The Downer of Digital Music


In this day and age so much has changed in how we consume and how we live.  Technology has been the primary driver of those changes.   But for all the significant enhancements to our day-to-day lives I do feel we are replacing a sense of adventure with convenience.  A lust for now and not the search.  One area I loved dearly in my youth that has undergone fundamental change is music.   Some of my biggest changes in life and fondest memories were of finding new music and going through a journey of self discovery and self fulfillment.  I remember in 9th grade at Tillicum Junior High in my hometown of Bellevue, we had the final school dance. In order to celebrate a group of six of us decided to rent a limo, go out to eat, go the dance and then head into Seattle. It was our grand finale. After dinner and the dance we were heading into Seattle U-District to go to Arnold’s and play video games for the rest of the evening, well everyone except me I had a far grander plan…I was heading to Tower Records. So the chauffeur dropped the other 5 off at Arnold’s and drove me up to Tower Records and opened the door for me.  Many on the ave, as it was called. gazed and wondered who was this high-class dignitary?  Or so I thought (you can only imagine the kind of put together outfit a 15-year-old boy dons for such events).  When I entered the Tower records store it was like a musical Mecca.  It was completely overwhelming the aisles or records…of music.  I had never seen anything like it.  Prior to this it was the Sears record department.  I did not have much time to browse and had to decide quickly.  As I had just been introduced to the whole New Wave and Punk scene that was happening I went for the new classics. I settled on The Sex Pistols “Never Mind the Bollocks”.

Through the years, especially my high school days, I would hit Tower often, usually with my friend Carl.  The great thing was the University district had a lot of small new and used record stores as well as Tower Records..  It was fun just to adventure up and down the avenue looking for music. Looking at today’s tech driven consumer society we have seen music evolve into the digital download age and provide us avenues of access to music that are truly wonderful.  As I write I listen to Pandora, which I am completely in love with as it has allowed me to rediscover music lost in my soul and introduce me to a ton of new artists.   But in the iPod/iPhone/iTunes driven age something has been lost.  One thing I always enjoyed about an album was it was a constant process rediscovery, as often the music you originally bought the album for grow tiresome, but when a year later you played that same album you discovered new uncharted songs grabbed you attention.  Now in the download age the entire album is replaced by the purchase of individual songs.  When you burn out of that song you got on to the next latest and greatest hit, rarely listening or even being interested in listening to the artists body of work.  The album.

Buying music now is completely different as the hours spent going to record stores are replaced with the instant gratification of online retailing.  I guess the cool thing is I could be in the middle of Stanley Park, hear a song, and purchase and download within a few minutes.  Or I could be at my favorite restaurant.  Does not really matter where, to be honest.  I just need to be connected.  The days of making your girlfriend the “love” tape are gone.  No more hours spent going through albums and painstakingly recording the onto cassettes.  No reason to write down the songs with little love quotes next to them.  My wife recently found one of these tapes and read out load what I had written.  Painful.  Today you can have 20 romantic songs, title it, hit shuffle and play and be done in minutes.  Despite my nostalgia for the past I have to admit this is pretty damn cool.

Of course these dramatic changes did not just happen one day when Apple released the iPod.  It happened over time and through many changes.  The start of MTV, the move to the compact disc, Sony Walkman, peer-to-peer networking and the creation of Napster, Internet Radio, etc..But despite it all this disruption the music labels did not see the big change coming.  Focusing on short-term revenues and not envisioning long-term revenue.  How people would purchase music and when that change happened, they were ill prepared and left playing catch up in a rapidly changing digital world.  I remember an interview in Wired magazine with a VP of Sony discussing the transformation tat was going on in how music was being consumed.  This was around the time the Apple  iPod was taking off.  His view was that the hard drive was interesting technology. Interesting?!? Really?!?  I wish I could remember his name and only hope that he was fired.

These changes have also changed the artists.  It used to be taboo to be a rock start and market products, but the dear departed Michael Jackson was ahead of the game when he became the spokesperson for Pepsi.  Now it seems like pop stars are created to sell products.  Look at Brittany Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce, etc..Members of the Who must be rolling in their graves…hold it some are still alive (sorry Pete and Roger).  In fact it seems in many cases a lot of  pop stars are corporate entities.  They can cry me a river about the money and fame but in the end we all want it so I shed no tears.  The move to digital, to be fair, has caused the industry to expand on how to make money off of the artists work into new arenas.  It’s similar to comic books.  You don’t make money off the comic, but the movies and the accessories can be sold to a large buying public.

As for me, yes I have put all my music onto my PC and play on my Zune (yes I actually own one).  But recently thanks to Pandora I have had a desire to revisit my youth and go looking for music only to discover that there is not many places left to do that.  The future took off and when I went to return to my happy youth it was sadly gone.  The downer of digital music is also the downer of aging.  However I still have my memory of those days walking up and down the aisles of many record stores and the adventure it inspired and the joy it provided. I shed a tear for the departure of the album, the departure of my youth.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann October 17, 2011

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