Friday, May 20, 2011

The End is Near

The signs are everywhere. The end is near--the end of the compact disk. My on-line CD store is going out of business, and I cannot resist buying a few at $4.99, shipping included. Borders and Barnes and Noble have drastically reduced their CD selection. Borders no longer has a discrete jazz section for CDs. I can think of only one Denver-area store with a rich selection of CDs--Twist and Shout.

What does all this mean for music and culture? Music has been increasingly miniaturized and made more portable in recent decades. It has also dematerialized. The preferred form is the MP3, which is a cluster of data stored in various devices. Now the link of the medium and the music is gone. For many years, album art and liner was as significant as the music. CDs retained this to some extent, but on a smaller scale. With MP3 files, there is no container for the music. It just in--somewhere in cyberspace.

Further, music becomes more de-contextualized. The play list replaces the order of pieces on a recording. We shuffle on through. The idea of a concept album--a coherent body of work establishing and developing a set theme--is nearly dead. (In 2007, Neal Morse created a concept album based on the struggles of Martin Luther, but this is now very rare.)

I am reluctant to go the way of the iPod. I do not favor dematerialization, however economically expedient. I cannot bring myself to think of dematerialized books at the moment.


thehurricane said...

I cannot bring myself to pay $200 on another banal apparatus that serves to isolate us from one another in public. I work in Brazil and when I first came here 4 years ago people would talk to each other while waiting for the bus, or while drinking coffee at a cafe. Not anymore, now they plug into their cellphone/mp3 players and tune each other out. It's sad.

Robert Kunda said...

I think thehurricane has a great point. Tim Challie's new book The Next Story talks in depth about this. We can now communicate digitally with people not near us, but we've now, on a large scale, began to forgo human interaction with those nearest to us as if they were far away.

I am a little torn on Groothuis's last comment, "I cannot bring myself to think of dematerialized books at the moment." On one hand, I want to be sympathetic to the sentiment because of the very high esteem I hold the author, yet I cannot, or at least thus far do not. Here is why:

I don't know if ebooks do to literature what mp3s do to music, as he notes regarding decontextualizing. (I don't really use playlists -- actually for a former music junkie, I listen to music a tiny fraction of what I did years ago, instead listening to almost entirely audiobooks, podcasts and lectures. I doubt I am the majority, though.) I like ebooks. Reading on the Kindle is quite nice, excepting some obvious limitations like real lending, and easy flipping through pages and notes. Simply, some books are flat-out irreplaceable in their paper form. Yet others, like many fiction novels or stories, work quite well (for me) as digital books -- easy to read, no mess, no shelf space needed. The real substance of books is the ideas within, no?

I think the concerns are well founded in part, but I am not convinced that maybe some of the reluctance might be good, old-fashioned stubbornness.

Well, I don't know. As I said I am torn. And I am always drawn to critiques like this one. Perhaps one day soon I'l be saying the same thing, who knows? =)

Brandon1988 said...

This is why you should not be afraid to embrace your inner Luddism, Dr. Groothuis. When will the insanity end? Not until they have reached "technological singularity" and our natural, God given humanity is all but gone.

Sirfab said...

I have very mixed feelings about this.
Prior to coming to the U.S. in 1993 I was a DJ and I managed a record store in Italy, so I am obviously attached to the record medium (as well as, to a lesser extent, to CDs). But one of the reasons I gave up deejaying is that I could not transport my 4k+ vinyl collection to America.
A couple of years ago I got hit by the deejaying bug again, and I got back in the scene, only to find out that a substantial number of DJs now work with high-quality, if that is not an oxymoron, mp3s. So technology helped me get back in the game, and I have enjoyed every minute of it.
I still miss the touch and feel of vinyl and album covers, and the concept of an entire album (which is still available in digitized and CD form) but have happily moved on otherwise. I have a now a digitized collection of about 100k tracks, and it's all on an external hard drive that I carry to all my shows (with a backup, a laptop, headphones, a few cables and a midi controller). No more do I have to lug around hundreds of 12" in a crate, and I am much more free to improvise because anything I want to play is literally at the tip of my mouse.
But I also scoff at the idea that the iPod or other electronic media are responsible for isolation. Ever hear of a Walkman? :-) That's how I survived hours of Greyhound rides when I first toured the U.S.
Not to mention the fact that isolation leads not only to separation, but also to meditation. We are still in command of the mix of human experience. Technology can be an aid, it is not necessarily a dehumanizing factor.
Enjoy life in all its forms.

Sirfab said...

Oh, and one more thing I forgot to mention about books: while I still enjoy reading paper books (and actually still prefer it), e-books have a huge advantage for me: I can search them. When I write on my blog and need to quote a book I read, I can find the quote in my e-book in seconds. Imagine doing that with a paper copy. So again, when you talk about de-contextualizing content with regard to books, think about the advantages as well.

Douglas Groothuis said...

I can search my paper books as well by using indexes and making my own notes in them.

Sirfab said...

You need to teach me a good method, then, because I make so many highlights and notes that I can never find the ones I need. :-)
On another note, I am ready to go listen to some good jazz. If you have anything to recommend... ;-)

Douglas Groothuis said...

Fab: What kind of jazz do you like? There are some avant guarde people coming to town. Dazzle often has good acts as well, but it is a bit expensive.

Sirfab said...

Oh, I am not a jazz connoisseur, but I like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery among the classics. I also loved Michel Petrucciani, but unfortunately he won't be coming to town any time soon. :-( I also like modern jazz, particularly Steps Ahead, Mike Mainieri, the Brecker Brothers (same reasoning as for Michel Petrucciani, unfortunately), Pat Metheny. Those are the ones I can think of.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Fab: Please send me an email. I have an idea for a concert:

Bill said...

This post shows a lack of understanding regarding MP3 players. When you buy music electronically, you have the option of buying the entire album. Additionally, every MP3 player enables you play that album’s songs in the order the artist intended. Of course you also have the option to listen to artists’ music randomly or your entire music collection randomly (like a radio station), but MP3 players most definitely allow you to keep the context certain artist choose when complying an album—because, like you said, that is an important part of music.

For me, The Beatles later albums are ones that I always listen on my MP3 player to in their original order as they organized those songs for a specific purpose.

Just to play devil’s advocate a bit, did Neal Morse’s album touch of Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism or how Luther’s writings were an inspiration to Hitler and National Socialist movement? Sorry, anyway, I totally agree with Dr. Groothius that the music industry as a whole should move back to having albums be a coherent body of work, and not just a collection of singles they hope people will download… but that’s not the MP3 players fault … that’s a product of our whole society have ADD, but that another long discussion for another time.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Bill: I know that you can purchase entire albums and play them in order. The trend seems to be otherwise, though; and the technology makes it easier. That was my point.

No Morse did not discuss the dark side of Luther. You cannot do everything in one recording. Not sure Luther directly inspired Hitler, although I know he made anti-semitic remarks.

Bill said...

I hear you, Dr. G., but you can find a “problem” with every new technology. I’m sure when cars took the place of horses people complained about noise, cost, you’re going too fast to see the scenery, you don’t have a relationships with a car like you do with a horse, etc. I could argue that because of MP3s, we don’t make as much trash (no throwing CD packaging into landfills anymore) and materials aren’t wasted (plastic, ink, etc.) and that the environmental impacts of an electronic medium outweighs the benefits of having a CD or record in your hand and admiring the cover art.

I’m reading a book right now (not an electronic book either! I like the book in my hands!) about the Third Reich and how Hitler often quoted Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies” and how Luther’s writings reinforced some of the National Socialist movements like book burning, torching synagogues, confiscation of Jewish property. I was raised Lutheran and it’s fascinating and unsettling to read about this subject.

As always, thanks for the spirited and educated debate. Have a good week, Doug.

Sirfab said...

The "traditional" music industry has only itself to blame if people have gone in the direction of digital downloads.
Aside from the fact that it is more convenient to download something from one's home instead of going to a "record" store, I remember that when CDs started replacing vinyl the price per unit actually went up (while production costs almost certainly went down). The greed of record companies, as well as the availability of Napster and other P2P sharing services, conjured to make the public opt for a different direction in music delivery.
The result? Album sales dropped dramatically, the concept of a single was resurrected, and most band now make their money by playing live. Noticed how ticket prices have surged in the last 5-10 years?
I will add one thing: I grew up in Italy. If you wanted to get a good quality recording, you had to buy imports, because the quality of anything printed in Italy was so inferior to the quality of anything printed in the UK, US, Holland, and Germany (in that order), not to mention Japan, that buying anything printed in Italy was sonic self-flagellation. Needless to say, imports were often more expensive (though the real cost of media was dependent on the extreme fluctuations of currencies). So the demise of the traditional record labels is something that I view with a certain degree of smugness and more than a little schadenfreude.

Constantine said...

Dr. Groothuis,

What a wonderfully philosophical observation.

I must second Sirfab's comment that searching and note taking is far easier in my Kindle than a paper book, although I, too, have gained some proficiency with notes in paper books. The advantage is magnified by the fact that one can search through dozens of books – not to mention carry them around! - much, much more expeditiously. And the mp3 has some pretty amazing advantages, too. Just yesterday, I was able to listen to three lectures on Calvin's Institutes while flying 'cross country – and that on my cell phone! I must acknowledge thehurricane, though, because I was surely not engaging my neighbors while so listening.

And Bill, please don't fault Luther so much in regard to Hitler. The far, far greater blame lies at the Vatican. After all, Hitler was a Catholic, he learned his anti-semitism from Karl Lueger who was the Catholic mayor of Vienna during Hitler's youth and all of the “death” camps were in the only European country NOT touched by the Reformation. I recommend David Kertzer's book, “The Popes Against the Jews” for a serious, non-polemical look at that history – if it is of interest you.

Now, off to the “cloud” to access some Beethoven!


The Atheist Missionary said...

Professor, I bet you would love an iPod or the podcast feature on the new blackberry Torch if you had one. The amount of free podcast content is amazing. It was through searching on iTunes that I found several of your fascinating lectures to various congregations. Just my two cents worth.