Few things in the world rival the power and uniqueness of music. It has been around since the earliest humans and is found in every single culture in the world. It is agreed that music can alter moods, communicate any imaginable thing and literally change the world. But one thing people have continually debated is how much the message or experience of music can be affected by the way a person hears or experiences it. For example, how different is a song heard live in concert than when heard on CD? How are our experiences and understandings of music changed by different mediums?
We’ve all experienced falling in love with a song after we’ve heard it for the first time while with a significant other or during some other enjoyable experience. I’ve even been guilty of starting to listen to Johnny Cash after I saw the film Walk the Line, despite having no interest in his music before. It’s clear that there are more factors that play a role in the way we see, hear and experience music than just the notes.
I work with college students, and I often notice what music they have been listening to. But something I notice even more is how little of their music is physically on a CD, or if it is on CD, how often it is burned on one that is silver and faceless. I’ve also noticed how a computer with speakers and iTunes has replaced most students’ stereos, and also how many students walk around campus with the now famous white headphones from iPods in their ears (ingenious marketing, by the way).
It’s not my goal here to wade into the issue of mp3s. Napster, pirated music and slumping CD sales have brought this issue into the limelight and plenty of people have written, discussed and thought about it. In fact, because of all the hype with record companies and mp3s, I think we’ve actually missed another large and important issue facing music right now that has emerged with the onset of digital music. It’s this: If a large part of music consists in what is beyond just the notes and also includes the experience of the medium (the method by which the music is listened to), shouldn’t we ask if digital technology has changed the way we all see, experience and listen to music?
As a huge music fan, one of my favorite parts of an artist/band releasing a new album is being able to see the entire theme of the work. I take a good, long look at the CD cover, back cover, booklet and even the art on the actual disc, and ask myself questions like: What does this say about the music that is on this album? What does it communicate? What does it say about the experience the artist had creating the music? It’s just a guess (actually, I think a fact), but I think the average musician spends considerable time and thought on the choice of album art and works hard on the entire product to make it communicate something that joins seamlessly with the ideas, feelings and emotions that are in the actual music.
A musical artist’s work goes way beyond the actual songs, and thus I think we should approach popular music in a holistic way, seeing an album or an artist’s work as not merely something to consume for our own entertainment and satisfaction, but as a complex and intricate piece of art that tells a story and that is more than just the notes and melodies that stick in our head.
Many of the people I know who use iPods are often oblivious to the album art connected to the song they are hearing, or for that matter, what album the song is actually from. On an iPod or computer, songs are just lists of titles that aren’t really distinguished from one another. I can’t count how many times I have seen an mp3 playlist with a song from Death Cab for Cutie right next to a song from Ludacris, or one from Jack Johnson right next to Britney. “So what?” you might ask. “It’s not wrong to like all different kinds of music.” No it isn’t, but does this mixing of music take away from the art form of a music album, and does it cater to our consumerist culture of instant gratification?
The fact that digital music allows its users to pick and choose songs based on what grabs them at that moment doesn’t seem to allow for much development of taste for the songs that don’t immediately jump out, but were put on the album by the artist for a reason nonetheless. The fact is that when technology is combined with art in a consumer society, art becomes just another commodity that can be collected, consumed and disposed. When this happens, music loses all its art, and is treated the opposite way it should be.
I’m not trying to knock iPods, mp3s and the digital age of music. As with anything, especially concerning technology or culture, there are negatives and positives. There are many great benefits to digital music as well. Probably the biggest benefit is that emerging artists/bands have a way to get their music out without having to rely on mega-million dollar record companies who no longer hold distribution power for unproven artists. Also, iPods allow people to listen to music in situations and places that they wouldn’t have been able to before the coming of mp3s. But it’s very clear that there are also significant downsides to the way digital music has changed our listening habits and the way it has started altering our basic view of popular music.
Marshall McLuhan, a communication theorist from the 1960s and 70s, is most famous for his tagline “The medium is the message.” If there is any truth to this, and I believe there is, we need to carefully examine how this new medium of music changes the way we view, experience and consume (or not consume) the art form of popular music. Clearly, we can’t approach it in a black and white way. There are both benefits and concerns that iPods and mp3s bring to the picture of the already complex world of popular music and art. However, I encourage all music listeners to think through these issues and not become mindless consumers to whom corporations sell digital music in ways that disregard its art form.