The first musical recording I made (I mean the kind that I expected other people to pay for) was released on a cassette tape. I remember hauling our equipment to the studio late at night (off hours were cheaper) and the pressure to get the performances exactly right, in as few takes as possible. Takes were tape, and tape wasn’t cheap.
We believed with all our hearts that those songs would change the world. That if we got them captured just right, just as we intended, someone would eventually hear them, one of our tapes would fall into the right hands, and then … The world was at our fingertips.
I came up as part of a generation that bought its music on cassette tapes. I mean, tapes sounded so much better than records. Granted, some of the rich kids had CD players, and the Discman was slowly replacing the Walkman, but you couldn’t really take a compact disc player on your bike with you and expect to jump all the ramps and curbs across the neighborhood (as you had already planned your route in advance) without the song skipping or the disc falling out. So, tapes it remained. And, boy, we bought tapes.
We couldn’t wait to rush home, unwrap them, and listen to the other nine songs we hadn’t heard yet – the songs the radio stations wouldn’t play (even if you called the DJ for each show at all times of the day and night requesting it). DJ’s have never understood.
The money we spent on music mattered because it was our own. We shopped at Camelot Music and Peaches, and begged our mothers for just five more minutes of browsing (most times alphabetically) because that feeling of finding something new and unheard of was unlike anything we’d ever known. To this day, nothing comes close to that feeling of being connected to the lyrics, the music, and the people that wrote it — at the time it was written, but also now, in this moment. Well, OK, some things come close.
And don’t get me wrong, most of the time you could tell a jazz record from a rock record, but before labels like Matador, Sub Pop and Dischord came around, you were never quite sure what kind of music you would be getting. I can’t count the number of risks I took in the $3.99 bin simply because I could (and I could always trade it back in for pennies in store credit). Our method of music discovery was physical, visceral and in person. We had never seen these recordings before. Not the covers, not the artwork. We hadn’t read the lyrics, and we’d only seen the musicians in magazines. If you caught a performance or interview on TV, everyone had to be quiet, because chances are you would never see it again. And if you had any questions, sure you could go to the library or ask your parents, but there was always that one employee who would suggest something that could take you down a rabbit hole for hours, and sometimes change the course of your entire life (A personal thank you to Frank Kocsisszucs for deliberately asking me, “You ever heard of The Melvins?” in 1993).
And once you owned the music, it was yours. It was personal. The plastic artifact you held in your hand contained months — sometimes years — of listening enjoyment, and if it broke, you were screwed. There was no fixing it. Except for that one trick with the number 2 pencil. But that only worked in certain cases and even when it did, you knew you probably only had another month or so left, so you listened to it more and ended up wearing it out faster.
Alas, there was always The Mixtape, which acted as 1) an emergency backup for your favorite songs, 2) your very own personal radio station that knew your tastes and played only the songs you wanted to hear, and 3) a love letter to that special someone that said exactly what you didn’t have the courage to say in prose.
I don’t have to tell you how it works today. But, things have changed. I’m typing this on a screen the size of a textbook, under the canopy of a tree in my backyard. The device is not even plugged into a wall. Today, even words like “television,” “radio,” and “phone” have completely lost their meaning. But the devices and the march of progress in the name of convenience and expediency are not what I have issue with on this beautiful afternoon.
My generation has robbed itself of the arts. Don’t get me wrong, people still make great art, music and films, and some people still commission, fund and produce these — some even turn a profit. But, now, most people do it for free. We’ve just short of ruined our chances at a career doing what we love, because our generation is the one that shot itself in the foot by refusing to pay for it. When the opportunity came along to download the entire Beatles catalog over a phone line, of course we said “yes, please.” How about the ability to record 20 episodes of Doctor Who onto one VHS tape? “Sure, we’ll take it.”
Well, I’m sorry.
I apologize to my children, who will now have to spend their own hard-earned money to record and produce their own music or direct their own film, only to turn around and have to give it (the actual product) away in bite-sized, streamable chunks and sometimes in its entirety (as added value) with the purchase of a tote bag or a lithograph.
Some might say, “the art is no longer the product,” or that “artists are now marketers or content producers” and that “product lines have diversified” or that the actual “art” and the media “artifact” have been separated and that it’s time to re-think what art is and how we interact with it. Well, to those people I say, “fuck you for telling me what art is or what to think about it.” Art is whatever the individual deems it to be. And, we haven’t historically changed our culture or our self-aggrandized sense of the aesthetic by diversifying the types of art produced, all we’ve done is manage to corrupt the art market by not buying any.
To future generations, I say this — It is now your duty to manage this new world of transparency and shared resources and to do it mindfully, populating the planet with people who will support the artist, the musician, the filmmaker, the dancer, the sculptor, the painter. It is the artist that gives society its sense of beauty, forces us to reflect on our values and our meaning and reminds us of our place in the universe. It is your destiny to 1) be the CEO of the company that builds the next interface for music streaming and either pays the artists a fair percentage or puts the power directly in their hands, 2) have controlling interest in how films are distributed around the world, giving power back to the producer, or 3) be on a board of directors deciding how your city or county government allocates its cultural grants.
My generation wasn’t ready yet. My generation was still too concerned with getting hired by the people that built the old system and with earning a fair salary so that we could buy more stuff. And once we got in, we were so distracted by our own devices and confused by the media commentary on our own commentary about our own devices, that we didn’t have the strength left to change it. But now, the money and the power is there for the taking.
Now, the world is at your fingertips. And the opportunity is yours to be better than we were.