My oldest son's getting married next week (pause for cheers and strained expressions of incredulity at how old that must make me) and he wanted some help with the programmed music. I have a lot of the music he wants to hear on compact discs. But a lot of them are scattered around the house, under beds and in plastic storage containers and in piles on almost any handy flat surface. So I'm spending a couple hours a day doing the same thing I did two or three years back, organizing and alphabetizing, and, along the way, culling the herd.
It's pretty amazing how like self-replicating cellular automata CDs are. Vinyl records, back in the days when they were the primary format, weren't like that. I'm a pretty big fan of the digital download era that we're in, and I also appreciate that vinyl has hung in there through it all. The vinyl era had the advantage that herd-culling was done by the invisible hand of economics. A bluegrass friend of mine said the other day, "Do you remember this concept? 'We gave the band a try for a lot of years but just never got good enough to make a record!'"
Some of these discs, I really don't know where they came from. On my last Great Leap Forward-style cleanup, I pulled together about 400 CDs for the garbageman to take away. My son, the one who's getting married, stopped by and got an eyeful of this putative treasure trove. "Why don't you take it to a used record store? That's dumb to throw all this out." I replied that no store wanted most of what I was getting rid of, and that the remainder would net me maybe $30, a stack of bills for which I wasn't willing to lift heavy boxes and drive an hour back and forth.
But he was so alarmed by the evident wastefulness of it that he sifted through the pile and found 50 or so that he thought he might want. A short time later he was phoning me in irritation. "I thought this [name of 'seminal' 'alt-country' group] was supposed to be so hot, the way all the hipsters go on about them. What the hell?" And, "How did you ever acquire this unlistenable thing by [name of someone in Portland, Oregon no one but cavedwellers has heard of]?" And so on. It was as if I had begged him to take those discs, as if it wasn't perfectly obvious, if only from the stacks of jewel-cases all over my house, that our present age imposes no barriers on any bozo who wants to make records of his hideous music.
Since then I seem to have come by another couple hundred needing to be destroyed, or maybe I missed them the first time. As before, most of them were things that someone gave me. I mean, I think they were. If I have no idea who the act or person is that's listed on the cover, and the cover looks fresh off somebody's wife's Macintosh, it's pretty much a mark of Cain as far as I'm concerned. I don't mean to sound harsh. Though "free" is usually not synonymous with "good," you never know; and once in a while I do come across something special by the stick-it-my-hand technique. If I took your disc after a show and promised to listen to it right away, I meant it sincerely, and it's possible I did. But when faced with over a hundred hours of unsolicited music, in the form of an unopened, never-listened-to pile, I don't see any choice but to snap my fingers and say, "Out of my life at once!" What am I, A&M Records? Leave me be.
In seeking reductions, then, the slush is the first and the easiest category. The rest are harder. It turns out that there are a ton of pretty-good records, enough to firmly discredit pretty-good-ness as a justification for owning. The kind of thing that might conceivably perk up the mood, one sluggish day years hence, is the just the kind of thing that the music business spits out like Old Faithful, to swamp my scarce shelving. Pretty-good is to good as blow-jobs is to jobs: pleasant though the one may be, it in no way addresses the near-universal demand for the other. It's easier to provide, is all. Every third band can make a pretty-good record. So can several of your friends and neighbors who don't even sing or play a musical instrument. I for one would rather hear your neighbor give it a go than most of these bands.
There must be a couple hundred of these pretty-good ones in my basement; it surprises me how many I can't pull the trigger on because of some contingency or another. I am unwilling to get rid of CDs on which I appear, or on which a song I wrote is covered. God knows why, must be vanity. Also I can't quite seem to unburden myself of the tower of discs -- even with many uncased and in 2-D sleeves, the stack stands taller than me -- of my stage shows and radio performances that people have given me. There's nothing that would objectively privilege this pile over the slush pile except the ridiculous thought that my descendants may one day wish to pass an idle year reviewing poorly-mixed renditions of my sundry works.
If I like you personally, and you've made a lousy-to-pretty-good record that I acquired at some point, rest assured that I still have it. I feel I owe it to good friends to save them an inch of space in my collection. And I fear that they could drop in unexpectedly and demand to know "where you are storing my 1996 work, Poetry For The Common Man."
If your record boasts expensive-looking or personalized art, it's still there in my rack. When Mo Ostin retired, his colleagues assembled a hardcover-book-format package called Mo's Songs. The cover shows a glossy photo that someone, it appears, cut out and pasted by hand, and the notes inside are awash in sentimentality. I'll never listen to this, but how can I toss it out? Similarly, if it's a record I can remember buying in a store for $18, it's kept, because what costs more is valued more. And more-famous trumps less-famous: Paul McCartney stays, Gin Blossoms goes. No defensible reasoning here.
It's hard to have any scruples or consistency in this; there's simply more music than reason can contain. Too much music is a problem that extends beyond my basement shelves. It's a social plague. It pollutes the air, numbs our nerves, and breaks my garbageman's back. It makes good music harder to find and its practitioners poorer and obscurer. It strips the whole enterprise of value, for users and producers alike. What would happen if we all consumed a little less, each of us using his or her own private standards to discriminate more actively? Maybe we could reduce the amount of music in the world and restore some value to what remained.
I think MP3s, and the Cloud, are a good solution to the proliferation of junk, and not only because of the conservation of physical resources. The album-every-year-or-two paradigm seemed workable for about 35 years -- to many of us born in the 1960s it felt like an ordained natural order -- but in retrospect it looks a lot more like a jobs security program than a reliable way to spur and regularize art production. Sure, it was exciting to form love-flavored attachments to artists and follow their "journeys" record to record, as they "matured," digressed, sold out, came back to their roots, collaborated with unlikely partners, discovered Africa, etc. I look at my near-complete pile of Beatles or Paul Simon records (I'm going to be using "records" and "discs" interchangeably, by the way) and I see that, plainly, some artists had it in them to balance the record-a-year imperative, the license to experiment and freedom to grow, and some mysterious faculty for self-discipline or self-criticism, so as to lead to glorious results: albums that succeeded uniquely as albums, year after year; catalogs of stylistic breadth and continuous excellence. Those elite artists were served well, but I don't think the other 99%, and the record-buying public generally, were. The other 99 artists of 100, whose names aren't Paul Simon, lack the imaginative wealth, can't manage the fine balance, worthy though they may be. They finish their careers having made twenty albums with a half-dozen excellent songs spread across them (mainly in the first couple, sad to say). That's the fate of most of us musical non-Balzacs, who try but aren't humanly able to churn out gem after gem. A half-dozen solid songs, or a couple superior albums, is a no-kidding accomplishment -- something your neighbor couldn't pull off. But in the context of continual record production, decades-long career maintenance, the insistence on interpreting pop songs as cultural milestones and pop singers as visionaries, it looks like a failure.
If only we who produce music could trim the dross before it goes to market. We can't, because it takes money and luck and a lot of trial-and-error to come up with the quantity of music from which good is likely to emerge, and even then the good may only stand out in the fullness of time. Meantime, we need the resources to experiment and to fail, repeatedly. The Cloud serves us admirably here. The artiste can put his efforts in the public square more quickly and cheaply than ever, and his followers can choose to subsidize the art without taking on the clutter. Attractively designed physical media can store and memorialize the small edge of this that proves valuable. That is, the songs fight out the first few rounds in the digital realm, and some time later are crowned with the honor of preservation in a more permanent and sensually appealing format. At first glance it may look cruel to consign a lot of effortful music to a likely digital oblivion. But most of our 78s and 45s are gone and forgotten, along with the devices on which we played them; and of course no music in human history before the late 19th century is on record -- a loss that is philosophically mournable but that we all live with easily. And reducing the plasticware leads to elegant gains. Long after the Beatles are dead, your shelf may display a dozen playable Beatles objects but only one by Ringo Starr. The rest of Ringo's songs will have magically vanished into the nether-regions of the Cloud, or somehow turned to water and nourished an arid subcontinent.
Scrapping fat glossy packages by the likes of Timbaland, Nelly, Luke Bryan, and T.G. Sheppard (to be clear, and not to inflame everyone, I like a few songs by all these guys okay, but can't justify the permanent storage of dozens of them) reminds me of the passing nature of fashionable taste, and the extravagance of the moneyed sector of the music industry in satisfying it. The photography on the Timbaland record that has somehow come into my possession looks like it cost a hundred thousand dollars. The booklet is so thick you can hardly coax it from the jewel case. If some dude turns a goofball idea into a popular hit and everyone dances around and enjoys the summer more, it doesn't seem very objectionable. But when you give a moment's thought to the year-of-vaccines-for-Bangladeshis' worth of art design, the carbon footprint of multiple buses crisscrossing the country for years on end, and the transfer of millions upon millions of dollars from work-weary parents to summer-enjoying kids...you almost have to weep.
It's easy fun taking potshots at megastars, but looking over the amassment of little-used goods brings on thoughts of darker pitch and higher contrariety. What happens when a prodigiously gifted instrumentalist collaborates with four or five peer instrumentalists, under some vague and vaguely cerebral concept-frame, records it as live performance, and releases it with a provocatively poetic name and an arty cover? Answer: I buy it, and listen to it with a mix of mild pleasure and incomprehension two or three times. I am speaking here of the music called jazz, and I don't want to name names because I admire a lot of these guys, and know a few of them -- and anyway, the names aren't the main point. The point is, isn't there way too much of this out there? At the risk of sounding philistine, music that is indifferent to your needs -- to hum a tune, get your head jolted, dance -- but pointedly attentive to its own -- to be esteemed for its algebraic complexities, to be listened to carefully, quietly, and soberly -- is skating on very thin ice. Armstrong and Ellington wrote and performed joyful, headsticking classics; John Lewis and Miles Davis came up with techniques and settings that no one before them did, or would have had the balls to see through if they had; Thelonious Monk will sound good as long as there are sounds. I don't know how any of that relates to five guys sitting around groovily exploring tones and textures. I'm kind of glad they can do it, as a practical matter; and I feel that I could listen a hundred times to a good number of these discs and slowly attain a closer sympathy with their logic and harmony, even learn something useful from them. But since it wouldn't be much fun, I don't want to. Anyway, I mostly kept records of this description. Just because your cat doesn't especially like you, you don't put it out in the cold.
Then there are what you might call the Americana records -- good God! One time a neighbor of mine said to me, in all non-snarky sincerity, "I saw in a magazine that American Idol was soliciting songwriters, and was going to pass it on to you, but then it occurred to me -- they aren't looking for Buck Owens recyclings, for Pete's sake!" Rather a brutal thing to hear, but it mirrors my thoughts about the genre in some ways. Currently living people playing currently popular music is easy to understand, and formerly living people playing the music of their eras likewise needs no explanatory text. Whereas living, young people playing the music of bygone times often makes me wonder: do they not know the era passed, or are we pretending it didn't? The intention, I guess, is a little unclear to me. If they are wearing costumes and singing about jukeboxes, as more than a few are, it's getting so close to Pump Boys and Dinettes that you might as well just put on the original cast album and have a corn-shuckin' good time.
Does this all sound a bit...negative? That's because I'm addressing music in terms of niches and subcategories. When you look at large-ish numbers of musical products with your pattern-sensing brain, categories are what springs to the surface. "I am challenging, non-vocal Art," says one disc; "I am handsome and good in the sack and am only gonna sing about things and points of view that matter to you," drawls another -- you don't even have to put them on to know what they sound like. Quite depressing! Too, bandying about "modern jazz" and "alternative country" and other slippery invented descriptors propels you into symbolic play and away from the purer non-verbal ecstasy of music as embodied by real people with proper names. Let me be clear that I kept much, much more than I threw away. After reading my skeptical comments on entire schools, the reader might wonder what's left! Well, within eyesight of this laptop right now: John Doyle, Lou Reed, Jimmy Martin, the Osbornes, Jason Adasciewicz, George Jones, Doc Watson, Monk. There's lots of lesser known music as well, just not right here by my table. I became aware, as I sifted, of how much I own and have forgotten all about. I could really spend the rest of my days digging into what I've got -- no need for more.
Maybe records themselves are part of the problem. Music got along fine before it started being frozen and mass-produced. These days, you buy it from a vendor, take it into your life as an object, and enjoy the option of repeating it endlessly, enjoy knowing that it's always there, never changing, like a Bible verse. Eek. Maybe the decimation of the old-line music industry will encourage a healthy re-focusing on live music performance, which partakes of the fragility and risk, the wartiness and decay of organic life in a way that records don't. Maybe, in the meantime, we can somehow regain the self-inhibiting category, Not Good Enough To Make A Record.
Oh, by the way, my 10th CD will be out soon!