I’ve have ambivalently been pondering my dedication to streaming audio since we began our subscription to Tidal at the end of last year. While I truly love having practically all of the music I could imagine available with the press of a button, there is a tiny part of me that feels like I’ve lost something by bidding farewell to the CD. I guess as a product of a material age rather than a digital one, I feel as though something is missing when I no longer have that trophy-like object to place proudly on my shelf.
That said, my unease was finally put to the test at Christmas when something quite unexpected took place. I got a CD as a gift. And not just any CD, but the latest release from one of my all-time favorite bands. At last, I had to make a choice. Since I’d already been listening to the album in full resolution on Tidal, did I actually need to hold on to this artifact? What purpose would it serve? I found myself to be really torn.
The question becomes one of values. Is it better to be able to simply listen to the music, or is there something inherently valuable in owning a physical copy of that music? Where does the object of ownership begin and end? I imagine this is a question innately tied to one’s age. For someone of my age, who came of age in a physical, analog culture, the musical object possesses meaning. I can look at it. I can show it to others. I can touch it. The digital object provides all of the audio satisfaction, but is that enough?
Am I setting too much value on the physical object? Possibly. Certainly I would not feel this conflicted if I had simply received two identical copies of the same disc. I’d be returning the extra copy in a heartbeat. And, yet, that is more or less what actually happened. I already had the music and access to all of the cover art, all I lacked was a piece of plastic and some cardboard that boldly made the claim that “I own this.” And, given that all of my CDs are sitting in boxes in a spare bedroom, the pride associated with such a statement would go unheard anyway. So, what’s the big deal?
Somehow, this silly decision of whether or not to return a CD has become deeply symbolic of the state of people’s listening habits in a world that is changing perhaps a bit too rapidly. For me in particular, as a person who has, in one way or another, always defined herself with and through music, the evolution to an invisible medium for presenting that identity feels strange.
That said, one pleasant side effect that I’ve observed since the primary mode of listening for many people has evolved from that physical object to the digital one is that young people tend to identify with a wider variety of music. For example, today is the first day of a new semester, and I just had my first meeting with a new Music Appreciation class. After introducing myself and my expectations for the term, I had them write down a few things to get a feeling of who my students are. First, I asked about their musical experience. Second, I asked about their listening preferences. Third, I had them define music. I’ve done this same exercise for years, but more recently, I’ve begun to notice a change in responses to the second question. Whereas, five to ten years ago, most students self identified as being frequent listeners to one or maybe two styles of music, now they tend to list several. Any these styles are a lot more varied, as well. I suspect, the lack of a financial investment has encouraged young people to experiment with new and different sounds and allowed them to expose their ears and minds to a much wider musical palette than they would have when music had to be hand selected and individually purchased in order to be “owned.” I can’t help but see this change as anything other than positive, if only because it makes my job easier.
So, in the end, I guess the most important aspect of music is the listening experience, and anything else that comes along with that is nice, but ultimately distracts us from the music itself. With that in mind, I returned the CD that I got for Christmas. I can still listen to the music whenever I want, and that is the important thing.
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.