Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Digital Present Saves Music's Past

Hey, fellow old timers: Remember when you'd hear a song that really made you want to go out and get it? Remember how if it was late at night you'd have to wait until the record store opened? As much as we recall all that anticipation fondly, we have lived to see the new paradigm, and frankly it's got its benefits. Did you ever go to the store only to find they were sold out of that album you sought (perhaps because it wasn't the current "in" thing that had its own end cap display)? Yeah, much as we do have fond thoughts of record stores (and I certainly endorse people to support their local shops if so inclined), that part we choose to block.

To me the advantage online music outlets (iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, etc.) have these days is how they don't have space limitations like brick and mortar music stores do. The immediacy of downloading is a convenience, but the fact they don't seem to have to restrict what they carry because they lack room in the bins (although they do have restrictions based on contracts with the labels, but that's legal, not physical) is the advantage. Not only does this allow for the obscure to be included with the popular, the back catalog and works of artists who have faded from the spotlight can still be found.

It's not that being middle-aged makes me dislike the contemporary stuff being released these days (I quite like the recent Wax Idols album, for example), but I cannot claim that the current scene appeals to me like what was the current scene twenty years ago. So what I am getting these days includes a reasonable amount of the material that I missed before, perhaps because I was too young (or not even born) at the time to have been into it (and never went through a phase) or maybe because I was too distracted by what I fancied at the time. With age I have not lost that inclination to keep finding songs that are new, but now some of those are actually quite old and merely new to my ears.

A few weeks ago I wrote about seeing the video for the Damned's cover of Love made me seek out tracks from that group's catalog (which I am finding to be quite enjoyable). A similar situation occurred when I got the Replacements' benefit EP with its single being a Gordon Lightfoot cover ("I'm Not Sayin'"). While I certainly had heard works by that Canadian singer-songwriter (I am old enough to recall some of his '70s hits from the radio, and of course they did get played on the oldies station from time to time) I didn't specifically recall hearing his original of that song (not that I may not at some point but it wasn't enough to stick), so when I had a moment for some music exploration I got not only that but some of his other compositions (from the well-known "Sundown"—still amazing—to what I believe was the lesser known "Second Cup of Coffee").

Another similar recent example was seeing Graham Parker featured in the movie This Is 40 earlier in the year and then thinking how other than his hit "Local Girls" my collection was light on his tracks, and I was inspired to sample Squeezing Out Sparks and really liking that (and after getting all its tracks then getting The Up Escalator)—and only three decades after it came out.

While my inclination in these middle years is, as shown, sometimes leaning toward the bygone era's tunes, I'm also availing myself of the new technology. I can sample just a few tracks to get a taste of whether I want to explore getting more without being forced to get a whole album all at once. (Sure, there's streaming options with even less cost, but I am enough of a dinosaur that I still fancy some modicum of ownership… and the belief that downloading gets a least a bit better royalties to the artists or their estates.)

I'm sure there are bigger fans of Mr. Lightfoot and Mr. Parker who may scoff at my Johnny-come-lately timing (and sampling timidity), but the reality is that, for better or for worse, my period of inclination didn't arrive until recently. Perhaps I should have gotten more into their stuff without requiring one of my favorite bands to spotlight a song or a being in a movie's plot, but that's not how it happened. (We all start out not knowing about something. It merely takes some of us longer to reach there.)

I choose to think that real fans look at this and would be glad that it happened at all. It's not like one is going to hear them on the radio or see them on MTV. Covers or inclusion on soundtracks/commercials seems the way for these less-than-contemporary (but timeless) songs are what keep them in our consciousness.

I won't digress to go into how after seeing Silver Linings Playbook I was inspired to get some Rare Earth and some Dave Brubeck. Or how a car commercial led me to fill out my Bo Diddley selection. You get the idea.

I have thought for years that I'd reach a point where I would accumulate pretty much all I'd ever need, that I'd stop hearing something that would inspire me to take a bit of time to seek it out. Again, I'm not listening to the radio anymore, so I shouldn't be "turned on" to more. But these unconventional methods keeps bringing more to mind, reminding me that no matter how much of music's rich past I have already heard there's more than I could get in a lifetime. Thus, I keep devoting my tiny music budget to getting the bits that have gotten on my radar that month. Sure, I make much more now, but I also have bigger expenses. It's a slight indulgence that keeps feeling denied at bay.

That's the beauty of middle-age. We're not concerned with what's hip or in style, and we have learned a bit of self-control. Okay, we had to, but still—we did. But as a sort of compensation we no longer have to be patient!

The kids today will never appreciate how good they have it, but we can hope someday they will appreciate all the good music from our heyday, and our parents' heyday, and our grandparents' heyday…

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