Sunday, September 12, 2010

Music is too freely available – and that’s a bad thing

Once upon a time you could only hear your favourite song if you travelled to a live performance. It was a special, one-off, shared experience.

bandstand busking

Bandstand busking by Dave Smith

If we wanted to hear Central African pygmies singing, we would have to travel to the Central African rainforest. But then recording arrived . . .

This post was inspired by a recent article in The Guardian: music needs to be precious again.

music becomes freely available

Initially wax cylinders were rare, delicate and expensive – as was the equipment that played them. But then came gramophone records and cheaper record players.

Next radio came and we could listen to live performances in the comfort of our own home with no effort at all. We could even hear strange songs from far-flung countries that we’d never heard before.

And now we have CDs, MP3 players, the internet, smart phones ... music at our fingertips. This is a good thing, BUT it has some serious downsides.

At this very moment I’m using the Last FM plugin to my Firefox browser to listen to tunes that My Neighbourhood has suggested. It’s great background music, but I’m not really paying attention, I don’t know who’s playing and I can skip to the next track if I’m bored.

we’ve lost something in the process

I really don’t like how my attitude to music has changed. Although it’s great that we have so much music available and we can listen to music that we would never have come across before, I believe that we have lost something in the process.

We’ve lost:

  • the communal experience – of being part of an audience listening to the same music
  • authenticity – what with auto tune and other audio manipulation, people are so used to hearing ‘perfect’ singing that anything other than that is deemed somehow ‘less’
  • cultural context – listening to an African initiation rite online or a CD of Bulgarian women bringing the harvest in is not the same in your front room
  • specialness – and uniqueness of the experience. We used to have to make an effort, but now it’s all too easy so we tend to take it for granted
  • stumbling across an unexpected delight – there is not much room for accidental discovery. Services like Last FM serve us up with “if you liked this, then we recommend this” which means we are unlikely to ever go outside our listening comfort zone
  • our appreciation of musicians and song-writers – because there is so much music on tap, we tend to under-value the talent of song-writers and musicians. Because music is so ubiquitous, we assume it just comes out of nowhere
  • becoming really familiar with a song – when I was young I used to save up my pocket money to buy an LP then listen to it again and again for months on end before I could afford another. I really listened to the music and got to know it intimately, discovering new delights each time.
  • our ability to choose – we are overwhelmed by choice. I used to be able to keep up with different genres of music, but now I just don’t know where to start because there’s simply too much to choose from, so I lose touch with the latest bands.
  • music slowly growing on you – we don’t stop to listen any more, but fast forward onto next track if a song doesn’t instantly gratify us. In the past I used to work hard at getting to know those tracks on a CD which were ‘difficult’ or not immediately pleasing. In the end, these were often the songs that stayed with me and made the most impact.
  • respect for the indigenous music of other cultures – we soak it up like water because it’s so readily available, not giving a moment’s thought to whether people are being exploited or what a song might mean to people from that culture.

a final word from Andy Kershaw

“Music and culture have never been divorced for me. How can you go to somewhere like Cambodia and have no sense of the history and the politics of the place? Music does not exist in isolation. It's dynamic, like language. It's self-referential and always changing.”

From an interview with Andy Kershaw in The Observer.

Do you agree that we’ve lost something by having music so freely available? Maybe I’ve missed out some of the things that we’ve lost, or perhaps you don’t agree with me at all. Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.


found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may like to ...

... to say thank you.





Monthly Music Round-up: