I wrote earlier about the flood that destroyed about a third of my possessions (books, mostly). Until last weekend, I still had two boxes to go through, and I have been dreading doing so.
Box one is mostly memorabilia and decorations from Mexico. I still haven’t gotten into that one yet, and when I do, I may not be able to write about it at all. So if you don’t hear me say anything about it, that doesn’t mean I didn’t finally do it.
Box two is full of CDs. The top layer was okay, but it also contained those disks that definitely were not my favorites. All my favorites—The Clash, Lorena McKennit, Blondie, a metric crapton of classical music, a metric crapton of classic rock—were on the bottom. The part that was under water.
The good news is that the disks themselves are salvageable. Most of them have paper stuck to the front of them, but with a soak in warm water, some gentle nudging, and a soft lint-free cloth, I can get them clean. The disks are, in the few that I’ve managed to clean up so far, 100% playable.
The problem is that the paper that was stuck to them was the liner notes. (Do we still call it “liner notes” if it’s a CD? Do we still capitalize CD? Or is it cd?) And I’m a liner notes kind of guy. I had read most of those liner notes several times over. And now they’re gone.
The funny thing is that we don’t even do cds anymore. My local Barnes & Noble used to have a quite a large music section; it’s now been replaced by a large annoyingly loud children’s toys section. (The worst thing about B&N as a bookstore is its complete lack of atmosphere. You can throw in all the genuine fake wooden shelves you want, but it’s essentially just a larger upgraded version of the book aisle at Walmart. But that’s a story for another day.)
Instead, we download mp3s, and even that is become passé, because why download something when you can stream it instead? There are young peope out there who don’t even know what a cd is. (Me: “A cd is like a dvd, only without the pictures. Just sound. And it’s all music.” Kid: “What’s a dvd?”) Why be burdened with maintaining and backing up a collection of mp3 files when you can just listen to whatever you want, whenver you want?
And therein lies the biggest difference between who I used to be as a music listener versus who I am now as a music listener.
I’m old enough to remember vinyl albums. As a child, I walked to town and spent some very hard-earned money to buy the Barry Gibb/Barbra Streisand collaboration for my mother as a birthday gift. I even remember how much it cost: $6.44 plus sales tax. I may someday devolve into a gibbering wad of goo who can’t remember his own name or address, but I will be able to remember that number: $6.44.
The reason I remember it is that it was one of the first (if not the first) albums I ever bought. Vinyl albums are huge and unwieldy, and also suprisingly delicate; they demand care and respect when you handle them. If you have three or more albums, you suddenly have a collection, and collections demand curating. You can’t add just anything to the collection—then it’s a jumble and not a collection. Because albums cost real money (as did 8-tracks, and cassettes and cds and hell, even mp3s) you had to be particular about what you bought. You had to be sure that you liked it, that you would continue to like it in the very near future and possibly even well into the future. You had to put pieces together that somehow fit together: classical on one shelf, pop on another, jazz on top.
I remembering agonizing for weeks over whether I should buy one album or another, because I didn’t have the money to buy both, and this was a weighty decision. And of course, vinyl albums also had weight in the physical sense—vinyl is dense. You weren’t just buying music, you were buying a physical object that you would bring into your home to live with you. It required space and sturdy shelves and care—if nothing else, you had to dust the damn things.
Not so with a streaming service. Simply create a playlist, add to it or subtract from it at your leisure, and if it becomes a confused mess (which the poet in me reads as “a confuséd mess”), just delete it and start over. That’s a pretty hard slash of the Gordian know that being a modern music aficionado can be, but there you are. You’re still going to pay the same $10.99 a month, or whatever your steaming service charges you.
That’s what saddens me the most about this experience. Not that I lost my music, because those disks are still playable. Not that I lost the liner notes, because all of that information (and then some) is available on the internet. What saddens me is that we’ve created a system where you don’t need to actively engage with the music you listen to over a span of years. It’s just as temporary as everything else. The idea of a collection that you grow and curate, meaning that you are thoughtful about what you add or delete from it, how you organize it, how you care for it, is swiftly disappearing. We engage with music more often now (how can we not?) but we engage with it at a much shallower level. Music is now just another thing to consume, to swallow up and spit out.
It doesn’t need to be this way. But, alas, it is. We have created a society where we can care about things without worrying about the long-term consequences, where we can act like yesterday has no bearing on today and where today has no bearing on tomorrow. We’ve created a society where we just don’t feel the need to care for the past—that’s somebody else’s worry, and what is this thing called “the past” anyway?
*silently weeps into sodden liner notes*