The physical era has come and gone, and the digital era is here to make our lives most convenient. The modern age has brought us streaming subscription services that eliminate the need for private movie collections. E-readers that allow us to read almost any book in print without ever touching a page. Digital picture frames that ostensibly make it possible for us to hang a Basquiat painting in your home without spending millions at a private gallery. With the ubiquity of music streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify, ownership of a physical product is no longer necessary to enjoy your favorite artists. With a nominal monthly fee, we can have access to all the music we could ever listen to on demand. Now that the physical era is over, does the loss of tactility in the digital era cause us to have less of a personal investment in the music we listen to?
Leaving a CD behind somewhere meant not only that I couldn’t listen to it later, but also that I no longer owned that album.
Once upon a time, the heady, fabled days of the 1990s were not yet a time American capitalists looked back upon with wistful nostalgia. They were real. In the late 90s, the Physical Era reached its peak, and I carried my Discman with me almost everywhere. As a young teenager with a backpack already full of schoolbooks, I had to be very selective about my portable catalog. No more than three CDs could come with me without risking my books destroying the jewel cases. Later, of course, I would upgrade to the precursor of yesterday’s portable MP3 player. The zip-closed vinyl-covered CD binder, allowed me to leave my jewel cases at home, while still allowing me to have access to some of my collection on the go. Even in this, there was the ever-present danger that I could lose one of my albums. Leaving a CD behind somewhere meant not only that I couldn’t listen to it later. Also, I no longer owned that album any more, and it most likely now belonged to someone else. If I really loved that album, I would have to buy it again.
In June of 1999, Napster was born, and the digital music revolution began. In October of 2001, during my senior year of high school, Apple released the first generation of iPods and the digital music revolution was won. Instead of being limited to three, or 20, or even 100 CDs, I could carry enough music in my pocket to play uninterrupted for 60 days straight. This music was thanks to the internet, ostensibly free, and I still had ample storage space to spare. As a rabid listener of music, an album completist, and a broke high school student with no source of income, I was in digital heaven. Now, with today’s streaming services and an almost ubiquitous wifi network presence, there is little incentive whatsoever for consumers to own physical, or even digital, copies of their favorite music. Why waste precious storage space on downloading music files, when there are so many pictures and videos to take, games to play, and texts to receive. Seriously, just go check your phone’s storage; I’d bet your texts are taking up as much storage space on your phone as the next three items on the list!
Now that we no longer need to purchase every (or any) album or song we want to hear, do we feel the same connection to the art we encounter? Capitalism judges an individual’s success by financial worth, and we display our wealth to others with the items we’ve purchased. One could make the argument that what a person values can be determined by where and on what they spend their money. In the physical era, we owned more than a tactile copy of an artist’s album. We also, in a sense, owned a stake in that artist’s development and journey as an artist. We were emotionally as well as financially involved in who these people were. We were literally and figuratively invested, and as any good capitalist does, we hoped for a return on that investment.
In both nature and capitalism, if you’re not growing, you’re dying.
Maybe we expected the next album to hit us harder, cut us deeper, explore further, or even deliver more of the same quality we saw initially. It would be impossible to make the argument that we as a society are less emotionally invested in our music. That’s entirely subjective, and everyone must speak for themselves in that regard. However, there is no denying we are less financially invested in music. In September of 1994, according to Billboard, the highest selling album of the year by that point was Ace of Base’s “The Sign.” Moving 3.8 million units, it was followed by Counting Crows “August and Everything After with 2.9 million. Eventually, The Lion King soundtrack at 2.8 million would overtake Ace of Base to become 1994’s best-selling album.
With artists such as Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Tim McGraw, and R. Kelly also all selling over two million albums each. By comparison, in September of 2014, the highest selling album of the year was again a soundtrack, this time Frozen, selling three million units. The similarities end here, with the next four entries in 2014’s best-seller list: Beyoncé’s self-titled album, Lorde’s Pure Heroine, Eric Church’s The Outsiders, and Coldplay’s Ghost Stories, all selling just over 700,000 units each. A paltry sum by 1994’s standards. While those numbers are still profitable for their respective labels, they’re a slow death knell for the larger recording industry when compared to the levels they saw twenty years prior. In both nature and capitalism, if you’re not growing, you’re dying.
Certainly, the digital era has brought much to celebrate. It allows musicians of all kinds to have their music heard by a larger audience. With skillful use of hosting sites, a well-crafted online presence, and being heard and written about by the right blog, someone’s basement project can become “the next big thing.” If such a thing even exists at all anymore.
Additionally, artists are no longer bound by the creative limitations imposed by a label seeking to please the most musical palates possible. Musicians are free to explore the furthest boundaries of their art and experiment with new sounds and concepts. They can even explore the very idea of what “music” can be. With access to a never-ending amount of instantly available music for a paltry $10 a month, musicians have to essentially give themselves away for free if they want to be heard at all. Exactly how much, or how little, Spotify pays artists for plays is a fascinating topic of discussion.
Ultimately, art is not simply a commodity to be passively consumed. Art is an expression of how we see ourselves, for both the creator and the listener. The artist, obviously, has both a financial and emotional investment in their creation. We, too, as consumers, must be invested in the art that speaks to us, because investing in art is more than receiving a physical (or even digital) product. It is an investment in who we are, as both individuals and a society, and who we want to be. Invest in art, and by doing so, invest in yourself.