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Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Gift of Music

Yesterday I gave a friend a book on music for his birthday. The book included a cd with music. Now he is a guy who is kind of advanced – at least to my standards – when it comes to the Digital Age. He is still buying (and receiving…) cds, but he immediately copies them to the hard disc of his computer which also acts as a server facilitating playing music and movies. The centre of his musical life probably is not the cd collection but the computer.

But he still likes the cd as an item. The fact that music is on “a thing” makes it “a thing” – you buy music as you buy other things, in a shop, and of course by buying the thing you basically buy the opportunity to listen to music, but you also buy the inlay booklet, the photographs, and the case. Which does not have to be the well-known plastic jewel case but can also be a nice cardboard box (Cash - Unearthed), a finely cut wooden box (Black Rhythms of Peru), or a book (Ernst Jansz – Molenbeekstraat; this turns the idea of a cd including a booklet upside down).

Which is one of the reasons why it is so nice to give a cd to some-one. You give a thing and the possibility of an experience at the same time. It is this thing-ization of music that makes many music listeners very reluctant to get rid of their old lp collection. Even when the record player has already Elvis-like left the building, or sits under a layer of dust on the attic for at least twenty years, people do not sell, give away or throw away their lp’s. When I ask them why not, the answers differ greatly – some claim they own lp’s which are available in newer formats (but never play them), some like the art work of the sleeves, someone said he used it as a kind of catalogue, to look up which artist from long ago it was that actually sang “Anak”. But basically they just love the things.

The fact that music has been thing-ized led also to another phenomenon, one which I mainly encounter when talking with people who were teenagers during the cassette-era: the copying of a personal “best of”-selection for a friend or acquaintance. This took many forms: making a cassette with the twenty best songs by Aha in order to get your friend to like it also, putting your personal top-ten-of-all-ages on a cassette in order to express your personality and impress a colleague with your great taste, or making a cassette dedicated to the theme of love for a hopefully future girl- or boyfriend (this reminds me of the expression “my future ex-prospective brother in law”, the way one of my friends would indicate the then current boy-friend of his sister).

I always wonder what has happened with this phenomenon of making your own cassettes when the CD appeared and the cassette disappeared. It simply vanished, I guess; I have not heard of many people copying a collection of 20 of their favorite MP3s to a friend’s iPhone. But maybe I am wrong (inform me). I also wonder what has happened to something I did when I was young, and many people I know also did: recording your own “radio programme” on a cassette – recording your own voice introducing records as if you were a radio dj through using a microphone, then recording the record itself. Is anything like that still done by kids, but by other means?

But what I wonder most about is the future. I recently read someone claiming that the character of music will change dramatically in the coming decade: from a thing you can buy to a service you can access. Of course this is already happening. Services like Spotify will enable you to pay a small monthly fee and gain access to an enormous database of music. Legally. No need to own music carriers yourself, because you buy the right to listen to some else’s collection, basically. But what will happen to music as a thing? Will this make all other music carriers superfluous? Or will they stay in existence not because they are music carriers but precisely because of their thingy character – their beauty as an object, the booklet you get with it, the fact that it makes noise when you drop it on a table?

And what will happen to music as a gift? A voucher worth one month using Spotify is hardly personal, and therefore less fit as a gift. Will we give people a playlist for their birthday? That would run against the idea deeply rooted in our culture that a gift’s worth can be expressed in money. Maybe in the future, the gift of music will focus on live music – yes, everybody has access to any music in digital format. But the real thing, that’s the treat.

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