THE BLOG
11/25/2014 08:39 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

The Discomforts Of Digital Music

When it comes to music, the mood prompted by digital technology has shifted in recent years, from carnivalesque to callous. Pop star Taylor Swift is only the latest to bring attention to the trouble musicians are in, recently withdrawing her recordings from the streaming service Spotify, protesting its royalty scheme. In light of such high-profile outrage, it is easy to forget that there are still opportunities to use the Internet to access music more ethically--Bandcamp is one, and so (I'm told) is Drip.fm. In these alternate economies, artists and audiences can mingle, and build one-to-one relationships, to a degree that was rarely possible in the analog era.

For such alternate economies to stand a chance, however, we listeners will have to become more curious, occasionally taking risks with art we might not like. Some would say that that's a lot to ask of human nature, especially in an age of profusion. When music has become yet another set of big data, choosing what to listen to can feel like an existential dilemma. A study from a few years back suggests that though we finally have our celestial jukebox, many of us are inclined to tune most of it out, gravitating toward music we think other people like. Call that laziness, or fear, or ennui--in any case, amid predictions of an otherwise bleak financial future, it's a godsend for the mainstream music industry, whose business model has always preferred that listeners obsess over superstars and hits (or, in the highbrow formulation, geniuses and masterpieces).

Indeed, more than a century since the first commercially successful recordings, that obsession seems harder than ever to shake--for record executives, artists, and fans alike. Our mania for music sanctioned by both market and culture has trickled down to even the fringiest genres. Consider an argument recently made by Jeff Winbush in a review of a new disc by the pianist Hiromi. "For jazz not only to thrive, but survive," Winbush writes, "it must begin to create its own superstars who can deliver a much-needed shot of adrenalin to the flagging art form, but possess skills in social media and marketing, creating a global brand, and finding new forms beyond record sales, radio play and live gigs in fewer clubs and concert halls to reach the new breed of jazz fans."

Call me crazy, but I think that's terrible advice, however well-intentioned--not only for jazz (which is hardly flagging, by the way), but for music as a whole. What we need are not more superstars, but none. To me, the real gift of digital technology is not the feeding frenzy of infinite free music; it's the possibility of fostering artistic communities that are viable precisely because they are intimate and idiosyncratic, and because they form spontaneously, through the unprecedented channels of communication to which we now have access. If such communities are allowed to derive from shared passion, shared passion itself will nurture economic justice.

I know the counterargument: to get quality music, you need institutions, hits, and a marketing budget big enough to feed a small country. I'm not convinced. Even in the industry's heyday, plenty of beautiful recordings were made on relatively primitive equipment, and with a serendipitous spirit (listen to Elvis's early Sun sides, for instance). Even if they hadn't been, in 2014, the state of the art has been democratized, mostly. More to the point: we no longer need the external validation of a hit single or top ten list or some other impersonal arbiter to show us where the "good stuff" is. There is so much music being made now that, whatever your taste, good stuff is everywhere. You've just got to be willing to listen for it.

The sad truth is that, whatever desire for mass ritual it fulfills, the top-down idea of music has proved to be about as culturally healthy as a factory farm, or a big box store, or a for-profit university. Concentrated into the hands of fewer people than ever, musical fame now mirrors other societal wealth imbalances ("the top 1 percent of bands and solo artists now earn 77 percent of all revenue from recorded music," Derek Thomson reports). It turns the long tail into an especially lonely place, duping too many listeners into thinking they've found what's important before they have even started looking. Indeed, we ought to stop this talk about a long tail altogether--as if some music belongs at the rump of the industry. We need a new metaphor--a "wide meadow," perhaps, with an endless variety of flora, and no one species ever getting so big that it takes over.

A recent Matthew Inman (aka "The Oatmeal") comic summarized in four frames what most critics of the situation, understandably focused on the short-term, tend to overlook. In "The State of the Music Industry," Inman moves from the big label greed of the old days, to the Internet's disruption of that system, to the digital monopolies that hound us now. But in the last frame, he envisions a future in which music is what it should have always been: a meaningful interaction between two people, probably friends. One who plays, and one who listens. Note the former middleman reduced to a whinging figure in the background.

That's what the Internet could still bring us, if we bother to meet the technology halfway. Some psychologists say our brains are wired for fluency--"people prefer things that are easy to think about," as Tom Kuntz recently put it--suggesting that we can't help mainlining the same old hits. But wiring can be rewired. A yoga teacher I know once described the feeling of reaching beyond the familiar as finding "comfort in discomfort." I like that way of putting it. If you love music, you already know it will survive the current era--but know too that how it survives may depend on your being uncomfortable, at least some of the time.

Andrew Durkin is the author of Decomposition: A Music Manifesto.

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