Musical metaphysics

See Peter Aspden’s “Lots going for a song these days” in this morning’s Financial Times. Writing his regular weekend On Culture column, Aspen tells us that culture “has never been so cheap”. Aspen celebrates what he calls the “democratization of luxury” in which the relationship between money and culture has changed sufficiently to enable all of us to be able to consume unprecedented amounts of both recorded and live music. Positioning himself somewhere between Tom Friedman and Karl Marx, Aspen defines this as the “flattening of the cultural class system”:

"Wandering around a discount CD store in my neighbourhood recently filled me with an unexpected melancholy. Not because it was full of good things I couldn’t afford; and not because it was full of bad things that I was not remotely tempted to buy. It was the reverse of both of those cases. The store was stacked high with some of the greatest albums ever made - Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan, Hejira by Joni Mitchell, and so on - all on offer for £5."

Aspen’s melancholia is understandable. We all would love to be that twelve year old who, on a trip to his local record store, innocently picks up Kind of Blue, Blood on the Tracks and Hejira for fifteen pounds (around $28). The kid has never heard any of them. He takes the discs home, unwraps them, pops in Blood on the Tracks and hears the beginning of “Tangled up in Blue”, the first song on the album:

Early one mornin' the sun was shinin',
I was layin' in bed
Wond'rin' if she'd changed at all
If her hair was still red.

How can one quantify the return-on-investment(ROI)  on this purchase? For not much more than the price of a metro ticket, the kid will have changed his life forever. And that’s just “Tangled up in Blue” -- before he’s been seduced by the rest of Blood on the Tracks and by Hejira and Kind of Blue.

But back to the ROI on the acquisition. In traditional economic terms, we consumers of cultures are rational – but we are like venture capitalists, sprinkling our investments liberally, waiting for that huge hit, that Google, which will make us rich. Only this wealth is metaphysical rather than economic. The return on that tiny investment in Blood on the Tracks needs to be measured in derived enjoyment and meaning rather than financially.

Underneath Aspden’s column is a provocative piece by Christopher Grimes with the ominous title of “Sleeveless in today’s cyberspace.” Grimes, a vinyl and CD junkie, confesses to losing in interest in buying digital downloads because of their lack of cover art. Grimes was once a keen music collector, but is now not inspired to buy digital music . Describing the difference in his relationships between buying physical records and digital downloads, he says:

“Buying an album feels like a long-term thing – a little like getting married. But downloading music is more like a one-night stand, without cover art. I just don’t feel that sense of commitment.”

Therein lies the crisis of the recording industry. The magic of buying music is disappearing. Digital commodifies music in the same way as promiscuous sex corrupts romantic love. Indeed, digital reduces its value so radically that some visionaries (Gerd Leonhard, for example) imagine the economic future of music as being akin to a utility, such as water or electricity.

So Aspden’s argument about the flattening of the cultural class system is only half the story. Sure, cheaper physical product isn’t a bad thing. But the digital revolution will eventually result in the disappearance of the record store and, even more ominously, the end of music as a thing of metaphysical value.