases cost a few bucks more (a few bucks which would go to the label and/or musicians anyway, not a bad prospect at all).

To play the music on my phone-plan-deficient iPhone would then require an extra app to listen to it all with since I don't want to use Apple's iTunes in any way. The best I've found is CloudBeats, an app that downloads (and/or streams) audio files from a cloud service that you've previously uploaded your music to. (While I find the iPhone version of the app to be great, I've read that the Android version isn't quite as good.)

But before I'd given thought to any of that, and before the thought of placing limits to music even crossed my mind, what went through my head was, Do I really want to enter into the world of music again (the dreaded "music scene"), what with all the cooler-than-thou aura that permeates and taints so much of it? Secondly, and supposing the whole thing wasn't completely wrapped in rampant narcissism, was there even anything I'd want to listen to?

I was quite sure that the latter issue wasn't going to entail something from my previous library since hearing many of those sounds generally made me feel like I was back in the narcissistic world of filmmaking, not something I cared to waste my brain cells on. On top of that, even "just" 600 albums would be too much to choose from – and we're talking music that was all over the gamut here, from Johann Strauss Jr. to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Beatles to Led Zeppelin, Robert Johnson to John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Miles Davis to Charles Mingus, Buena Vista Social Club to The Squirrel Nut Zippers, Tom Waits to The Lounge Lizards, and on and on and on. While I haven't minded overhearing some of that stuff while I've been out and about or at a friends' place, the thought of re-purchasing any of what I used to listen to and then consciously choosing to play it absolutely repulsed me. So anything from my previous library was out of the question.

Until, that is, a somewhat obscure group of musicians popped back into my head, one that I can't remember how I initially discovered them, meaning they were likely one of the shots-in-the-dark I (aptly?) stole via Hotline. That this was the only group of musicians that I was all that interested in listening to again shouldn't have come as all that surprising to me, considering my previous history.

Back in 2002 I was making a few stops in Europe to visit extended family, at one point departing a train at the Brussels train station where I was to call my father's cousin to get picked up. But before I was able to locate a phone I couldn't help but overhear a sound echoing throughout the tunnels with the most intense ferocity I'd ever heard in my life, leaving me with no choice but to let my ears lead the way. That eventually got me in front of a fellow playing at breakneck speed on an instrument I'd never seen before, rendering me unable to do anything but just stand there – in awe – for I don't know how long.

(photo courtesy of Iain R. West)

I ended up being extremely late for my rendezvous, but being completely jacked up on this guy's playing – I later learned he was playing a cimbalom – I decided to scrap the phone call, grab a map, and with luggage in tow make my way across Brussels to my destination. Well it turns out that had of I promptly called to be picked up I would have been joining my father's cousin and her husband for an evening before the Brussels Symphony Orchestra, something they had acquired tickets for ahead of time and which I would have likely found interesting. Whoops.

Nonetheless, I mentioned to my father's cousin's husband the musician I'd seen, the mesmerising player who I don't think even the entire Brussels Symphony Orchestra could have captivated me as much.

He was playing an instrument I'd never seen before, and if I understood what he said correctly, I think he said it was 'seeganee' music.

"Ah yes, Tzigane. Gypsy music."

What? Gypsy music? I don't think so. He said 'seeganee'.

While on the one hand I had zero belief that the musician was a Gypsy, I also had no idea what a Gypsy was supposed to look like or even was. As well, let's just say that I was staying in the richer part of Brussels, and I wasn't sure how advisable it was to go around making it known that I had liked what was supposedly Gypsy music. Fortunately my extended family wasn't prejudiced in the slightest.

"Yes, Tzigane. That's a French term for Gypsy."

On top of the fact that my father's cousin's husband was correct (let's just say that I should have known better than to question this guy's knowledge) and that I'd missed out on the Orchestra, it was nearly a decade and a half later – via one particular album by the only group of musicians that for some reason I was drawn to re-listen to – that I'd again, but unknowingly, laid ears on an Orkestar. And after those ten-plus years in the musical wilderness – and what are the chances of this? – it was the Orkestar that then led me directly to the most astounding sound I expect to ever lay ears on.

So while I was intent on trying to place some limits to music – a maximum amount of albums?, a maximum amount of musicians?, certain genres?, local only?, nothing electrified and so only acoustic? – I quickly found out that there's virtually no need for placing limits to music when you can hardly bring yourself to listen to anything else but a single group of out-of-this-world of-this-world musicians.

If you recognize these guys then you know they're not the kind of people you want to bump into in a dark alley and unwittingly find yourself in the middle of a brass battle with (photo © Arne Reinhardt)
 

Jawboning on the collapse of industrial civili­s­a­tion & the renewal of culture. READ MORE