ON MY living room floor, next to the front door I have a short-ish stack of Sunday New York Times, still sheathed in their blue, plastic jackets. Not in a “hoarding” way, just four or five papers resting atop my magazine rack. People discreetly eye them as they enter, but are polite enough not to say anything, but I know what they are thinking.
Though that stack contains “old” news, and I’ve read the most salient pieces already online — as the news cycle, we know, thunders on– I can’t yet throw away those papers until I page through them in the old-style I’d grown up with, letting my eye and mind wander. It’s an old newsroom habit, and I wasn’t even around the newsroom in the golden years, but I was around to make note of the ritual — the turning of pages the desks piled with newsprint from cities across the country and globe.
It’s so different now. It’s “all” at our fingertips. I surf and scan and click and leap and still feel I don’t quite know enough about what’s happening — particularly the why — there is something about going through the news in your hand and feeling, even if it isn’t at all accurate, that you’ve have a sense of where the world is today. For that moment, until tomorrow.
Serendipity aside, my online habits are like many people’s I know: I tend to navigate to and read what I’m interested in — it’s filtered — on paper, of course, my eye might be caught by some odd buried brief — that might bloom into a story. Yes, this can happen online too, but I read faster online, with purpose and very seldom in the leisurely way I’d become accustomed to entering into the Sunday news.
But this isn’t just about newspapers. It’s not just the medium or the platform that’s changed, it’s how we collect and store our information; and too the ritual of consuming the information has evolved as well — where we read, how we read. It isn’t just news but books and music. When I was younger, like most, I listened to music in my bedroom, door closed, on the floor, letting the music — the drum and bass in particular — seep inside. It was a private matter. As I got older, college and graduate school, that ritual survived in tact but I’d often listened with others now — friendships grew around not just particular artists, but specific songs or genres so music became more communal, although, it was always necessary to listen quietly, uninterrupted and on my own if I was really trying to absorb or understand where the music was taking me.
With the communal ritual came the notion of collection — or the displaying of the collection — and this, I know was key to a corner of my generation’s way of defining itself. This carefully collected, consumed and now displayed music (or books, etc.) was something you built LP by LP, Grove paperback by Grove paperback. You proudly displayed your interests, passions, obsessions. You pulled them out to show the very best of them to people you felt would understand them. Often you were on the money about the choices of who would understand these things that often words didn’t adequately address. A different sort of sharing.
Late last week, in a big way, I’ve been hearing, daily, about Spotify, another streaming service that promises to change the way we buy, organize, listen and share music. Already, I’ve been a member of LaLa and Pandora and now Rhapsody. I put in my request for an invite for Spotify because, I feel as if I want to know. A musician friend of mine has shifted from “concern” to “resignation” — no money in it for the artist if you aren’t on the top tier. All those inexpensive loss leader CDs we used to buy back in the 70s and 80s — compilations of back catalog B-sides with a smattering of hits that might bring the consumer back to the artists’ earlier work, this is what’s happening to that. No one expects Gen-Y and beyond to listen and collect as we had — that’s done, but he asks: “Now, tell me, who is going to be interested in listening to that old Laurel Canyon stuff?”
Well, it’s clear: It’s the people who have bought those albums already in various formats — LP, 8-Track, cassette, CD, digital — and really would rather not buy it yet again. Spotify apparently is arranged, looks and “feels” like iTunes so, as one music writer friend said to me, “You already know how to use it.” Catalog and backlist at my fingertips. That Howlin’ Wolf song I just heard the other night that snaked down my spine in the documentary I was watching? Yep, In the middle of the night, I could pull it up and put in on my playlist. It’s “Mine” in that sense as is so much else looming on those “virtual shelves.”
Rhapsody works for me in a practical sense, in that since I write about music and sometimes need to hear something to reference and double-check, it’s more often than not there. There are holes, to be sure; some albums with only a limited amount of tunes available for streaming; some not at all. I have to say having some of my collection in various places on someone’s cloud or another — has helped in keeping the collection manageable. I haven’t gotten to the place where I feel I can jettison my collection — there are so many odds and ends, weird finds, one-offs, limited pressings — that I feel like I want to have even if I don’t listen to them again — more for sentimental reasons that I can’t find words for at the moment.
Last week I had dinner with a friend, a writer, a book and music lover much in the same way I have been most of my life, and we spent a lion share of the time discussing re-adapting. Reading on Kindles and iPads, listening to music that was “ours” but wasn’t. What is this thing about owning something tangible that makes it feel more like yours — or more real because you can not just possess it, but hold it, fall inside of it — the creamy pages of an old book, the photographs and liner notes on albums we began to love cut by cut. These things, we have held, the books, the records, will just become, said the musician-friend, interior design, knick knacks. There’s some truth to that: Shelter magazines feature spreads with books shelved spines against the wall or grouped by color for some aesthetic reason not having to do anything with genre, author, fiction or nonfiction. You’ve long been able to buy frames to showcase album cover art. And I suppose, for the generation who will not grow up with the same sense of owning and building, (playlists, though personal, are very different) these things are just that — “things” — relics and curios. It’s the essence that you’re after — of the tune or lyric, or the protagonist’s voice — that you will cary with you, like that penultimate paragraph of a favorite novel, the chorus of a summer song from a decade so far in the past it doesn’t seem like your own life anymore. In your hands or in the cloud: if it matters, you still carry it with you, always.