Some thoughts on the decade

What does music mean to you?

 

I grew up a good 20 minute drive away from any record stores. Though I went to school in Bedford, the mall was a half-hour walk away and lunchtime trips were a rare occurrence for me and my vehicle-deprived friends. If I desperately required a new record, I would often get my father – who worked downtown in the same building as HMV – to pick it up, handing him an exquisitely-detailed order (sometimes even with visuals). The work involved in buying albums meant that CD collection could easily fit in the small, plastic turnstile in my bedroom.

A decade later, my CD collection sits in my living room. It splits between two wooden shelves and a metal contraption I picked up at a yard sale. Its growth was fueled by extensive summertime purchases during my university years, and by the fact that I now live within a 10 minute walk from no less than four record stores. But its sprawl pales in comparison to my iTunes library, which now contains more than 27 days worth of music – a staggering volume of sound.

And I’m not even close to unique.

It’s more than just the question of “free.” Yes, the rise of Napster and BitTorrents has meant that individuals have been able to raid each other’s hard drives for songs and albums and collect gigantic music libraries that would previously have been restricted to the super-rich and/or super-crazy. But even for those who pay for their music, our access to new noise is no longer restricted by geography or store stock. I can quickly – and affordably – buy vinyl records straight from labels, all around the world. I can browse through iTunes and find long-forgotten gems and best-forgotten garbage that spans the history of recorded music. I can stream music videos on my time, anytime. I can have anything I want.

But is any of it “mine”?

There’s been a lot of talk this decade about how the music industry model is broken and much discussion – most of it going nowhere – about how to fix it. The digital age was a double-whammy: not only did it make music widely available, but it’s the first time that the industry wasn’t able to leverage a technology change to make everyone buy their old records again. And the industry’s unwillingness to see this change coming and react quickly to it has stripped every ounce of control and power they once had from their fingers.

There are many people – smart people – who believe that “streaming” is the future of music, that the only way we can convince people that music is worth paying for is to offer up the farm for a monthly price: entire libraries of music, available at your command from the Internet (mobile or otherwise). The problem, though, is that not a single startup company in this regard – from Rhapsody through to Spotify – has really caught fire.

Which gives me hope, actually.

To me, streaming’s victory would be a saddening defeat for the possibility of music, a cold acceptance that music plays a transient, fleeting role in our daily lives. Already, this decade has represented the slow approach to a state where music is less an extension and amplification of ourselves – our ambitions, fears, hopes, pleasures – and instead another frame on our divided computer screens, part and parcel of our split, demassified lives. At times, I feel as if the music in my life is just another brick in the wall, instead of a grenade tossed towards it or a light shining through the holes.

I believe that ownership of music matters. It matters to the artist who creates it, and it matters to the customer who purchases/takes it. It’s a shared signifier that art is not effuse and vapourous but a tangible part of our lives – a part that shapes us, defines us and rewrites us every time we put a new record on the stereo or slot up a new download into our playlist. For the 40 minutes that album plays (or for the 3-5 minutes of an individual song) it doesn’t belong to my neighbour or my friend or my enemy. It belongs to me and its author alone, and we’re both changed by the experience. And when we all break apart from our intimate surroundings and begin to share – be with conversation in a coffee shop, with our feet in a dance club or with our lungs in a concert hall – music becomes something even more wonderful than “mine.” It becomes “ours.”

This is why in preparing my decade lists, which will roll out here at McNutt Against the Music over the next two weeks, I’ve resisted working from somewhat simple extremes – the “best” records or my “favourite” records – and instead built something that will often seem like an awkward compromise. So be it. Any attempt to separate personal tastes from collective tastes not only seems foolish, but antiquated. We’re living in a decade where the lines between “popular” and “alternative,” drawn in concrete in the 1960s and 1970s, were not only blurred but, in many cases, erased outright. Our music collections raid from anywhere and everywhere that makes sense to us. As such, these lists of mine (singles this week, albums next) are a futile effort at being both extremely personal but still a reasonable assessment of the best the decade had to offer. Which will probably frustrate anyone who reads it, myself included.

But it’s worth the effort. Because for all the noise, this was a decade of revelation: songs, albums, performances worth screaming from rooftops (or blogs) about, worth wholeheartedly embracing as part of our lives. There were new sources for critical analysis, new destinations for seeking out new discoveries. There were old favourites making good on their promise, and fresh faces burning out before their time but leaving glorious ash in their wake. Even if the Internet eats itself in the decade(s) to come, and the role that music plays in our lives changes to something unrecognizable, I feel as if we owe it to ourselves to, each in our own way, take stock of this remarkable decade and how it sounds shaped and defined us.

So what does music mean to me? The same thing it did 10 years ago: everything.

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