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Hip to the Groove #9: Past Present, Future Imperfect
by Tom Körp
Hip to the Groove #9: Past Present, Future Imperfect
A MOMENT OF SILENCE, IF YOU WILL

It is an unnerving experience for a music enthusiast, walking into the final days of a record shop’s close-out sale. Hectic yet sombre, like a funeral-turned-rummage sale, the gathered mourners paying their respects right before (or even after) picking over the deceased’s estate. Listless, soon-to-be-unemployed clerks standing idle whilst curious shoppers and serious bargain-hunters bump elbows and cross hands, trading quiet pleasantries and reflexively begging pardons as they nudge, sidestep, murmur and finger-flick through the remaining scraps.

And they are scraps. Mostly Top 40 fodder, one-hit wonders, unimpressive (or simply unnecessary) “greatest hits” collections, the painfully generic pabulum of years past. Meaning that the professional liquidators and serious collectors have already come and gone, cherry-picking the more-readily-saleable new releases and the potentially valuable limited editions and imports, snatching up the critically acclaimed albums by culturally relevant artists, and leaving little more than piles of offal and barely-organized chaos in their wake.

Hence the dusty shelves and empty aisles flanking an intermingled hodgepodge of genres—Latin, Broadway, Hip-hop, Classical, R&B, Pop/Rock, Heavy Metal, Folk, Jazz, Country, World, Compilation, Anthology, Live Recording, Concert DVD—all amassed in some crazed, dyslexic attempt at alphabetical order. The R’s tossed in with the M’s, the W’s sitting alongside the D’s. The used thrown in with the new, seemingly at random, orange stickers and cracked jewel cases peeking out amidst the reflected fluorescent glare of crisp shrink-wrap and as-yet-unbroken security seals.

It is a glorious mess, really, and there is naught to do but dig, and dig deeply—to try to find something of value or personal interest, anything at all, if only to serve as an excuse to make one final purchase, to ease the pain of the store’s closing, to take advantage of such great savings. Fifty percent off, eighty percent off. Everything must go!

So rifle, rummage, pick and choose. Splurge. Take chances. Take as much as you can. Take stock of your fistfuls of records before shuffling over to the register queue. Attempt to stifle your shopper’s high and barely-contained glee at the unexpected finds (Melt-Banana’s Cactuses Come in Flocks, a Minor Threat anthology, the re-mastered reissue of Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary) and absurdly huge discounts (Portishead’s Third 2xLP, still sealed, marked down to $2.60). Adopt an appropriately remorseful mien when it becomes your turn to pay. Offer either sympathetic silence or awkward words of condolence and encouragement to the harried clerks at the register. Try and make one last passing connection with these bizarre rock-star look-alikes, all piercings, tattoos, and carefully-coifed heads. The old guard: Steven Tyler’s Bastard Son, Heavy Metal Dude, Eager Punk Kid, Aging Alt-Rock Manager. Misfits and caricatures, sure—but they were your misfits and caricatures. Try not to miss them too much.

Moreover, try not to miss it too much—the dedicated shopping mall record shop, bastion of suburban youth, brightly-lit purveyor of LPs, cassettes and VHS tapes, CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, posters, t-shirts, accessories, and assorted pop-cultural tschotchkes—for it is soon to be gone, and it is never coming back.

You can thank the Digital Revolution for that.

SAY HELLO TO THE FUTURE, SAY GOODBYE TO THE PAST

Let me make a few things clear: I am not some Internet-eschewing, technophobic Neo-Luddite. The very fact that you are reading this feature online should tell you as much.

Nor am I what you might consider a devout technophile. Tech savvy, maybe, but I am hardly one of those compulsive early-adopters who life-hack their way towards an ultra-productive futuro-minimalist utopia—which, I imagine, looks something like a brightly-lit and WiFi-enabled Brutalist cube, furnished with little more than a wall-sized flat-panel monitor, a tablet computer, and a multi-purpose sofa/futon/table/bench made of reclaimed oak or engineered wood. Functional and aesthetically pleasing, sure, but hardly livable.

What I am, then, is divided with regards to this ongoing transition from physical to digital media, and dismayed that my inveterate love of tangible goods has begun to run up against the minimalist, anti-mercantile appeal of ethereal downloads and limitless data streams. Shelves packed with novels, vinyl records, and compact discs giving way to remotely-stored and -accessed MP3s and PDFs; once-proud film libraries humbled by the breadth and depth of on-demand programming; painstakingly personal collections absorbed and denatured by the endless, all-subsuming “cloud”.

So I cling to my quaint, archival storage mediums, my books, albums, films, photographs, posters, and paintings, as though they were priceless relics—this due in no small part to the nagging suspicion that, once their contents are uploaded to that great big data dump in the sky, their real-world counterparts will inevitably be consigned to the dustbin of history. Boxed up and warehoused, sold off en masse, scrapped, hocked for pocket change on eBay and GEMM, lost in the muddle of local flea markets, swap meets, and thrift stores. Reduced to blatant obsolescence—disused, ill-used, or forgotten entirely.

It is an unsettling notion, to be sure, and eerily epochal. Yet it is nowhere near as paranoid as it sounds, especially in the wake of the game-changing promulgation of digitized media via P2P file-sharing and vendors like Apple’s iTunes, Amazon’s Kindle store, Hulu Plus, and Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” service. If you have been reading along over the past year or two, then you have likely noticed that more than a few of my album reviews and “Hip to the Groove” features have dealt, both acutely and obliquely, with the pros and cons of this ongoing Digital Revolution. The ever-increasing availability of donation-based and/or for-free album downloads from independent artists, the phasing-out of once-prominent brick-and-mortar rental/retail chains due to increased competition from mail- and web-based rental services, the precarious balancing act of competitive pricing, profitability, and product scarcity in the retail music market, the painful metamorphoses and rampant downsizing of the newspaper and music industries—all of these are predicated upon the ascendancy of the Internet, the dawn of new media, and the gradual decline of traditional media’s more physical/obtainable/saleable trappings.

Even then, such observations are reactions to little more than the first tentative steps in media’s far-from-finished migration from the tangible and static to the ethereal and interactive. Which is, itself, something of a generational shift: hardly unprecedented, wholly unavoidable.

Enter the so-called “Millennial” and “Net” Generations—children of the 1980s and onward (myself among them), many of whom have never truly known a world without the Internet and digital media, and thusly lack the deeply sentimental and/or habitual attachments to physical media which their parents and grandparents possess. Lovers of convenience, the Millennials and Nets are poised on the precipice, Internet-enabled devices in hand, ready and willing to embrace the uncluttered and egalitarian promise of the Information Age. Which is: the wholesale digitization of media, on-demand access to everything, everywhere, at all times, with the ability to influence, alter, and affect it at will. Preferably free of charge.

And yet, despite knowing that old media’s days have long been numbered—that physical storefronts and storage mediums have already begun their steady decline into obscurity—I have nevertheless managed to go about my day-to-day as though the inevitably all-digital future were still far, far away. Foolishly, it would seem.

You see, like countless other Millennials, I toe the line between the physical and the digital on a daily basis, digesting and excreting countless emails, tweets, status updates, video clips, and online articles via my desktop computer and smartphone, only to curl up with an actual book, newspaper, or magazine at day’s end. This, rather than invest in an e-reader or tablet computer, which could easily handle all of the aforementioned activities, and far more ergonomically at that. I use my smartphone to text, check email, and browse the web far more often than I use it to make a phone call. I collect albums—CD’s, LP’s, and 45’s—yet I do most of my regular listening via my iPod and iTunes library, plus tailored song-streaming via Last.fm. I am an avid illustrator, yet I principally draw and paint using a Wacom tablet and Adobe Photoshop. I keep track of the specific schedules of broadcast television and basic cable programs only because I do not watch enough of them to justify the expense of a DVR or a subscription to an On-Demand package. I have been known to watch season’s and series’ worth of shows on Hulu—for free—even as I make plans to purchase their respective DVD collections.

Personal preferences notwithstanding, this is one sloppy mess of contradictions. Can I and others like me honestly expect to be able to have our cake and eat it too? Can we continue to toe that line in perpetuity, blithely ignoring the inherent conflict between the tangible and the ethereal? Between physical permanence and digital fluidity? Or are we simply refusing to read the writing on the wall-post?

It is a loaded line of self-questioning, and one which was brought to the fore by a recent online conversation turned amiable debate with my friend Ryan, who is, by his own admission, both a futurist and a technophile (as well as something of a Macolyte; no harm in that). What began with Ryan making an observation about the success of the iPad (over 14.8 million units sold in the first nine months) and its implications for the future of tablet computers—countered by my own doubts as to the usefulness of what I termed a mere “supplemental gadget”—soon developed into forward-thinking assertions as to the likely speed, processing power, and versatility of future tablets, the growing importance of remote computing and data storage/retrieval via “the cloud”, and dire predictions for the lifespan of the increasingly passé optical disc.

For his part, Ryan gave CD/DVD/Blu-Ray technology a brief five years before fading into obscurity, whereas I, ever the nostalgic holdout, voiced hope for a full decade of mainstream marketability before the optical disc’s inevitable decline. At which point it would, I claimed, settle into that same marginal, aestheto-fetishistic niche occupied by vinyl records, cassette tapes, Super 8, Polaroid instant film, and Kodachrome. The optical disc is firmly entrenched, I reasoned. Though fading, it is a mainstay of the music, film, computer, and videogame industries. It would doubtless weather the coming cloud-computing storm far better than Ryan predicted, and likely hang on far into the future as a saleable good, archival medium, and romanticized relic.

And then I learned that my local CD-centric record shop was going belly-up.

PRIDE OF OWNERSHIP, OR, YOU DO NOT OWN ANYTHING ANYMORE

Although untimely with regards to my argument with Ryan (it certainly undermined my confidence in my position), the aforementioned record shop’s closure was not entirely unexpected. The store was part of a national chain—F.Y.E., to be exact—and its parent company, Trans World Entertainment, had been reporting sagging sales for years now, with this particular shop doing little to change that. Strike one: it was one of five chain locations in a twenty mile radius, with the next closest store being less than five miles away. Strike two: it was the only one of those five to be based in New Jersey—where, according to one sales clerk, the cost of doing business is much, much higher than in neighbouring Pennsylvania. So much higher that, whereas the PA locations were selling individual CDs for $9.99 or less, the NJ store was still working within the untenable $12-18 range. Strike three: the NJ location was but a stone’s throw away from price-slashing big box stores like Target, Walmart, and Best Buy, which easily undercut sales of new releases by major artists. Talk about your perfect storm.

But, honestly, I have no overwhelming desire to rehash at length the inherent problems of the music industry and its attendant retail outlets; suffice it to say that listener-consumers, particularly those in the United States, have developed a liking for the ease, convenience, and general inexpensiveness of downloading digital music, be it through iTunes, eMusic, Amazon, Bandcamp, or flat-out piracy via torrents and P2P networks. Logistically, there is no way for a nationwide chain of stores—weighed down by the added expenses of leasing fees, personnel, shipping, warehousing, et cetera—to contend with the streamlined, server-based distribution methods of Apple and its digital competitors. It is almost foolish for brick-and-mortar retailers to even try. CD sales are sputtering, cassettes scarcely exist outside of diehard mixtape circles, and vinyl remains a niche market. Even with the supposed resurgence of the vinyl record over the past few years, most new LP’s pack in promo codes so that the buyer can then download the album in MP3 format.

The sad truth is that, eventually, some fifty or so years down the line, the go-to cohort of Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers—those who most reliably purchase albums in physical formats, and then listen to them as such—will die off. Odds are that the vast majority will find themselves downloading music long before they do.

And there is the rub: with the ascent of digital downloads, the music industry, at least with respect to album sales, is transforming itself into a service industry. In the outgoing business model—the one based on the sale of a physical product—the listener actually receives something tangible in exchange for his or her hard-earned cash. Specifically, high-fidelity music stored in an archival medium, complete with album artwork, liner notes, and (usually) transcribed lyrics. It can be listened to as-is, converted to a digital format for easy portability, placed on display, or simply stowed on a shelf or in a crate for safe-keeping. It is real, and it is owned. Certainly, it can be lost, damaged, stolen, or destroyed in a fire (worst-case scenarios), but, at least for the latter two, there is always hazard insurance.

No so much with the new media. The nascent digital model runs the gamut from pay-per-download storefronts like iTunes, eMusic, Amazon, and Bandcamp to hybrid storefront/subscription services such as Rhapsody, Napster, Spotify, and MOG. In all cases, the listener is not paying for a product so much as s/he is paying for access to a product—ergo, a service. Granted, per-download purchases provide the listener with a product of sorts, however low-fidelity and intangible, that can then be transferred to a more permanent or secure medium. Say, burned to a disc, copied to a portable MP3 player or external hard drive, or uploaded to a remote server (“the cloud”) for safe-keeping. All of which can be lost, damaged, stolen, destroyed in a fire, hacked, and/or crashed. And, while you might be able to recoup the loss of the devices themselves or obtain a rebate for disrupted hosting services, good luck getting your homeowner’s policy to cover the loss of your digital library.

This is not to say that digital music’s intangibility renders it automatically inferior to CD’s and LP’s, nor that the ease and near-universal accessibility of the MP3 has made physical formats obsolete. Yes, there is a fidelity gap between physical formats and their digital counterparts, but that gap is closing quickly, and few aside from the kitted-out audiophiles can readily tell the difference between a high-quality rip and the real McCoy, anyway. And, yes, the inherently limited and exclusive nature of many small-press CD’s and LP’s means that most people will never hear a physical copy, let alone own one. But that is beside the point. This is not a debate of which format is superior, or why.

Physical or digital, neither is truly perfect. I just hate the thought of a future where I am no longer able to choose between the two.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Features (January 25th, 2011)

Tags: beatbots, features, hip to the groove, digital media, digital revolution, the cloud


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