Music is not just about listening, it is about discovery. There is something inescapably important about discovery in art. Beyond the intellectual commitment to understand it lies the journey to find it, to discover it, to give it true meaning which is the meaning you derive for yourself.
Years ago I attended the Amsterdam Dance Event, (no points for guessing where it was located). We arrived and had attended two days of activities and we were quite frankly bored and yes, we had smoked enough that even that had lost its appeal. We decided to amble over to the Rijks Museum, we were told that there was some great things to see there. I was not told anything about the Night Watch Gallery. I was wandering around, enjoying the exhibit when I turned a corner and happened into a giant room at the end of a long hall. There was Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the end of the hall. It was an enormous hall and from a distance, it made the painting look tiny, but as you walked forward, you suddenly realized that the painting was a life sized depiction of light and shadow. I walked right up to it and marveled at how real and beautiful the painting was. There was not a single detail that had been misplaced. I had seen photographs of this painting and had not appreciated what was really taking place. Seeing the painting in person in that room completely changed the experience for me. This was the moment of artistic appreciation through discovery. This is the moment that I am afraid will be lost to those listeners who consume music through their “smart” devices. The sense of wonder, awe and resonance will never be as profound as the moment they discover their night watch on the wall of the gallery of their experience.
Music fans no longer need labels, retail stores and media outlets to pre-filter what pre-recorded music they get to hear and buy. Some call that content curation. There are many arguments that discovery is now more possible due to the barriers being removed and users able to listen to whatever they want. But how can a user develop a taste for something if there are sampling plates of everything about them? Being spoiled for choice means that the modern listener has no capacity to develop their own appreciation through earned discovery, instead, the general population does not have to burdened with committing to an artist. Therefore there is no inherent commitment in choosing something so nothing is a choice. I currently use Spotify to find new inspiration and content. I am consistently surprised by the wealth of content readily available to use with a simple search function within the app or site. Basically you don’t have an entire CD store on your phone, you have the entire industry past and present. Think about the ramifications of that for a moment. Before when you wanted to discover something new, there was a process of adventure, you would physically have to go to some obscure shop, dig through bins of content, pull it out, listen to it, and maybe just buy it because you liked the sleeve. I feel with Spotify there is a level of “theft” going on when I am able to find something and listen right away. Theft of the time it should take to discover something new and really terrific. There were just fractions of a second of time used to find music through digital services. Just as soon as I have found it, I don’t feel the rush of the reward. The music flits by in my ears and I am onto the next suggested tune. I believe the less the intellectual commitment in discovery, the less meaningful the impact once something is discovered.
I loved going to music stores, both professional and retail. Browsing and discovering new music and equipment. I was all about picking up content, putting it in my hands, turning it over and reading the credits on the back. I discovered that many of the artists I liked were produced by the same people. Flood, Daniel Lanois, Daniel Miller, Rupert Hine, George Martin, the list goes on. Discovering that producing music was something that I really enjoyed, I became a fan of those producers. But with music services like Spotify, that discovery is gone. Liner notes have gone the way of movable type. Even writing credits for the songs are hard, even impossible to find. So that experience will be something lost to the ages.
I absolutely love digital services and there is no way I would advocate giving them up. I promise I won’t use the genie back in the bottle analogy, but there it is, I did it anyways. What I miss now are the “Night Watch” moments. I find myself turning to Wikipedia, Google and other interpretations of discovery to guide me down these dark hallways. Here is to hoping that users going forward go beyond the songs and find their own way forward. Even take a chance and go experience art in the flesh. Nothing trumps the joy of the new through the experience of discovery. Happy trails everyone. I say all of this while inputting this into my laptop, looking up links in Wikipedia and Google while Spotify picks the next thing out for me. I didn’t say that there would not be contradictions.