MP3s Generate Apathy

I’ve been musing on and off about this topic for years, but now there’s some research to back it up:

“Internet downloading and MP3 players are creating a generation of people who do not seriously appreciate songs or musical performances, British researchers said.” Music downloading creates listener apathy. A combination of forces is at work here, but there are three I’d put at the top of the list:

1) Quantity. Once upon a time, you’d save up your $7.99, buy the LP you had been wanting for weeks, and listen to it dozens of times over. This saturation fostered a personal relationship with a piece of music that I just don’t think people are experiencing today — or at least not as much. When people possess way more music than they can possibly listen to, there’s a tendency to wade through it all in a random fashion (guilty!), and the music has a resulting tendency to become background. This is one of the reasons I’m now trying to put more emphasis on pruning my MP3 collection than on growing it (though I have only been mildly successful, and am in fact currently planning a multi-jigabyte RAID storage solution just for my music; collecting is far easier than pruning).

2) Cost. The bulk of most people’s MP3 collections has come to them for free. When you can download 40 albums overnight rather than purchase one or two or even five a month, the personal investment in the music is further devalued, and you never get around to fully digesting all the new music before yet more arrives.

3) Aesthetics. The visual involvement of the LP cover gave way to the lesser involvement of the CD sleeve. But at least we still had something. When you go all digital, you give up the visual aesthetic accompanying the music altogether (with the possible exception of the tiny album cover thumbnails stored in ID3 tags, which are no replacement). Not to mention all of the extra information you get about an artist by reading liner notes and lyrics, which was always a big part of developing a relationship with an album.

Quantity and flexibility are so seductive. It’s so easy to not notice how much we give up.

Music: Silence :: Nothing

9 thoughts on “MP3s Generate Apathy

  1. Jim Strickland

    You’re missing some fundamental problems with the *music*, I think. First, the market is far, far more fragmented than when we were teens. Bands with a million styles, like Huey Lewis said.

    Second, the overall quality of the music has gone down dramatically, as recording companies become part of media giants, instead of being run by people who actually care about music. The result is that record labels scramble to sign bands that are like what is selling now, regardless of whether they’re any good or not. Listen to the radio some time and hear the huge number of Metallica wannabes, the Tool wannabes, the Brittany Spears wannabes, and so forth and so on. It’s all the same, there aren’t any/many chances being taken in what’s being made.

    Don’t do as the recording industry has done, and make the medium the scapegoat for what has happened to music. I’m not saying your observations are wrong, only that they’re not the first order forces in the matter.

    -Jim

  2. Scot Hacker

    Jim, that’s totally valid. On the other hand, if you think of your own MP3 collection, which presumably is not filled with the garbage that modern radio is, the points I made above still largely hold, so there is a real problem with the medium.

    But we’re kind of making different points, too: I’m tallking about what the medium can do to the listener’s relationship to the music (*any* music), whereas you’re talking more about the quality of the music that’s out there (which of course also affects the listener’s relationship with it.

    All of this with the caveat that there has *always* been plenty of bubblegum pop and other “thin” music out there…

  3. D

    “bulk of most people’s MP3 collections has come to them for free. When you can download 40 albums overnight rather than purchase one or two or even five a month”- hmm, free?- where do i sign up? as a non-geek, i buy most of my music at pay sites, the rest, ripped from cd’s. i used to download from kaaza but with all the news of the crackdown, now i pay from my music.

  4. Patrick Corcoran

    Scot, I don’t think you’re looking back far enough. Sure, if you want to measure the beginning of time as being the era of the LP, then yes maybe people cherish the possession of their music less than they used to.

    But before the LP, there was another time, when recorded music wasn’t available to the masses. I don’t have any memory of this time, and you probably don’t either. But I suspect that there were two types of music appreciation: a love for the classics, and a fleeting fancy for the latest trendy music. Some tunes would make the transition from the latter group to the former group, but most wouldn’t.

    I think we’re just returning to a time when music is all about music, not about owning the physical media, artwork, liner notes, etc. And it’s not any more a culture dominated by *collectors*, but a culture of listeners.

    Most people growing up without memory of the era of collecting physical media now probably view their MP3 collections as somewhat disposable. And for the songs that they truly care about for the long term, I don’t believe that they love them any less than you love(d) your LPs. They are just more discriminating about what they love, and the issue of loving music is no longer conflated with the issue of loving the collection of physical media.

  5. Scot Hacker

    I think we’re just returning to a time when music is all about music, not about owning the physical media, artwork, liner notes, etc. And it’s not any more a culture dominated by *collectors*, but a culture of listeners.

    Yes! I think the ultimate crash and burn of the music industry – who still see themselves as serving a critical function — will actually do a great service to music. Sites like myspace, which cut the legs out from under the promotion and distribution industries — have the ultimate effect of music becoming popular on its own merits, not because some recording exec decides that x, y, and z will be the hot artists of the season.

    Let the products sell themselves!

  6. Jadot

    After reading the comments, I think that the responsibility to appreciate music ultimately falls on the listener. If you’re going to spend time getting to know your music, you’re going to spend time getting to know your music — regardless of medium. Its like the difference between your personal library of books you’ve come to love, and the public library, which has those books you love, some you may have read and consider so-so, and a vast majority with which you’ll never be aquainted.

  7. Auralache

    Scot,

    I think you’re way wrong, brother.

    1.) Quantity- Well, ok, quantity can be overwhelming, but little enough music deserves the intimate relationship you mention anyway- I think what you are noticing in your own habits is typical of anyone passing out of the 18-35 demographic. Less is not more, fewer choices do not lead to better ones. Do libraries lead to lesser reading experiences, just because the options are so broad? No, having a multitude of choices has no apathetic effect on an individual’s ability to get close to certain works.

    2.) Cost- While there is a shift in perceived value, there is none in intrinsic value, and anyone made apathetic over the relative availability of selection was never in the game anyway.

    3.) Aesthetics- This is dopey. It’s like we need captions beneath paintings to enjoy fine art. The music’s the thing!

  8. shacker Post author

    1) Do libraries lead to lesser reading experiences, just because the options are so broad? No, having a multitude of choices has no apathetic effect on an individual’s ability to get close to certain works.

    Interesting point. But not quite a perfect analogy – you can’t check out a thousand books a night, nor can you read more than one every few days. Many people have MP3 collections filled with music they’ve never heard, or may have heard, but know next to nothing about the artists, etc.

    3) Aesthetics aren’t rational, but they are very much real, and definitely not dopey to me! (and yes, the aesthetic experience absolutely does extend beyond the songs and into the album cover!)

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