June 29, 2009

Personal essay: The CCLaP music library reaches 500 songs.

A shot of my iPod on the occasion of my 500th legal song download

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

Regular readers will of course remember "The Great iPod Indie Rock Challenge of 2008," a long-form artistic dare last year that I documented through a series of essays here at the site (now collected and available as a free electronic book through CCLaP Publishing), in which I challenged myself to get off my lazy REM-listening slacker ass and get all my sad old '80s and '90s indie-rock off my 1-gig iPod Shuffle as quickly as possible, and replaced with contemporary music I was rapidly starting to find more and more online. After all, I had already been starting to pay more and more attention to contemporary college-radio music since opening CCLaP the previous summer, originally to find interesting royalty-free songs to feature in the intros and outros of the center's podcast; but what I was quickly discovering was just what a plethora of amazing free music there actually is out there these days, not a trickle like I was expecting but a giant flood, being handed out legally by the bands and labels themselves as a way of promoting full CDs and live tours, and that this plus iPods plus home broadband connections have been slowly but thoroughly replacing the sad corporate-overwhelmed remains of what used to be the all-dominant commercial radio industry, as far as being the primary way that most young people now discover new bands.

And so I subscribed to the feeds of half a dozen of these indie-rock "gentle gatekeepers" like Pitchfork and Discobelle and Orange Alert, who much like CCLaP no longer try to insist that the stuff they're recommending is the only stuff out there worth checking out (as traditional gatekeepers used to do it), but merely acknowledge that there's a whole bursting world of intriguing creativity out there and that they're merely presenting some of it; and then I also subscribed to half a dozen iTunes channels from these more traditional gatekeepers who have smartly jumped on the new-media bandwagon, radio stations like KEXP and cultural networks like NPR. And thus is it that since January 2008, I've been sampling a hundred or so random new songs every Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and end up on average keeping around 10 or 15 of them, kind of like buying a new CD every week except in this case with no filler, only radio-worthy singles; it's music I keep separately labeled and away from my commercial purchases here at home, what I jokingly refer to as the "CCLaP music library," in that the creators of these songs have all given permission for them to be used royalty-free for non-revenue purposes. And in fact just last week I passed a major milestone with this library, collecting my official 500th song for it, which for those who are curious equals roughly 40 to 50 CDs of music, or put another way an entire week at a 9-to-5 job without repeating a single song.

Astounding! Because believe me, if you had sat me down during college and told me that by the time I was forty, I'd be able to find and download each year roughly 25 CDs' worth of great music I love legally for free, that it'd take only one afternoon each week to do so, and that such a thing would largely supplant commercial radio and make it seem as quaintly obsolete as chimney sweeps, I would've asked you to introduce me to your dealer, because obviously they were getting you much better drugs than my dealer was getting me. How amazing that technology can change our lives so profoundly so quickly, I many times think these days; no wonder this goes hand-in-hand with so much fear these days as well over the abuse of technology (just how many movies about rebellious killer robots have we seen in the last twenty years, anyway?), and no wonder that the beneficiaries of the old gatekeeper system being replaced are so threatened by this technology that they have devolved into literally calling bloggers "witches" and "angry mobs."

Because as I've said here before, what this technology is really doing is no less than profoundly redefining many of the terms from sociology that haven't changed for a century or more: it's literally turning all human beings into part-time artists, literally turning creativity itself into a leisure-time activity, instead of a special event practiced only by an educated elite who are financially rewarded for their efforts. And also as I've said before, there's a direct correlation between this and the last time our societal definition of these terms changed, back during the Industrial Age/Victorian Age of the late 1800s; how back then, quickly-changing technology brought about to millions for the first time the entire concept of "leisure time" to begin with (which let's not forget, used to be an opportunity only for the very rich, before the establishment of the middle class that the Industrial Age inspired), brought about for the first time the idea of an entire population being literate (which again used to be an expensive privilege just for the rich). It was the combination of these eventualities that brought about our first definition of "leisure time," the definition that stayed with us for over a century -- namely, the enjoyment of passive cultural activities, things like the reading of novels and the watching of plays (and later movies, and later television), of simply relaxing after your ten hours a day as a factory foreman or whatever other crappy 1800s middle-class thing you were doing back then, which still seemed like heaven compared to your father's old job, 14 hours every day at the bottom of a coal mine or in the middle of a farmer's field, with no health insurance and not even Sundays off.

And so is the exact same thing happening again in the early 2000s, as a sort of magic combination of small new realities come causally gliding together: the rise of easy-to-use creative services like iTunes, Flickr and YouTube; the growing proliferation of ubiquitous internet access (at home, at work, at the cafe, in the car, on your phone); the dramatic drop in price for all the physical equipment to make this stuff work; the profoundly growing media literacy among the population in general; the slow disintegration of the 40-hour work week and the line between "office time" and "personal time;" the tendency for most middle-class jobs to require less and less physical effort with each passing year, leaving people more refreshed and energetic during their leisure time to begin with, leaving people wanting to do something productive with that time instead of needing to relax using passive activities. All of these things have been changing the very way that we think about the arts, so much so that even the word itself has started getting replaced more and more in everyday conversation by the term "creativity;" for example, think how embarrassed most artists are anymore by the idea of referring to themselves as "artists," or think how in the advertising industry, people like writers and illustrators are literally now called "creatives" as an entire job class.

This in turn has created some mind-boggling statistics in our contemporary times, new facts about the creative world that would seem like science-fiction just a generation ago: two billion unique photos at Flickr, ten thousand new novels published in the US just last year, five thousand new songs I sampled in 2008 because of following just a dozen sources. But of course this comes with drawbacks as well, and it's not just traditional gatekeepers who are finding their lifestyles severely disrupted; after all, if there are 60 million bloggers out there writing short stories and op/ed journalism every single day, a lot of it able to inform and move me just as much as anything I've ever read in a magazine or newspaper, why should I bother buying that magazine or newspaper in the first place? If a million middle-aged housewives can provide me 22 minutes a day of easy chuckles over at I Can Has Cheezburger?, why should I pay a sitcom producer to do so instead? And again, if you'd like to look back at a historical example to better understand what I mean, think of what a lucrative activity it used to be in the Victorian Age for authors to do speaking tours, simply reading their stories on a stage to a largely illiterate audience like how Mark Twain made millions doing; but how as more and more of the population learned how to read themselves, the act of consuming a story became simply a hobby to do during one's free time, not a special occasion that required a trip out and a significant amount of money to be spent, despite live public entertainment in general remaining just as popular as it ever was. (And to be extra-clear, I'm not talking here about either traditional theatre or contemporary book readings; think instead of such contemporary monologuists as Spalding Gray and Henry Rollins, the tiny remains of a formerly huge industry that used to generate billions of dollars among hundreds and hundreds of public speakers, the contemporary exceptions that prove the rule of just how profoundly that industry has shrunk since the nationwide push for 100-percent literacy among the general population.)

This is the very definition of history, when a big shift in a society produces results that both better and worsen that society, hopefully resulting by the end in a slight rise for civilization in general; we're merely going through yet another one of these big shifts right now, a fact I was reminded of all over again after my 500th song download last week, which is why I thought I'd take a moment today and write about it all again. And meanwhile, this landmark reminded me of yet something else I hadn't thought of in awhile: that I now had a large enough collection of danceclub-style electronic music to be able to try my hand at a "beat-mix" collection of them if I wanted, which for those who don't know is exactly what the term sounds like, when a club DJ will mix two songs together so that their beats match, hopefully inspiring their customers to stay on the dancefloor just a little bit longer. I was a beat-mix club DJ myself for a little while in college, in fact, almost twenty years ago now, although of course back then mixed songs the old-fashioned analog way, via two record players and my freaking fingers; it was an activity I really used to enjoy (I was a pretty serious clubkid for a bit in my youth), and here at middle age thought it'd be something fun to occasionally do again as a weekend hobby, my version I suppose of model trains on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

So anyway, that's exactly what I ended up doing this weekend, and I've released the results as episode 42 of the podcast, 19 songs mixed into a 45-minute MP3 and being posted to the site today at the same time as this essay. Now, please bear in mind that it's been literally two decades since I've done my last beat mix, that this was the first time ever that I've attempted doing one through visual means on a computer screen, and that I would really appreciate you cutting me a little slack for a few clunky segues you'll hear; but that said, I have to confess that I'm joyously happy with how well it came out in general, with the whole process this weekend really pleasantly drawing me back to nostalgic remembrances of college, of spinning in the corner of a private apartment at an after-bars party in the middle of the night, back when the hottest things you could throw on at three in the morning were 808 State and the Thrill Kill Kult. That's the whole reason for a middle-ager to take on creativity as a leisure-time hobby in the first place; not to compete with the much better professionals who do it full-time, but simply to have some fun and to feel like the effort was worth it, to have something at the end that others might enjoy in a simple way as well. In that spirit, I hope that you too will have as much fun listening to it as I had making it.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:06 PM, June 29, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Music |