ONCE upon a time, back in the days when doctors prescribed twenty unfiltered navy shags for a cough and crime was accompanied by ample portion of fanciful loitering, a gleaming, brass cylinder – known in the UK as the Gramophone – revolutionised the way music could be heard by the masses. Crude-looking and difficult to lug around the neighbours’ on New Years, the Gramophone promised to bring with it what Thomas Edison envisioned only a few years before: a world in which all forms of music could be enjoyed in the comfort of one’s own home, without the inconvenience of filling the parlour with a group of moody musicians.
Fast forward, as it were, to our technology-driven cultural landscape, however, and very quickly it becomes clear even to the most casual music fan that the grand visions of history’s great inventors pale in comparison to the machinations of today’s conglomerates. Nowadays, after all, just about everywhere one turns, from Café Nero to Toys R Us, Burger King to the local Bingo, we find ourselves accompanied by tunes for each and every mood and season. It almost goes without saying: we have become voracious consumers of sound.
Yet music sales on the whole are on the wane. For eleven out twelve months, 2007 had been the worst year for the recording industry in terms of revenue for more than a quarter of a century. And as a budding songwriter myself, a predicted 11 per cent dip in money made in 2007 doesn’t bode well for my career, while talented artists are already being overlooked as risk averse big-wigs attempt to guarantee success with James Blunt clones and, of course, X-Factor winners. (HMV reported its sales increased last Christmas, bucking the trend. The cause? High sales of all the performers involved with this year’s X-Factor. Great.)
Though many would blame piracy, it is my opinion that a lot of the problems stem from Apple’s iconic iPod: a high capacity MP3 encyclopaedia so user friendly enough it caters to the diverse phonic needs of millions, yet fashionable enough to wear as a key chain around Soho. At 79p a downloaded song one need never be concerned with facing silence while using sweaty public transport again. And you just don’t need those silly compact disc racks that your mother once enjoyed dusting so much. All you really need is one moderately sized trouser pocket and you’re set.
But here is the kicker: although there are other MP3 players on the market, some a lot cheaper than the iPod, and music on the move isn’t a new phenomenon, as accessing and manipulating digital media becomes more and more simplistic it subsequently transcends all boundaries. The ubiquity and simplicity of the iPod removes the premium on finding and acquiring music to your taste. Surely we can therefore only look forward to the further degrading of music – wait for it – as an art form.
I grew up listening to albums and getting to know artists through a body of work, not listening to individual tracks. If you did happen to like just the one track back then, and it so happened to be an album track you’d heard from a live set, you were essentially forced to buy the entire LP for just that one song. Subsequently, you would find yourself listening to the rest of an artist’s work, perhaps enjoying it, perhaps wanting to hear more, and perhaps becoming a life-long fan.
This being the case, classic prog-rock albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon wouldn’t see daylight in today’s market. And remember when you first came across Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run? On first listen I personally couldn’t hear far past the title-track and the epic Jungleland, but in time, the record slowly grew on me much like mould on a fine cheese. By the fifth or sixth run-through, not only was I completely hooked on Mary, Little Steven and the gang, I was addicted to Springsteen.
The point is this: do you want Kylie’s Locomotion? Wacko-Jacko’s Thriller? Heck, do you want Bye-Bye-Baby? Well, if you do, you got it. And all at the click of a sticky mouse button. But while many will inevitably continue to purchase (or steal) these single tracks in order to cater to their immediate musical tastes, in the long run it seems any lasting connection to an artist and their work, developed in the past through our listening to and persevering with a 10-track whole, will become clouded in a world increasingly enamoured by the seductive quick-fix of a disembodied download.
Illustration by Sarah Jane Blake www.sarahjaneblake.co.uk