It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Downloading
Ask somebody what kind of music he likes and, these days, more often than not, the answer will be some variation on "everything but rap or country." Be a jerk and press a little harder ("whaddya mean you don’t like Tuvan throat singing?’), though, and that answer will pretty quickly boil down to ‘I like music that sounds good to me.’ Like Beavis declaring ‘I don’t like music that sucks,’ this might — at first — seem like a pretty useless way to start any kind of discussion.
The idea of musical genres grew from a world that assumed that people from different places would naturally make (and appreciate) different types of music. That is to say: the musical impulse of a clawhammer banjo picker in the Kentucky hills was no different than a jazz saxophonist in Harlem. The differences were entirely in the context: the extended communities the musicians existed within (the rural South, the industrial North), the resources available (string instruments, horns), the venues open to them (dance halls, in both cases), and on down the line. Despite vastly different circumstances, the goal was the same for each: to make music that sounded good to himself. Music, in other words, that he would like.
Regionalism still exists, to some extent, in American music — there is Southern rap, Toronto indie rock, Nashville country — but these are the exceptions and not the rules. If specific regions are associated with genres, most often it is in archaic, superficial ways (like equating Kentucky with bluegrass and Harlem with jazz). When somebody says "I like all kinds of music," he is more right than he knows. While maybe he doesn’t grok the Tuvan throat singing, his taste almost certainly isn’t limited to the musicians in his immediate community, either. Most people’s definition of "good music" is likely significantly broader than previous generations, if only because of the incredible breadth one is exposed to daily in a media-saturated society, sometimes even willfully.
What is perhaps more relevant now — and literally what brought people together to begin with in pretty much every genre — is the way listeners consume music, and the space in which they consume it. Coincidentally, for pretty much every type of music up through the middle of the 20th century, all of those qualifiers were almost entirely synonymous with location, and when music changed, it happened because people physically moved somewhere (like the electrification of the blues as sharecroppers emigrated from the Delta to Chicago). The widespread distribution of records changed things, of course, but there were still physical objects with their attendant specialty shops (if you lived in New York City in the 1990s and liked ska, you would go to Moon Ska Records).
But the internet really fucked shit up, effectively removing the physicality from it. Musical communities no longer arise from genre (and jambands.com, itself an occasionally successful attempt at creating an anti-genre, seems a last vestige of that) and more from how people listen to music. Some people buy music, some borrow it. Some go into buildings to acquire it, some sit naked. Some download from blogs, others grab high-quality performances from BitTorrent. Some listen in shuffle mode, some only listen to albums. Some listen to new songs on MySpace, some have satellite radio. Some dig the ringtones and absorb from passing cars. (Ideally, at the end, everybody goes and see the musician when he comes to town, buys some tour-only product, and everybody goes home happy, maybe even with each other, but all of those are other stories.)
Taken in sum, all of the decisions a music listener must make about how he wants to put music in his ears will come up with a clearer picture of who that person is than the specific notes and melodies he ends up possessing. To decide to listen to music in shuffle mode assumes that one can afford a computer (or, at least, a very large CD changer). More, though, most of these listening manners describe social or economic contexts. To listen to music on MySpace means, often, to be perusing friends’ pages. To buy a CD via the iTunes store means to possess a credit card. Even to carry on acquiring music as if the internet had never happened says something.
On one hand, the de-regionalization of music has caused some interesting gradual developments (like the crazy Norwegian surf-rock band my friend Jon played for me, or even the existence of a ska-oriented store far from Jamaica). But what will hopefully be more interesting is what comes from the structure that is in the process of replacing it. In five years, will we be able to describe music as "MySpace punk," "iPod rap," or "shuffle pop"? Will this end up being another net-bust? Will we end up back in the mall? Will we even remember what an iPod or MySpace is? Naw, the music industry’s not dying. It’s too busy being born.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com.