Musical Interaction or Lack Thereof

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant with a friend and one of his friends, Kevin, whom I’d just met.  We were talking about music.  Specifically, we were talking about music collections. Kevin talked about how his collection was all CDs, which he had organized in a particular way: By artist, then by release date.  Some people will recognize the seriousness that it takes for that organization.  As close as I get is to organize them by artist, and even then I find that there are discs that haven’t found their way into any semblance of order beyond randomness.

Kevin went on to explain that by in large, the physical discs had given way to the digital collection that he’d amassed through iTunes.  Which then led to a discussion of the iPhone 4S which had been unveiled the previous afternoon.  Kevin already had his on order, and went on to explain why it (1) should have been expected  and the iPhone 5 shouldn’t have and (2) why its features, Siri in particular, combined with GPS, is so crucial.

And then we wound our way back to music, and talked about why music is now primarily digital, not on vinyl or aluminum-coated polycarbonate.

Which brings me to Steve Jobs.

iTunes has massively changed the way we listen.  It has massively changed the way we get music. It has massively changed expectations.  Although the big-box stores pretty much put the lid on the coffin of small record stores, iTunes nailed it shut.  Yes, you can find the random record store here and there. Just as you can find the occasional bookstore.

When record stores existed, chances were good that you could find like-minded people either going through the stacks or behind the counter who you’d engage with, who you’d learn things from, who you might end up spending some time with.

Now, what, Facebook?

Sure, there’s community.  There’s a community here.  Yet that community isn’t the physical, tangible interaction that was once a part of the music-buying experience.

Now you tell Siri to remind you to buy the new whatever whenever it comes out.


So as the paeans to Steve Jobs—many of which are truly deserved—continue, I’ve just got to wonder whether the whole digital musical phenomenon is an good in an unalloyed sense—hell, even that metaphor based on material no longer holds.

6 thoughts on “Musical Interaction or Lack Thereof”

  1. While the masses are less and less likely to shop the few remaining record stores, the music fanatics and niche lovers will still rummage through dusty stacks. The slices get thinner but they still exist. I buy a lot of music on iTunes AND via old fashioned neighborhood shops, and those few remaining shops I frequent are generally hopping with real live music fans–on both sides of the counter. This reordering of the music industry is all about the music nuts separating from the masses and the smarter companies (including indies at all points in the supply chain) recognize it and stake out their claims. I, for one, am a happier music buyer for it.

  2. You can debate what iTunes has done to record stores, yes, but it was clearly the continuation of a trend. I was more often than not frustrated by the limited stock of most record stores I had access to, and was (and still am) mostly buying CDs at shows and online throughout the iTunes Music Store’s rise to prominence.

    Likewise, record stores were never a source of musical advice; that role fell to friends and sites like this one.

    Setting that aside, the actual iTunes software, the iPod, and AirTunes/AirPlay have changed the way I listen to music, and for the better. Jobs was passionate about music and anything he did that may or may not hurt the music industry was more than offset by the good he did for music listeners.

  3. The iPod has definitely changed the way I listen to music. It’s pretty amazing how completely transformed I am as a listener. iTunes allows me to systematically make sure I listen to all my good music on a regular basis. I have incredibly convoluted playlists that mix up songs I haven’t listened to in a while with recent stuff I’ve just added to the library, etc, etc., and I listen to this all on shuffle all day long while I work. It’s awesome. It’s the Maggot Brain come to life, and I love it.

    That said, I never buy anything from the iTunes Music Store.

  4. Back in the day there were albums that were hard to find – but findable with a lot of work – and albums I’d heard of that were utterly invisible. Nowadays I can find whatever I want, which has led me to try out all sorts of music.

    I love my iPod, and I’m fine with the iTunes store. Once a month or so I go to the local CD store (Newbury Comics), but for the most part I don’t even care about having the physical CD, because I’m listening on the go, not sitting in a dim bedroom poring over the pictures and lyrics. Maybe I’d feel different if I were still sixteen.

    This is a golden age for music, and I only wish it had started sooner.

  5. The move to all-digital was inevitable, especially for music and video. Books still have a much higher ease-of-use than their digital counterparts (for now, anyway), but music was doomed to be digital ever since the compact disc.

    Steve Jobs was probably the only one in corporate America who understood that fact. Love iTunes or hate it, you gotta admit he was all over that shit while the RIAA was still dancing on Napster’s grave.

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