Sunday, 4 August 2013

SLL Asks The Bloggers - What Price Free?

This week I've been pondering a question that has kept me thinking ever since writing my dissertation on digital music about 7 years ago. The question is:

Does the limitless supply of free digital music prevent people from connecting with it in the way they used to?

Personally, I miss the days when I used to hear a track in a bar, club or on the radio and then make it my mission to track it down. As with most things in life, the thrill was in the chase - there's still no feeling quite like the satisfaction of finally getting that elusive track, plus the added kudos of acquiring such a hidden gem.

One of the first whites I chased relentlessly after hearing
Judge Jules open his set with it at Homelands in '99.

Having put so much energy (and usually cash) into getting hold of that new white label or rare 12, you would treasure it. In that one recording were countless hours travelling from store to store, crate-digging on hands and knees, conversing and negotiating with numerous wax pushers. You'd play it repeatedly because it was rare and valuable, often both in monetary and emotional terms - it was a way of expressing your individuality. As a result, it would take pride of place in your personal music repertoire along with a host of enduring neural attributions - emotions, events, places, people.

For the devoted trainspotter in the days of tangible record formats, a long sought-after single or album wasn't just a piece of music, it was the clearest and most personal way of capturing and subsequently recollecting a time in your life. And everyone's experienced it - most people can recall certain events in their life with the most amazing clarity when they are contextualised by a certain track.

Where the magic happened: Napier Hall in Horndean.
As photobombed by a random John Lennon fan.

I still remember my first proper kiss at a secondary school disco in a village hall near my home in Horndean. I don't remember the kiss being much cop (I think it was a fairly clumsy, sloppy affair all-round), but I do remember exactly what track was playing - Blueboy's 'Remember Me' (*ironic*). And my first proper cigarette to Dr Dre's 'Bang Bang'. And these were things that happened about 12-15 years ago. Having reached an age where I'm forgetting what I had for lunch at teatime, it goes to show just how powerful this phenomenon at least used to be.

These days the internet has given us no end of free music and ways of finding it, so the blood, sweat and tears of music discovery is no more. For every good tune we've heard for the first time, you only need to fire-up Shazam, Google the lyrics or hum the riff into an app and you're on the download. And that's if an algorithm hasn't already served you a link. So you download, listen and then typically move on to the next best thing before the track's even finished. After all, with limitless free choice, the next track might be even better than the first.

So I guess the question is: have we forgotten how to connect with music? Do we put more value in quantity, choice and accessibility over how a single piece of music makes you feel? Over the last few years, this has been my biggest worry as I can't recall many tracks that have really stuck with me, despite being able to recall dozens from the pre-internet years. It is in fact the reason I started this blog - to find music I really love and then put it into compilations (now the SLL Podcast) and listen to nothing but that during the week, all in an attempt to let the music have a deeper, more profound effect on me. And in the main it seems to be working, as I hope it will for you too if you're an avid reader/listener.

All this said, the art of crate-digging has evolved unrecognisably as a result, with anyone able to find unique, individual music without having to crawl through piles of junk in charity shops and dusty record shops. But where's the value in finding a tune which offers no commonality, no talking point with your mates? While people seem to be more accepting of listening to something different these days, the question is whether they're actually developing a connection with what they listen to. My guess is less so and I think this probably explains why the age-old Top-40 chart continues to evolve with the digital age and prove so popular - people still like to relate to common music that starts conversations and frames shared experiences.

As I'm sure you'll note from this incredibly long ramble, this is a question that's so complex and personal it was always going to be impossible to answer myself. So I thought I'd ask for responses from some of my top blogging peers - safe to say the replies were great. It's clearly a topic that many others have also considered.

So, are we no longer connecting with music in the same way? Or have we become, to quote Ziad from Salacious Sound, "just soulless fucks nowadays". Here's a few of the best responses I received - it'd be great to hear your thoughts after the jump.

Mike @

"I don't think so. I think it depends on the generation of the music listener. Somebody who grew up listening to new music before the internet became the main medium is likely going to have a different point of view then somebody much younger who has only used the internet as their source for music their entire lives. Music is today is so easily accessible, like so many other things nowadays via the internet, that there may seem to be connecting with it in a different way, but rather I'd argue that 'free music' just helps introduce people and consumers to new ways of experiencing and connecting with it on deeper levels (resurgence of vinyl records, cassette tapes, live shows/festivals, phones with music, etc.)"

Andrew @

"Not in my eyes. Yes, there is a limitless supply of free digital music but it's only opened up how we experience similar music (that we can connect to anyway).

It might sound silly but you're going to find the music you like regardless be it through any of the major music discovery platforms be it Youtube, Soundcloud, Spotify/Rdio or Hype Machine.

The music game is forever changing and evolving and labels want to make sure you're still finding their wares, at the end of the day they must adapt or die."

Ayo @

"Yes and no and maybe that sounds like a huge anomaly but the truth is that the free digital music has changed how listeners connect with the music but it hasn't prevented the connection. If anything, it might have enhanced that connection in the sense that, we only connect with music that is exceptional and/or strongly speaks to us these days. Because of the constant influx of new music, our threshold for bad or mediocre music is at an all time low. Where before we might be more inclined to give certain music a chance via numerous listens, now (for us anyway), the sifting process in determining what I spend my time listening to is far more brutal and in the end, we find that we are connecting with music that actually speaks to us and that is of a higher quality than most."

Thomas @

"I always say this, but I think the Internet is the worst thing and the best thing to music.

I think it's the worst because of, like you say, how much free music and rubbish music there is out there right now. The internet, mainly leaks, makes us all the fastest critics in the world - as soon as a song goes up you have an opinion on it straight away and will probably download it for free or just never listen to it again. I would love go back to the 80's where it was all about hearing a track on the radio, or even better a Disco, and then have to go and find it in your local record store. Too many people illegally download music, but that is something we will never change now - it's all about finding other ways to make people want to buy music - Ed Sheeran & Adele haven't done too bad.

On the flip side, the Internet and free music are the most powerful tools going for artists, if you use them in the correct way. Engaging with fans on Twitter and giving stuff away for free on your SoundCloud is a great way to create a small loyal fanbase, which will then be there for you when it comes to releasing a single/album in the future. Also, if it wasn't for the Internet then The Foreign Exchange would never have happened, which is one of my favourite groups of all-time.

At the end of the day, people who want to buy physical music will still go to the shop and buy it, and those people who illegally download their whole libraries are probably those people back in the 90's who just didn't bother buying music and just listened to the radio. Everything is just easier these, but real music lovers still exist - myself being one them."

Maybe there's room for a more technologically advanced and engaging format to help us better connect with music in the age of abundance? So has the MP3 had its day? Check out our article The MP3 - What Next?

DJ Equipment - Serato Scratch Live SL-1

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