Computers and Choices
The positive side of getting older is having more choices. The negative side is having to turn down choices which would lead to pleasure. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but as I’ve gotten older computers have become much more accessible and powerful, and so they’ve made both sides of that equation more extreme.
When I caught the music bug back in the 80’s, I remember looking through rows of shrink-wrapped LPs in stores, feeling both frustrated and perversely attracted by gatefold covers because of the amount of graphics and information they kept hidden, and knowing I’d have to wait equally long to experience the music behind those covers. The advent of used record stores, and of my having more of my own money as I got into my teens, was the first factor in driving my music consumption up to warp speed. Most of the other factors have been the result of computers.
Back in ’93, when I became interested in concert recordings, tape trading meant looking through ads in Relix or Dupree’s Diamond News, searching for those elusive "beginner friendly" or "b&p welcome" types. In January ’94, I arrived back at college midway through my first year and found that the computers had Usenet. At the end of ’02, I got my own computer. About half a year later, I was familiar with Bit Torrent and Sharing the Groove. Computers have become not only a never-silent hub for information and conversation about music, but a gateway to music itself.
I’ve thought a bit about computers over the last few weeks as I’ve read Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection, How to Be Alone. The book chronicles Franzen’s path from antipathy towards a skeptical live-and-let-live attitude towards the trappings of current American society, most of which he considers to be part of a list of Things That Keep People From Reading Books and, by extension, Things That Keep Talented Writers From Making A Living. Not surprisingly, computers are high on that list. He’s a smart guy, but being a bit younger and thus more comfortable with today’s world, I find myself with strong "get over it" sentiments when, for instance, he decries "Internet-brokered marriages." Still, if I weren’t Trying to Read More Books (and thus Staying Off The Computer), I might not have encountered Franzen at all, and I would be poorer.
Granted, I would also be poorer if I’d always resisted the urge to buy or acquire music. A few years ago, I came back from one of my band’s tours with 10 LPs, picked up at various cities out East. Two of them gave me what I want from music something that I can put on at the start of a weekend morning and think that life has promise, something that can get me through the first few hours at the office, something that opens a door I didn’t know was shut. They weren’t the two that I would have predicted to make it, and if the other eight got short shrift, so be it, I guess.
File sharing has given me some similar experiences. If I had to buy them, or even gather the effort to acquire them by trade, I may never have bothered with Led Zeppelin concert tapes or Bruce Springsteen outtakes or the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Demos. And yet each of those have produced food for thought and taken me a step closer towards the center of music. For instance, the difference between "Not For The Season" on the YHF demos (which Greg Kot accurately describes as Springsteenesque) and "Laminated Cat" on Loose Fur (the same song recast as a minimalist buzzer with low-key singing) says a lot about the road Jeff Tweedy has forked onto in recent years, and although I can understand his choice, it’s nice to have the other option available.
Still, there are those nights when I realize that I’ve spent too much of my time acquiring music, as well as information about music, and that I should be spending more time with the stuff I have, as well as doing other things such as Reading Books by Talented Writers. Which is why, this year in particular, I’ve said "no" to music as many times as "yes," and often felt a distinct discomfort when I have said "yes." At times I’ve been tempted to shut down the valve altogether (although duty will no doubt still compel me to consider the 20 to 30 CDs a year I get from jambands.com and Signal to Noise) and report the results in this forum, a bit like the reverse of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me idea. (It seems odd to try to decry McDonald’s by eating their food far more often than they would ever suggest, but it is a useful addition to our store of information, and kudos to Spurlock for risking his health and libido to do so.)
Not this week, though. The Presence Server has the soundboard of Zeppelin’s last show.