As you navigate the process of downloading 1,000 songs onto that MP3 player you got for Christmas, and then wonder how you’re ever going to find them on there, you can ponder for a moment the disappearance of all the hardware that used to be involved with being a music fan — and its consequences.
In spite of being based around a collection of captured sound waves, recorded music was once very much a part of our physical, tangible world. To actually own a piece of someone’s artistic vision, we bought the CDs, before that the cassettes, and before that it was 12-inch, two-sided wax albums or the two-sided, two-song “45s.”
It’s still standard practice for artists to release albums and spin singles off of those, but online shoppers can buy the songs individually from nearly any online service you can name. It’s easy to imagine the concept album — or the concept of an album — going the way of the Victrola.
The single was the backbone of the music industry before the Beatles turned the process of assembling songs for an album into an art. You got more for your money, the artists were able to get less radio-friendly songs into their fans’ hands, and it was a lot more convenient than getting up every three minutes to flip the record over.
Then, of course, came the Internet, and file-sharing technology that made those homemade mix cassette tapes we used to make laughably primitive. Music was no longer an object, but an idea, a figment, often as free as an e-mailed joke.
MP3 players and iPods made it possible to peel tracks off the computer and bring them to the gym.
The need for all that “stuff” melted away, along with many of the stores we bought them from. On one level this is a victory for the free market and individual choice, especially given the list price for most CDs hovers just below $20; why should we be obligated to pay for someone’s ruminations about life and death when all we really wanted is the bouncy party song, or the other way around?
On the other hand, it’s hard not to lament losing the chance to stumble on a song you like even better than the one you bought the album for, not to mention those people who can’t have or don’t want a Web-based existence — it’s hard for many of us to imagine, but these people do exist. It boggles the mind to think of how much more expensive CDs could get if they become even more of a niche product.
But, in the end, the free market isn’t free.