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I am a child of the sixties, a baby-boomer, and I come by my love of music honestly. I first heard rock and roll lying in my bed listening late at night to a crystal radio set my father had build for me, that somehow could pick up stations in the southern US, all the way up where we lived in Quebec. I can remember a song with the chorus It’s a treat to beat your feet on the Mississippi mud. I believed it. I wasn’t sure where exactly the Mississippi was, but I recognized a good beat when I heard it, even at age 6.
Later in 1964, I watched, hypnotized, as Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles; two months later I sat in a box seat at the first Beatles concert in Canada, at the Montreal Forum. It was loud! For a shy introvert to be surrounded by thousands of hysterically screaming peers felt like some transcendent communal sacrament. Within a few months I had bought my first 45 (Roll over Beethoven) and my first album (JB and the Playboys, a Montreal band) and I had started my own music collection. More albums and 45s followed. quickly. Then came tape recordings, first hit songs recorded off the radio on reel-to-reel as I desperately tried to hit record and stop exactly the moment after or before the disc jockey patter spoiled the song. A year later at University, I started obsessively recording albums from other students. In those days music tied us together. If you were my age, you listened to the same music as me. It was a core part of who we were. Last Sunday, at my Unitarian Church, we sang The Times They are a-Changing, and I noticed that most of the people who were my age didn’t need to look up at the projected lyrics. We may be old, but we got to listen to all the great bands.
There were great concerts and rock festivals; I was at Hendrix’s last concert, followed the Grateful Dead, and was rejuvenated by Springsteen. But there was the inevitable splintering of a religion into different sects, as the music I loved gradually transmuted from hip into golden oldies. But I always kept getting new music, whether on album, or CD. I had CDs and vinyl upstairs, tapes in various formats downstairs. Then came mp3s, and ipods, iPhones, iPads, and the whole range of iMusic. I could take my music with me when I went out walking, or drove the car. I had to choose, but there was always enough. It seemed like a golden age. I could put together playlists, selections I loved, and burn them to CD for friends or just to have as a selection.
And now that’s all ended. Part of the ending was the inevitable decay of media. I decided to throw out my reel to reel tapes at about the same time that they had been destroyed by decay and damp where they were stored in the cold room, a fact I didn’t know until I went to trash them and found the white mold of entropy had beaten me to it. The cassettes I managed to throw out before they decayed, as they were in a drier room. But that wasn’t what really precipitated the end of my collection.
It was Apple Music. Others reached the same spot with Spotify, or Pandora, but the names don’t really matter. It’s called streaming music. Here’s how it works. I pay $15 a month, and my family (defined by Apple as any six people I choose) get to listen to any of the 43 million songs Apple has. I can listen at home or on an iDevice out in the world. I can listen to playlists I’ve made, or use the ones Apple has made. I can listen to thousands of radio stations: Tom Waits Radio? Mozart radio? New Age Meditation Radio? It’s all there. I can listen to all the music I used to have on my reel to reel tapes or my cassette tapes. When Buffy Sainte-Marie won the Polaris prize for the best Canadian Rock album of the year a month ago, I read about it in the paper, and then listened to it instantly on Apple Music. And it is pretty good. But– here comes the twist– none of it is mine. I only have access to this music as long as I pay the $15 per month. I can download it onto my iPhone, so that if I go somewhere where there is no internet (surely there must be such places, still) I have it with me. But I can’t make copies of it. I can’t share it with anyone who isn’t also on Apple Music who would therefore already have access to it.
It is very strange. My listening has deepened, both as I discover wonderful albums I’d never heard by musicians I’ve loved, or hear new music. My nephew, who is a sound engineer, is scornful of the low sound quality that streamed music has, but I remember my first transistor radios, and the cheap tapes of the past, and this is way better. And I’ve seen the frequency charts from my recent hearing tests, and know that age and front row seats for Who concerts past have demanded their toll, and my ears no longer carry the exact change. The sound quality doesn’t bother me.
It feels perhaps like the difference between living in your house, and living in the most luxurious hotel you can imagine. The hotel is more comfortable. Someone else cleans up your mess, and you can order food to be delivered, but it’s not yours. If you stop paying, you’re out of there. Maybe it’s the difference between your own car and a rented car, or your own library and a public library. Perhaps this is a residue of living in a capitalist society in which we define ourselves (in part) by what we own. Perhaps I should just celebrate the end of limits and the endless aural vistas that open around me. Isn’t this exactly the brave new world Caliban promises, in “The Tempest”:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices…
So shouldn’t I answer just as Stephano does, “This will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall have my music for nothing”?
But I know that when I was young and I had only a few albums and had been to a few concerts, I used to dream a lot about rock stars. They would wander in and out of my unconscious and we’d have long conversations. Lesley Gore told me once that I should drop Latin. She was probably right, too. John Lennon made about a half dozen appearances in my dreams. Now music comes and it goes. I liked that Buffy Sainte Marie album, whatever it was called, but I haven’t gone back to it, because there’s always new music. Fast music, like fast food, feeds us. But it doesn’t linger. That McDonald’s hamburger was a lot like this one. Once even the scratches on my albums were part of my history. I would know to get up and move the stylus when it got stuck right at that moment in Dear Mr Fantasy. Now it’s all polished. Now I have everything, and to my surprise, it feels as though I don’t have nearly as much as I once did.