Welcome to cyberspace, I’m lost in the fog
Everything’s digital I’m still analog
When something goes wrong
I don’t have a clue
Some ten year old smart a** has to show me what to do
Sign on with high speed you don’t have to wait
Sit there for days and vegetate
I access my email, read all my spam, I’m an analog man.
- Joe Walsh, Analog Man (2012)
It was the later 1990s when our company network guy told me about something called Napster. Later, at home I beheld a wonderful treasure trove of music — digital music. This was a new thing. This was when Napster was at its height, and had 20 million subscribers around the world. For young’uns too young to know, Napster was one of the earliest file sharing platforms, a trail blazer in the new digital age. And, a small technicality, it was completely illegal. Essentially, you uploaded digitalized recordings of music to your computer and when you signed in to Napster, others on the platform could see your files and download their own copies of your files (and vice-versa).
Now, aside from confessing publicly to a crime — I used Napster a lot in those heady ‘Wild West’ days of early digital — I should make clear that the reason I loved Napster was the sheer massive catalog of music it made available. There was a movement at the time demanding free music, but I never bought into that. I worked for a living, and liked to get paid for it — so others should get paid too, including artists and record companies. But at the time, if you had musical interests that strayed in the slightest out of the mainstream, you had to go to specialized record stores or order through snail mail-order catalogs. If you lived in a place like rural Western New York, this often required a trip to New York City to have access to good music outside of the radio, top-40 pop realm. (Buffalo, NY was a little thin on specialized record stores; there was a notable punk music record shop on the corner of Elmwood & Auburn avenues whose owner always looked like he had died ten minutes earlier. And his personality matched.)
And then came along Napster, which made everything available. My father asked for a rare drummer from the 1940s, and Lo! I found him on Napster. Napster circulated several petitions for members to sign declaring we would be happy to pay for a service like this, and I signed most of them, but the music industry was very resistant to the digital revolution. At one point, the music industry took to suing some Napster (and other similar platform) users, including a 12 year old girl. They utilized a 1982 compromise music copyright law that allowed for the sale of recordable cassettes to squelch digital platforms, but the digital genie couldn’t be put back in the bottle. Apple came out with iTunes in 2001, though negotiations with the music industry for rights dragged on for many years so that a lot of popular artists’ music wasn’t available. Stuck in the Microsoft ‘PC’ world, I had to wait a few years for similar digital music download services (I think eMusic.com was my first) to come online, but the minute they did, I joined them and ditched the file-sharing world.
This is all to say that I’ve been a big proponent of the digital music world. My problem is that it hasn’t really delivered. It took a while for the sound quality to catch up, but by now digital music files have all the range and depth of the old analog recordings. (One early CD I bought by the Moody Blues was missing whole background choruses from the original recording because the early digital files just didn’t have the bandwidth.) But the digital music world has strayed into the same straits as the analog world of the 1990s — where the emphasis is on the most mainstream, the most popular music.
What follows is the answer I never gave to a Millennial neighbor who incredulously asked me just a couple years ago why I still bought CDs.
- In part, my answer is admittedly a bit curmudgeony. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, I have been trained like Pavlov’s dog to think of music in terms of albums. I like albums. Now, “album” in my youth meant a vinyl LP, then an 8-track, then a cassette, and finally a CD — but ultimately, it was a collection of songs that often followed a musical or lyrical theme. I never used the “shuffle” option on my CD player. Sure, there are some songs I like in particular and occasionally listen to them on their own, but I usually enjoy them more in context…on an album. For many bands, there’s a story-telling element to albums.
- Also, an element of this is my brain is wired to expect to “buy” music and “own” it. I like holding a physical CD sometimes, and appreciating the cover art while I’m listening to it. Old dogs and new tricks etc.
- That goes for digital albums too. I do have a large digital music collection (all legally purchased, I’ll point out). There are some bands today who only release online, and I follow a few. But they still create albums (as opposed to dumps of singles).
- But one thing I’ve never adapted to are the streaming services. This is how most people today “consume” their music. Not me. Why not? In part because I have a crappy broadband connection that the local cable company has assured me will never improve. I regularly get FIOS ads in my mail, but each time I call or check online, I’m told “Nope — not your address.” So part of the problem is I’m screwed. But I’m used to that.
- I have tried some streaming services, by the way. I tried Spotify and Grooveshark — but that leads me to my next complaint. And I’ve discussed this issue with Dean as well. Namely, the algorithms used to fish out music for me based on my listening patterns are still very primitive, so that if I listen to a Doors song, for instance, the software plugs me into the Classic Rock bucket and I get slammed with all the usual Led Zeppelin, Who, Rolling Stones, etc. songs. In my mind, a certain Doors song may be related or linked to a John Fahey song, or an Electric Octopus tune, or a Hobo Blues Band album from the 1980s. Now, that’s completely subjective and derived from my experience, of course, but that’s just it, that the music I enjoy in strong part derives from my life and my experiences, and the weird networks of connections in the Tomek Jankowski mental environment. Maybe someday these algorithms will improve, but for now they are too simple and don’t really pay attention to what I like — they only go as far as to decide which pre-determined mainstream, average consumer bucket categories I fit into, and once that’s done, they throw all the usual over-played crap at me. For instance, if somehow Spotify intuited that I like the Steve Miller Band, Spotify would pull up the usual top 5 most popular Steve Miller songs from their Greatest Hits collection, and from there go to the usual Classic Rock suspects — Led Zeppelin, Who, Rolling Stones, Elton John, etc. But right now I’m listening to the Steve Miller Band’s much lesser well known album Bingo! (2010), and loving it. From there, I will listen to Steve Mason and the Beta Band. That only makes sense to me, and that’s fine — but Spotify or Grooveshark would never understand my categories. So for me, music streaming once again just tries to push listeners to that middle, to the bland, average, popular, top-40 middle. A lot of the music I like isn’t even available on streaming services.
- Which brings me to my final point, which is in the tinfoil hat realm. So OK, I just listened to the Steve Miller Band. Who knows this? Well, you readers now know this — the millions of you. Please don’t tell anyone. But when I was listening to this album, the only ones who knew were my wife, and maybe some annoyed neighbors. Like it or nay, we live in the digital age, and as with any major transformative moments, there will be problems and casualties. We as a society haven’t figured out data privacy yet, and we’re just kicking the can down the road. We’re too enamored with the gains of the digital world, and pretty much sticking our heads in the sand as far as the consequences are concerned. Don’t get me wrong — I love what this new world has to offer, and embrace many aspects of it. But I see the price tag, or part of it at least, an I’m nervous. Part of that price is indeed privacy. Now I don’t pretend that by only listening to CDs that I’m able to “hide” in the digital world and skate beneath the data radar, but still, there is some small comfort in knowing that my music is more private than most people’s. So yes, I’m a bit paranoid about what unknown users, both governments and private companies, are collecting about me via data analytics, that my every key stroke online feeds a growing data monster that is increasingly able to make decisions about my life that I have little control over. Today, it’s just music choice, but tomorrow it may be my ability to get a job, or to live in certain communities, or my access to healthcare, etc. I’m fighting a losing war and my music is just a tiny fragment of the larger digital picture of me that exists, but I’m making my own little anti-digital stand, even if only symbolically. Why? Because for now at least, I can.