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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2003/09/27
by Jesse Jarnow

Some Fantasies about the Impending Industrial Implosion

I’ve… I’ve been downloading music lately. And by "lately," I guess I mean,
really, the last four or five years. It’d be a lie to say that I don’t feel
a little remorse. But it’d be a bigger lie to say that I feel any more than
that. The thought struck me on the bus last night, listening to "The
Passenger" by Iggy Pop, which I downloaded sometime in the winter after seeing it in a jukebox in a bar and suddenly
wanting to hear it again for the first time (moreless) since a cross-country
trip with a friend a couple of summers back. That’s why I downloaded it: I wanted it hear right then.
And, later, I even had a friend of mine burn me an entire copy of Lust
For Life, which the song is on. I didn’t feel any particular amount of
guilt for that either, ‘cause my friend who burned it for me – a dear
ex-housemate – is a big Iggy fan. To me, there was something meaningful
about acquiring my copy of Lust For Life (in a peculiar green sleeve)
from an ex-housemate rather than walking into a store and buying it. Yes,
that’s a total rationalization for stealing from a record company, and maybe
Iggy’s retirement fund. But what system of beliefs isn’t? If a code of
morality tells one that he shouldn’t steal, isn’t it also a code of morality
that tells one not to buy? Whether they’re wrong or right, codes like that
make up the sum total of our personalities. It happens to my life, dank you
vedy much, which I take seriously — which is precisely why I feel cheapened
when it gets boiled down to spending patterns, as if that were the only
natural result. And it’s why I feel wronged when I’m told that buying is my
only "right" course of action.
So, this is valuable, not because it raises issues about the morality of
stealing, but the morality of buying. In a way, the downloading hubbub has
effectively annihilated the fourth wall of the record industry. In the past
three weeks, the Recording Industy Association of America’s lawsuits against
downloaders have made the front pages of national magazines. If there is
such a thing as a national discourse anymore, it’s safe to say that the
downloading issue is part of it. So, the fourth wall gone, the act of
acquiring music now requires that one think about where the music is coming
from. That choice, in turn, makes him think about where his money might be
going, spread out and recombined through animated diagrams of pneumatic
tubes depicting the dissemination of money through an industry.
One still consumes, of course, but one is made aware of what he’s consuming.
If the record industry continues its very public collapse it could, in turn,
potentially change the experience of listening. Since, short of production
credits, there’s no readily available ingredient
list on CD packages, nothing to explain everything that got it from the
farm to you, that might instead lead the listener to trace back how it came
into his life and how it got from the musician to that point. Where did he
learn about it? From a newspaper? The radio? A listserv? A friend? A
website? Where did they hear about it? And – hey, while we’re being ideal – maybe it would double back and turn our hypothetical consumer into a more
active listener, too.
It probably won’t go down exactly like that, but it’s nice to fantasize
about. At some point, likely soon, the curtain will be swept shut again and
the facade will appear as perfect as an egg. Or will it? As a culture, we’re
getting some glimpses behind the curtain of late and, brother, it’s weird.
Is that stuff getting reported, though? A list of this week’s ten most saved links on
reveals only one story about anything remotely political, and nothing
about Iraq or the United Nations. (And, next week, when this link is out of
date, the number probably won’t get much higher.) Either way, it’s probably
safe to assume that a local newspaper would sooner pick up a story about
downloading than Dick
Cheney’s relationship with Halliburton, simply because the downloading
story might be tucked safely in the entertainment section (and what can be
dangerous about entertainment?).
So, if music makes people think about where it came from, which might have
‘em think about who to trust (the media? the RIAA? their instincts?), it
could also make them think about bigger issues: media and governmental
accountability and the whole nine. Again, not likely, but, oh, would it be a
wonderful backlash: music saving the world not ‘cause of the act of some
harmonica slingin’ folk singer, but because enough people got fed up with
the sheer vapidity of the music industry and its attendant arms. In one
possible world, simply having the downloading issue on the table would turn
every piece of music into pure punk rock, people unable to listen to it
without busting a cinderblock through a Starbucks window. There would be no
difference between Beyonce and the MC5, and instead of everything being
product, everything would be weaponry. Up against the wall, motherfuckers!
Well, um, yeah, not bloody likely.
The actual impact will likely be more modest, but maybe more profound. All
morality and politics aside, what is opened by the downloading issue is
simply more ways to acquire music (downloading, trading mp3s, burning CDs),
and more ways to use music (allowing a higher degree of control over where
its used through custom playlists, easier portability, and the like).
Listening to music can be an act of profound imagination. Getting the music
itself, then, can be part of that, as well. Or can it?
Is it possible for consumption to be a creative act? By its literal
definition, no. By its literal definition, it’s the opposite. But, surely,
when one reads a book, he’s not only consuming. Something stronger occurs.
And, besides, we’re pretty much in age beyond literal definition. Popular
culture is a tangle of information — records, music, half-wit celebrities,
television, and politics collide in our consciousness. With the ‘net,
especially, everything is out there together, undifferentiated data: 01s and
1s and 1s and 0s. In terms of product, there’s no molecular difference
between the Grateful Dead and a cover band like the Dark Star Orchestra (or,
for that matter, a Girls Gone Wild video).
So, we come up with paths through the jungle, hacking away and trying to
construct a meaningful existence. One wants to experience things that make
him feel like an individual — or (in theory) at least make him feel that he
is experiencing something in an individual way. One way to very easily make
something meaningful is to appreciate it or use it in a way unintended by
its creators. That is where the creative act comes in, and that is where
downloading and burning and copies of Lust For Life in neon green
paper sleeves come in. A demonized technology has allowed this completely
personalized object to come onto my desk. Cash value? Well, probably about
50 cents for the blank disc, maybe give cents for the sleeve, and a little
more for him to send it to me from San Francisco. The best part is that
listening to it and holding it and appreciating it as an object gives me way
more happiness than anything I could’ve bought in a store, not ‘cause I take
glee in getting something for nothing, but because it’s a totally unique
object with its own story and it makes me happy. No remorse needed.
Jesse Jarnow continues to blog away.

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