Those questions are impossible to answer, so Carl does us the service of scaling it down:
...what is the impulse to keep hold of all that non-essential stuff, stuff you are not invested enough in to listen to more than once, yet alone pay for?Which is still a damned difficult question, if only because I've no idea by what standard we're measuring - how much stuff? Is it non-essential by my own standards, or society's? What about the stuff we have paid for? To understand my trouble in establishing a workable baseline, let's take a look at some of my closest friends and their respective music-consumption habits.
- One is an amateur noise-maker with a steadfast belief in the shamanic power of music - yet, as a digital Maoist, he listens to music primarily via YouTube. He occasionally buys vinyl records, but he doesn't own a turntable. (The son of an investment banker, he treats records much as speculators treat real estate.)
- Another is a collector par excellence, who's plowed unfathomable amounts of time & money into every passing storage medium - yes, even MiniDisc - on the off-chance that this format will become the historical default. Consequent to his unyielding compulsion for accumulation, he possesses both an embarrassing assortment of obsolete petroleum-derived media and an unimpeachable record collection.
- My band's drummer spends his waking life behind either the kit or the wheel. In Japan, every car still comes stocked with yer standard CD player, thus he listens almost exclusively to CDs.
- Our singer approximates what I imagine is today's average music consumer: functionally computer-literate, he knows a couple of file-sharing sites that he infrequently downloads illicit MP3s from, but he relies by-and-large upon the iTunes store. He came of age during the CD boom, purchased hundreds of the damned things, and is thus uncomfortable with either going digital - divesting himself of physical musical objects - or fully embracing the frail, impermanent, totemic atavism of vinyl.
I'm actually quite vicious in my musical discrimination, to the point that I'm one of those so-called "music nerds" who is somehow ignorant of even the most popular music on the planet. (Lady Gaga? Still haven't heard a full song start-to-finish.) By now, I know my own tastes well enough to know when something isn't even worth investigating; or if an artist, though unimpressive at first, could become a slow-blooming favourite. Of course, over the past forty years, artists have become ever more self-aware and adept at deploying their particular potpourri of signifiers to establish themselves as more brand than band. The sole benefit of music's infection by the marketing brain parasite is that, simply by paying attention, one becomes well-versed in the signs, symbols, satorial choices, tonsorial maneuvers, promotional stratagems, and subcultural propaganda necessary to decide if something may be worth a listen.
The upshot is that the more I know about music, the less I listen to (a paradox I've addressed before). By the time I download a given album, I've pretty well decided that I'll enjoy it - all that remains is the question of how much. This could point to a key difference between me and Carl: whereas he's fairly certain he "could happily live without 80 percent of what I have downloaded over the years," I'm not so sure I could, because everything on my hard drive arrived there as the result of research & deliberation. There's only so much copper in the ground, there's only so much storage on my computer, and I've only so much time to waste upon whimsy & poor consideration.
But even then, is all my digital music essential? Because I own almost all of it on vinyl too. Granted, the acrimony of the collector's market has kept certain albums off my shelf (I'll be damned if I can afford a copy of Rid of Me) but such exceptions are relatively few. Just about every album that's ever "meant" anything to me, I have in physical format - which helps assure that these albums will continue to mean something to me.
Though this carries the stink of the Sunk Cost Fallacy, of course I don't mean my copy of Man Overboard is merely worth the hours spent crate-digging before plucking it out of a bargain bin, plus the ¥500 I paid for it. Records imbue the music they contain with import precisely because of the format's Achilles' heel: its physical fragility. Taking proper care of vinyl can be boring and expensive; handling & playing them so as not to do damage is precarious and prudish. So if I go to the trouble of putting a record on, I damn well want to listen to it, and the act of listening itself becomes center of my attention. The palaver of playing a record also insures that it's unlikely I'll overplay any given album and prostitute whatever mystique it once held.
Music is literally nothing if we don't afford it our time and attention; the ritual around playing a record is a gesture of respect to the music - the sacrifice of our time and attention.
The difficulty is that collecting always takes place in the shadow of the Big Other. At worst, this leads to the establishment-of-self-via-consumption that Carl finds troubling:
...the weight of all that accumulated culture reassures us that we are ourselves substantial, a kind of prosthesis, we must be smart, we must be committed, we must be artistic, or intellectual because the sheer range and diversity of our hard drive, as a kind of concretization of our restless seeking and searching memorializes us to ourselves.Now, as I explained above, I've no idea how far out of step I am with the general music listening populace, but as a collector I too consider how my collection presents itself - its depth, its diversity, its material condition. But I'm not counting on my collection to buttress my reputation or enhance my cachet: I'm counting on the fact that these records are the only possible means of sharing my own aesthetic epiphanies with another person. I'm well aware of how counterproductive a distraction analog fetishism can be, but at least the lingering spectre of a record's totemic power is far more commanding of attention than an MP3 e-mail attachment or YouTube link.
More importantly, we human are subjects only to ourselves and mere objects to everyone else - noisy, unpredictable, combatative, delightful objects, but objects nonetheless. Some of us are gifted enough to translate our feelings somewhat effectively to other people by some form of vibration: physical, aural, oral, or corporeal. But most of us aren't. Most of us are bloody useless at making ourselves understood. The best hope we have is to find meaning inscribed upon some other, nonhuman object that we can pass to another human, who luckily will read the inscription with the same surprise and passion that we did.