I am wearing headphones. Music is playing in my ears. The track is “Far East Sweet” by The Bruces, but that isn’t important. After all, there are a few thousand tracks on my mp3 player. Whenever I’m in the mood for some music, I can just scroll through the choices. It doesn’t matter who I want to listen to: Bob Wills, Queen, Devotchka, the Packway Handle Band—wherever I go, they’re all ready and waiting in my coat pocket.
My situation is hardly unusual. It seems there is a wealth of music waiting at everyone’s fingertips today. This isn’t just because of mp3 players. There are also televisions, computers, car stereos, cell phones, and the ubiquitous speakers in malls, restaurants, and department stores. Music is so common now as to be nearly inescapable. From the moment we wake up to the melody of an alarm clock until the moment we turn off the TV or stereo before bed, we find ourselves working, studying, playing, driving, dining, shopping, and even exercising to a soundtrack that almost never completely fades.
This hyper-abundance of music is a remarkably new phenomenon. Most of the music formats people are familiar with today didn’t exist a few decades ago. The ability to record and replay music itself wasn’t realized until 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the first practical phonograph. Before this invention, it was impossible to duplicate a musical performance. Every musical rendition was unique, and the availability of a particular performance was limited to those people who inhabited the same time and place as the performers.
The advent of recording technology changed this by enabling people to duplicate individual performances as often as they wanted, so long as they had a copy of a recording and the equipment needed to play it. In other words, musical performances were no longer limited to a unique time and place, but were instead limited to technological availability. As technology has improved over the last century, both sound recordings and the devices that play them have become inexpensive and highly portable. This has allowed sound recording technology to proliferate widely, ensuring that recorded music music is are now available to virtually everyone, anywhere and anytime.
Our age of unprecedented musical abundance has led to many changes in the way people use, appreciate, and value music.
Consider background music. It seems that people today play music in the background during just about every other kind of activity. And why not? Background music serves to excite the mind during otherwise monotonous activities like driving, eating, or exercising. Nevertheless, background music was not nearly as prevalent before recording, and it’s easy to see why. Just imagine having a little music on while studying at a time when that would have meant bringing an orchestra with you to the library!
Before recording, music required the presence of a musician. Background music was still performed live sometimes: army bands played for marching soldiers, musicians sometimes entertained at fine dinners, and people on the job occasionally sang work songs as a way to escape the boredom. For the most part, though, music before recording functioned as an experience all of its own. It often took some effort: families would gather together in their parlors and take up instruments, or sing along with the church choir on Sunday mornings. There were also shows to attend, but the choices were limited to whatever happened to be on the schedule during a given week. It wasn’t feasible to have constant music in the background until it became possible to play music without needing a live performer.
Now it seems that background music is everywhere, as if it were an integral part of the landscape. This has its own consequences. For one, people are so familiar with music today that they may not value it as much as they would have the past. Remember, it only costs 99¢ to download a song at iTunes. At eMusic, basic subscribers can purchase thirty songs a month for $11.99—about 40¢ for each song. Even more telling than the price itself is the fact that the same price applies to every single track, regardless of originality, talent, or even length. It’s as if music has transformed from an art form into a commodity. Apparently a song is a song is a song, and at most digital music stores, all songs are the same price. If music is no more than fill for the background, though, then why shouldn’t it be priced this way?
Many people today are even getting music without paying for it at all. Online file sharing results in “20 illegal downloads for every track sold” during the course of a year, according to a 2008 report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. The report also states that “tens of billions of illegal music files are traded annually.” How is it that so many people can regard the fair price for music to be nothing at all?
It isn’t a matter of low quality. Most of the music that people listen to today is unprecedentedly well-made, and it was created by the best in the world. The talented professionals who make most popular music have worked for years to cultivate their skills. Moreover, every record can be edited and enhanced to a quality well beyond that of the initial performance, ensuring a final product that is in many cases nearly flawless.
This kind of editing was impossible before the age of recording. Likewise, professional musicians in the time before recording could only distribute their work as far as the limit of their voices. Rural areas rarely drew talented career musicians, so amateur talent filled this void. Furthermore, there were not yet many central authorities like radio stations and record labels to judge what separated good music from bad. People and communities made that judgment for themselves, and considering the limited frame of reference that most people had at the time, I expect that most listeners then would have accepted a far lower standard of performance than what might be demanded today.
Quality doesn’t factor into the low value of music. Instead, this results from the abundance of music itself. Before recording, there was never more than one instance of any particular musical performance in all of space and time. After the phonograph was invented, it became possible to duplicate performances in many times and places. Now digital technology allows recordings to be duplicated almost infinitely. This has made music almost as familiar and as readily available as the air we breathe, and given such circumstances, it is inevitable that people will want to pay the same price for both: nothing.
I’m not saying that musicians shouldn’t be compensated for their work. They deserve compensation, and indeed, most performers can’t afford to make more music if they aren’t paid. None of this matters from an economic standpoint, though. Just ask the farmer who is compelled to sell his harvest every year at a price determined by the market, regardless of the toil and expense that he put into producing his crops. Price is determined by supply and demand, not the cost of production. If the supply is infinite, the price is zero.
The low cost of music, free or not, has enabled another yet relatively new phenomenon in the way people use music today: they listen to it alone. This was almost unheard of before recording became possible, except perhaps when people were performing to themselves. It was just too expensive for any but the most wealthy individual to hire a musician for his own solitary enjoyment. Accordingly, music in those times was a social event. People didn’t just gather together to listen—they got in on the show itself, whether by helping to cover every part, or merely by clapping, cheering, and dancing along with whomever happened to be on stage. Every performance brought a new opportunity to join family and friends for a good time, and all of this may have made music a somewhat more stirring experience than it is today.
In stark contrast, listening to music now is often an exclusively personal endeavor. People listen to music alone from behind closed doors, or wear noise-blocking headphones that allow them to carry a private show along with them wherever they go. This privacy allows people to listen more closely then might ever have been possible in a crowded room. It also enables individuals, even neighbors, to develop and pursue wildly different musical tastes. At the same time, listening to a recording alone is hardly as thrilling as going to a concert with friends.
Thankfully, recording technology has not eliminated live performances. People still get excited about the opportunity to go to concert and listen to music being performed. The atmosphere, the crowds, and the spontaneity of the performers at a live event all work together it somehow magical. Even so, it seems that popular concerts today are rarely just about music. After all, the live rendition of a well-known song can easily disappoint those accustomed to the slick recorded version that was edited to perfection before release. Perhaps in part to make up for this, modern concerts have become full-fledged shows. Occasionally the music even takes a back seat to the stage antics, dancing, lights, smoke and even fireworks that embellish modern rock concerts. It seems fair to assume that recording technology has had its effects on concerts, even if it has stopped short of making them entirely obsolete.
The abundance of recorded music today has, in short, affected just about every aspect of the way people use music within their lives. Does this musical abundance represent a golden age? Or does the amazing availability of music today decrease its value to our ears and make it less moving, less enjoyable? Is the way we experience music today better, or worse, or simply different? These questions are beyond the scope of this already rather long entry—but its something for you to think about next time you put on your headphones.