Tag Archives: recordings

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Musicians Can Be Like Family

We are the music makers,

And we are the dreamers of dreams. . .

                                                   -Arthur O’Shaughnessy

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As a person accumulates time on this planet, and if they are among the “sound- centrics”* who crave music in their lives, they are likely to experience a unique kind of mourning when a favorite musician dies. The feeling mimics the kind of response we might expect with the passing of a family member.  To be sure, the act of grieving for a performer is likely to be more parasocial than communal. But it replicates the same sense of loss we experience with someone we know.  Because a person’s music can have such a hold on their identity, and because their music obviously remains alive on recordings, their passing can be an unwelcome disruption of a ‘relationship’ we cherished. The residuals of feeling easily expand to include musicians with whom we shared an expressive history.  As it often works out, the sense of loss we may be ours alone within our immediate circle.

Time travel with a musician is unique to the phenomenology of the self.

There are reasons for this effect. Musicians have a privileged relationship with members of their audiences.  The curve of success for influential musicians often parallels our own intense musical awakenings in youth: a pattern that means that performers and their admirers may be traveling the same timeline of the life-cycle. Even in this one-way relationship musicians can become familiar media “friends,” even more so because our key life experiences are accompanied by soundtracks that they have created. It should hardly be a surprise when their deaths cut deeper than we might have expected.

B flat majorEvery music lover would have their own list of singers, songwriters and players who have been granted a kind of permanent immortality. When they are suddenly gone, we notice and care. At least that is how it felt to me on learning recently of the deaths of singer Tony Bennett and Canadian musicians Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, and The Band’s Robbie Robertson (below).** The music world lost all of them recently.  An extended period for this novel kind of mourning tends to lengthen as we reclaim their presence through videos and recordings.

Like mine, any person’s list of recent losses will be personal and idiosyncratic, and as expandable as an old accordion. It speaks to our individuality that no two individuals would likely claim the same musical placeholders that we keep for our inner selves. Time travel with a musician and their work is unique to the phenomenology of the self.

It was not always so. Victorians especially struggled to comprehend what it meant to be listening to a recording of a deceased singer. A ghost from the past, many thought. Some were unsettled by the act of bringing the very breath of a singer back to life. Did this violate the natural order of things? Or had we finally tapped a way to hear the angels? After all, before recording, sound was the most precious of phenomena: at once transient, but extremely effecting.

The power of recorded sound to defeat aging and death makes it a kind of time machine of the psyche: a portal to a past we recognize and often want to relive. Songs of the deceased offer the chance to reinterrogate the identities we once owned, envied, and perhaps abandoned. All of this evocative power makes it easy to understand why the lives of musicians are among the most enduring social markers.


*As noted in The Sonic Imperative (2021), this inexact but useful characterization is meant to identify the millions of individuals among us who are consistently constantly seek fulfillment in the creation or consumption of auditory media: mostly music, but not exclusively so.

**Robbie Robertson leading off his song, The Weight, with a world of musicians contributing.

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The Challenge of Reframing Leisure Choices as Ethical Choices

Street musician commons wikimedia
 Street musician                                                commons wikimedia

Even very good arguments describing musicians who are deprived of compensation usually have no impact on downloaders.

Communication often involves thinking strategically to find the right appeals that will produce compliance in a target audience. Searching for ways to induce others to accept the kinds of choices we endorse is always a challenge. And while it usually makes sense to focus on what works—strategies that show some success in getting agreement—I am struck with how difficult it is to produce one kind of change:  convincing individuals that a favored leisure activity is a bad ethical choice. It almost never works.

There are no shortages of relevant cases where we have all have been on the sending or receiving end of these appeals: criticizing attendance at sporting events that can result in serious injuries to the participants (boxing, football), decrying a life-style choice that wastes resources (owning a mile-to-the-gallon cigarette boat or SUV), attending performances that include individuals charged with making bad choices (avoiding films by Woody Allen), using products that come with significant health risks (smoking, racing motorcycles), and so on.  We all struggle with the apparent hypocrisy of violating our own values in the pursuit of the things we enjoy.

One especially good case study is the plea from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and any number of musicians to not download “pirated” music. The request is to instead purchase “legal” singles and albums from record companies or online retailers, who will then distribute royalties to songwriters and musicians. The cause seems just, even though the industry can be its own worst enemy, as in attempts by Warner Music to go after restaurants and public venues where someone might sing “Happy Birthday to you,” a song they erroneously claimed to own.

Piracy is no longer a new problem. But one can look at the state of the music industry today and conclude that the digital revolution has been cruel to musicians.  Stephen Witt’s recent book, How Music Got Free (Viking, 2015) is just the latest account of the unraveling of the record business, mostly at the hands of ordinary listeners who can now copy music files without payment.  Witt reports that there was only one platinum album (1 million units shipped) in 2014. The singer was Taylor Swift, and–as television’s ET reports– even she’s not happy.

We simply don’t buy as much recorded music any more. We rent it, sometimes legally from online services, and often borrow it from each other, bypassing a legitimate path for distributing royalties. Fewer albums and singles are sold today because a digital copy of any one can function as a “master” available to make many more.

I’m always impressed with how little impact solid arguments about musicians deprived of compensation actually have on listeners, which means most of us. We simply resist linking our behavior to the theft or “piracy” of someone’s creative work.  It’s not that we have to worry about whether Ms. Swift will be able to pay the light bill. It’s that musicians in virtually every musical category have been cut off from revenue streams that could support them.

And so a simple quid pro quo can be made: To support the musicians you like, buy their music.  But images of talented modern musicians living as paupers doesn’t motivate in the ways one might expect.  Adding in the argument that downloading is “theft” of their intellectual property hardly results in the kind of cognitive dissonance a persuader might expect.

Even students who are also budding musicians don’t seem to take the bait. Perhaps they should. As RIAA spokesman Cary Sherman noted in a 2012 speech, the Bureau of labor statistics estimates there is a 41% drop since 1999 in people who identify themselves as musicians. That corresponds to a continuing decline in the sale of recorded music of all sorts.  Even though more albums are being released, most (80%) sell less than 100 copies.

At several levels it’s obvious why we do not heed requests to change a behavior we enjoy. Our leisure passions are linked to our personal identity.  To give them up is to face the unwelcome thought of becoming at least a slightly different person. Then, too, the immediate rewards of our passion are much more tangible than compliance with a behavioral ideal. It’s probably only a few academics and some musicians who like to intellectualize potential hypocrisies.

In addition, we can generate perfect rationalizations that will take us off the hook.  We look for cases that will confirm a prefered view that no harm is done. Using this kind of process of “motivated reasoning,” we focus on the single instance that minimizes the power of arguments for change.  Hence: “Taylor Swift will never miss the puny royalties she would get from a legal download,” or “I paid too much to hear Paul McCartney last year,” or “I live by the principle that the internet ‘wants to be free.'”  And so we find ways to not notice the lie that separates our best instincts from our actions.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu