Sunday, March 20, 2011

Bon Jovi: Real Men Don't Know What Music They're Buying

This latest piece from Bon Jovi isn't a musical number, it's a screed against the tide.

Let's back up a few centuries. Let's say you want to hear world-class music from artists you've read about in the papers. Unless you're in Berlin, London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, or maybe Moscow, you're kinda out of luck: that's where the top acts play. There is no recording. If there's a carriage collision on the way to the venue and you are delayed, there's no way (other than by asking patrons how good it was) to know, or re-hear, what you missed. Homebound invalids get to daydream about music, unless someone can carry them to a pub where a traveling act stops – but the traveling act gigging in a local pub won't be the world-class stuff you read about in the papers, it'll be a knockoff by someone who may never have heard it. Or something completely different. And if two acts compete in the same time slot, you may miss one entirely. And there's only so many seats. And the pubs can be noisy – a poor place to hear music.

Moving forward toward the modern era, we transited through an era in which a large hand-cranked wheels carefully manufactured at great expense spun fragile graphite slabs beneath a needle connected to an amplifying cone (don't drop the recording media!) and into an era in which mass-produced handheld players let users carry an entire hour-long concert on one's belt while walking. For a few hours' wages and no trip across the ocean, the best tenor on the planet – or a rock act that died before you were born – could be enjoyed for as long as the tape held out (which might be years if not left on the dash in the summer sun). If you couldn't bear to part with that much money, bands' labels marketed as "singles" a favorite song, paired with a lesser-known song the sellers hope will get some notice due to the packaging. The "single" might be on a cheap-to-press plastic disc designed to be spun at 45 revolutions per minute (that wouldn't shatter when dropped – nice!), in which case it'd be hard to carry with you (too big), or you could plug the player's output cables into an available-everywhere tape recorder and make your own mix tape full of singles, album fragments, and everything else you might want to hear. Sometimes, whole albums were aired on the radio ad-free and you could tape the whole thing.

Today, whole songs can be found digitally encoded online, with free evaluation ranging from a 30-second clip to a full-song stream. Instead of having to buy twelve tracks from Golden Earring just to hear Radar Love and Twilight Zone, you can buy the ones you like for a small fraction of the federally-established minimum wage employers must pay employees for an hour of labor. If you fall in love with the cheap music, you can drink straight from the fire hydrant: everything that's for sale electronically is for sale on your computer, and so is everything that's not available digitally, because all record shops and secondhand book venues have become major retailers online.

Against this background, Bon Jovi's kvetch against user-previewed per-track online purchase is a quaint "we walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways"-style joke. He literally argues that the "magic" buyers "enjoyed" involved buying closed albums with no idea what they sounded like – buyers were in effect playing a lottery as to whether the music was worth the money. Bon Jovi argues this was a good thing.

Well, maybe if you are Bon Jovi: people recognize the name and buy it. It's a brand. But let's face it: for the average Joe, who wants to get what he pays for, he benefits from knowing what he's buying – and he benefits from being able to see a selection bigger than can be carried in the inventory of a physical-media-peddling corner store.

I for one never wanted to buy the picture on the album, I wanted to know what it sounded like inside. That's why, when Napster was new and I could gather songs from the libraries of likeminded listeners for review by L, we bought more music in a month than previously we'd bought in an entire year.

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