Every once in a while I still find something worth reading on Slate (and when I do I simultaneously realize how rare it is for me to actually visit that site anymore: it used to be a daily read for me, but I really can't stand their knee-jerk contrarianism and self-satisfied snark anymore. Like, it oozes from just about everything they print. Which, in media terms, probably means they've honed an identifiable brand. Awesome!).
This essay by Bill Wyman ("no, not that Bill Wyman") is one of them (I got there through a link on a Dylan site). It points out that the concept of rarity or scarcity, which once governed the lives of serious aficionados of music or film, is now virtually extinct. There's almost nothing in pop music, no matter how obscure, that you can't find with a little savvy net searching. What does that mean?
It's a great essay, but in the end perhaps a little too technoutopian for me. It is great, no doubt, for everything to be available all the time. I mean, I certainly enjoy it. But aren't there prices we're paying, without even knowing it? In the end he nods toward someone else's thoughts on the early Stones, and how the very inaccessibility of the blues they loved had a lot to do with their early thinking on it, and their goals in forming their own band. Bands today, formed in a surfeit of knowledge about whatever music that interests them, aren't going to have that problem: doesn't that explain a lot of the contemporary music scene? That it's fueled, not by overpowering desire for something that's truly unknown, but by a sort of finicky curatorial discrimination between things that are known too well?*
Of course merely being able to possess all this music doesn't at all mean that we're understanding it - having doesn't equal knowing. I even wonder if having too much precludes knowing, to a certain amount. I wonder about this the bigger my music collection grows - and I mostly confine myself to CDs still. But I've felt myself learning more about music in the aggregate - understanding, or thinking I do, the broad contours of a genre or a label or a period - but at the same time I know I'm failing to take the time to listen deeply, to understand the full dimensions of records. My knowledge is becoming wide and shallow, rather than deep.
All of these are not necessarily bad things - there's a real joy that comes from starting to grasp the big picture. But they are trade-offs. It's foolish to pretend there isn't a price to pay for what we're getting. I'm not even saying we wouldn't pay the price willingly if it was stated up-front, but it's kind of unsettling that we're only dimly aware of the price, and that only long after it's been exacted.
*Okay, I admit I have no basis on which to make that suggestion, since I clearly have no interest in the contemporary music scene.