WHY DOWNLOAD CULTURE IS DANGEROUS

Two weeks ago, I spent a gorgeous October weekend tooling around western North Carolina with family friends, the patriarch of which is an avid vinyl collector. While shopping at an independent Asheville record store, my friend recounted a disturbing anecdote during which he was spinning an album for the son of a client. As the record played, the 12-year-old asked, “How do you change tracks?” My friend manually lifted the needle and moved it to another location on the disc. The preteen’s monosyllabic response: “Gross.”

Aside from exhibiting an embarrassing lack of understanding of the meaning of the word “gross,” the child seems to have been abandoned by his parents, left to twist in the harsh winds of the digital hinterlands, where switching tracks means clicking the next title on the screen of an iWhatever. It got me thinking about my childhood, and the role technology played in my developing engagement with music.

When I was 5 years old, in 1972, I placed the first of what would be thousands of records on the platter of my parents’ Panasonic turntable. It was Band of Gypsys Live at the Fillmore East, pulled from a vast collection of wonderful albums my folks had amassed over the years. This is an experience many of today’s kids will never enjoy, and in my estimation, that is a horrible thing.

Now this is not the rant of a bitter curmudgeon, and I am not going to take the position of a classist audiophile bemoaning the loss of frequency depth and warmth oft-employed in the analog-versus-digital debate. Herein, I will simply make the argument that download culture has taken us out of the process of choosing, interacting with and, ultimately, enjoying music.

That process was important. Buying an album meant getting off your ass and entering a building where the physical objects were kept. It meant flipping through piles of records to find what you were looking for or, if you had time to browse, taking your time and getting lost in the stacks, maybe finding something amazing or quirky in the search. It was a social event, during which you might talk to the owner or a fellow music fan. It meant driving home with the artifact, removing it carefully from its packaging and placing it on the turntable. It meant returning to the turntable when Side 1 had concluded to flip the disc and continue the experience. It meant storing the product and being mindful of its condition.

If all of this sounds like more effort than you might be willing to put forth, then this is a problem. The effort makes us conscious of music’s presence in our lives. It puts you, the consumer, the listener, at the center of the exercise. Placing a needle on a rotating vinyl disc should be viewed as a sacred act, a ritual of significance, not some unenviable burden. To be disengaged from the action is to shirk your responsibility to the art, which is indeed a living thing. Being aware of the process is almost as important as the listening.

Downloading music removes us from the process. Purchasing music online is a sedentary act, one that keeps us in our homes, ear buds in, receiving a virtual package of zeroes and ones only to store them in the ether with little or no awareness of their presence. There’s no care involved, no maintenance short of replacing the disposable devices they are played on. There’s no album art to enjoy, no liner notes to read. We can remain blissfully uninformed, unresponsible 
and unchallenged.

It’s not surprising that this is how we procure and imbibe music. It’s a laziness that pervades our society, a universal ennui that fuels isolation, and we are paying for it in reduced attention spans and fragmented communities. Friends don’t make mix tapes for each other anymore; they send Spotify playlists. What a labor of love, creating the mixtape, a 90-minute collection of your favorite, most meaningful songs. It meant hours upon hours of sorting your vinyl, placing each record on the turntable to record one or two songs, removing it and putting it away only to repeat the process two dozen or more times. Nowadays, you click and drag a highlighted bank of titles, click “burn,” and you’re done. Or worse, you Facebook a link to your virtual playlist. Done. No work, no involvement, no love.

It’s sad, to me, that a huge percentage of America’s youth will never know the anticipation of a midnight album release at the local record store. They’ll never experience the elation of breaking the shrink wrap on a new record album, hearing the crackle of the gatefold as they open it to reveal Technicolor artwork, or maybe a lyric book or a page of rub-on tattoos. They’ll never grow to understand the time and effort it takes to maintain a record collection, and the deeper appreciation for music it affords. They’ll never get the pleasure of the needle drop.

My kid and I listen to vinyl together. We don’t do it enough, and we should do it more, but we do it. Together. And that’s important.

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