iPod vs music snobs

I found this little gem in the links column over there on the left side. It actually appears in the New Republic.


by Michael Crowley

Post date 08.24.05 | Issue date 09.05.05

the dawn of rock, there have been individuals, usually young men, of
argumentative tendencies who have lorded their encyclopedic musical
knowledge over others.” So states the introduction of the recent Rock Snob’s Dictionary,
compiled by David Kamp and Steven Daly. I like to believe I’m not the
insufferable dweeb suggested by this definition. Certainly, much of the
dictionary’s obscure trivia (former Television bassist Richard Hell is
now a novelist; Norwegian death metal stars actually murder one
another) is news to me. But I do place an unusual, perhaps irrational,
value on rock music. I take considerable pride in my huge collection
and carefully refined taste. And I consider bad rock taste–or, worse,
no rock taste at all–clear evidence of a fallow soul. I am, in other
words, a certified Rock Snob. But I fear that Rock Snobs are in grave
danger. We are being ruined by the iPod.

While the term “Rock
Snob” has a pejorative ring, the label also implies real social
advantages. The Rock Snob presides as a musical wise man to whom
friends and relatives turn for opinions and recommendations; he can
judiciously distribute access to various rare and exotic prizes in his
collection. “Oh my God, where did you find this?” are a
Rock Snob’s favorite words to hear. His highest calling is the creation
of lovingly compiled mix CDs designed to dazzle their recipients with a
blend of erudition, obscurity, and pure melodic dolomite. Recently, I
unearthed a little-known cover of the gentle Gram Parsons country
classic “Hickory Wind,” bellowed out by Bob Mould and Vic Chestnutt,
which moved two different friends to tears. It was Rock Snob bliss.

some ways, then, the iPod revolution is a Rock Snob’s dream. Now,
nearly all rock music is easily and almost instantly attainable, either
via our friends’ computers or through online file-sharing networks.
“Music swapping” on a mass scale allows my music collection to grow
larger and faster than I’d ever imagined. And I can now summon any rare
track from the online ether.

But there’s a dark side to the
iPod era. Snobbery subsists on exclusivity. And the ownership of a huge
and eclectic music collection has become ordinary. Thanks to the iPod,
and digital music generally, anyone can milk various friends,
acquaintances, and the Internet to quickly build a glorious 10,000-song
collection. Adding insult to injury, this process often comes directly
at the Rock Snob’s expense. We are suddenly plagued by musical
parasites. For instance, a friend of middling taste recently leeched
700 songs from my computer. He offered his own library in return, but
it wasn’t much. Never mind my vague sense that he should pay me some
money. In Rock Snob terms, I was a Boston Brahmin and he was a Beverly
Hillbilly–one who certainly hadn’t earned that highly obscure
album of AC/DC songs performed as tender acoustic ballads but was sure
to go bragging to all his friends about it. Even worse was the
girlfriend to whom I gave an iPod. She promptly plugged it into my
computer and was soon holding in her hand a duplicate version of my
5,000-song library–a library that had taken some 20 years, thousands
of dollars, and about as many hours to accumulate. She’d downloaded it
all within five minutes. And, a few months later, she was gone, taking
my intimate musical DNA with her.

I’m not alone in these
frustrations. “Even for a recovering Rock Snob, such as myself,” Steven
Daly told me, “it’s a little disturbing to hear a civilian music fan
boast that he has the complete set of Trojan reggae box-sets on his
iPod sitting alongside 9,000 other tracks that he probably neither
needs nor deserves.” It’s true: Even if music leeches don’t fully
appreciate, or even listen to, some of the gems they so effortlessly
acquire, we resent them anyway. One friend even confessed to me in an
e-mail that “I have been known to strip the iTunes song information off
mix CDs just to keep the Knowledge secret.”

But resistance is
futile. Even the Rock Snob’s habitat, the record shop, is under siege.
Say farewell to places like Championship Vinyl, the archetypal record
store featured in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. “The shop smells
of stale smoke, damp, and plastic dust-covers, and it’s narrow and
dingy and overcrowded, partly because that’s what I wanted–this is
what record shops should look like,” explains Hornby’s proprietor, Rob.
Like great used bookstores, the Championship Vinyls of the world are
destinations where the browsing and people-watching is half the fun. (A
certain kind of young man will forever cling to the fantasy of meeting
his soul mate as they simultaneously reach for the same early-era
Superchunk disc.) Equally gratifying is the hunt for elusive albums in
a store’s musty bins, a quest that demands time, persistence, and
cunning, and whose serendipitous payoffs are nearly as rewarding as the
music itself. Speaking of book-collecting, the philosopher Walter
Benjamin spoke of “the thrill of acquisition.” But, when everything’s
instantly available online, the thrill is gone.

Benjamin also
savored the physical element of building a collection–gazing at his
trophies, reminiscing about where he acquired them, unfurling memories
from his ownership. “The most profound enchantment for the collector is
the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are
fixed,” he said. But there’s nothing magic about a formless digital
file. I even find myself nostalgic for the tape-trading culture of
Grateful Dead fans–generally scorned in the Rock Snob world–who used
to drive for hours in their VW vans to swap bootleg concert tapes. My
older brother still has a set of bootleg tapes he copied from a friend
some 20 years ago during a California bike trip. Having survived global
travels from Thailand to Mexico, the tapes have acquired an almost
totemic quality in his mind. I feel the same way about certain old CDs,
whose cases have become pleasantly scuffed and weathered during travels
through multiple dorm rooms and city apartments but still smile out at
me from their shelves like old friends. Soon our collections will be
all ones and zeroes stored deep in hard drives, instantly transferable
and completely unsatisfying as possessions. And we Rock Snobs will have
become as obsolete as CDs themselves.

Let me just say this about all this IPOD nonsense: yeah, you can have a ‘great music collection’ instantly, but if you don’t know what it is, you don’t appreciate it and love it, you’re still nobody.
You’re just nobody with a lot of tunes but you listen to the same 300 over and over and you might as well be listening to the radio. You’re the person who puts Sgt Pepper and Pet Sounds and the 1st Velvet Underground album as your faves because they’re supposed to be great. I talk about my friend Michael Leone and roll my eyes when I hear he’s collecting the re-mastered
Monkees, but he knows what he likes and tells me why I should like it too. [Though I still think he’s throwing away money getting all those collection CDs of the Beatles and Stones when he HAS all the originals: burn your own for the
road, dude!]

Taste isn’t MADE by what you own, but in how you can define yourself by what you own. I had a lot of 80’s hair bands at one time, but I sold them because I didn’t listen to them… throwing them on once every five years didn’t justify me having it in the pile any longer. I hope someone else went into Half Price and went ‘Man, that’s JUST WHAT I was looking for!’ I wish everyone had a Rory Gallagher or Johnny Winter or some Peter Green era Fleetwood Mac, but some people are contented being spoon fed trend following cows and buying the top 40 and accepting music is only what got played on the radio and ‘classic rock’ is Elton John, Styx, Journey, and Eric Clapton and that all blues is Stevie Ray Vaughn. They’re not impressed by, oh the Warren Zevon collection Genius [except that ‘Werewolfs’ song] and would not understand what I would find appealing in an old black man playing slide guitar on an acoustic 12 string like Mississippi Fred McDowell’s Long Way From
, which are my pickups from this weekend.

so you can have your IPOD and you can have your 10,000 songs; like anything else, it’s just a possession to you. “I have ALL these albums and songs.” Give me my whittled down 900 albums or so, [what is that about 9000 songs?] because about 99% of them really MEAN SOMETHING
to me.

1 Comment

  1. Call me old fashioned, but an mp3 file can never take the place of a physical music medium. In fact, I’m still lamenting the demise of the album cover. A lot of beautiful and innovative art was created for album covers and contributed considerably to the enjoyment of the LP buying experience. Album covers also had at least one practical application that had nothing to do with protecting the record and which will never be duplicated by an mp3.

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