Soon we’ll have access to every record ever made—and what that means
In a fascinating, must-read essay posted yesterday on Slate.com, Bill Wyman—not that one, but my old pal, the former Chicago Reader “Hitsville” columnist, and original “Sound Opinions” co-host—thoughtfully considered what it means that culture lovers soon will have instant access, via the digital “cloud,” to every significant recording (and, he adds, movie) (and, I’d add, book) ever made, all at the touch of a (possibly illegal) download button, thereby signaling the end not only of the need to acquire and hoard physical product, but of the overrated “asset” of scarcity or rarity (that is, the notion some forward that a piece of art means more to us if we really have to embark on a crusade of sorts to find it).
“Lester Bangs, the late, great early-rock critic, once said he dreamed of having a basement with every album ever released in it,” Wyman begins. “That’s a fantasy shared by many music fans—and, mutatis mutandi, film buffs as well. We all know the Internet has made available a lot of things that were previously hard to get. Recently, though, there are indications of something even more enticing, almost paradisiacal, something that might have made Bangs put down the cough syrup and sit up straight: that almost everything is available.”
I’d disagree with Wyman only on two points, one of them minor (especially given that he’s always been ambivalent at best about Saint Lester, while I am quite the opposite). The nitpicking: Wyman thinks Bangs, like many critics/collectors/obsessive fans, unduly valued some music just because nobody else had heard or could hear it. “A friend of Bangs’, long after he died, said to me that the unspoken corollary in Bangs’ mind to his fantasy was that no one else would have access to it,” he wrote.
Nonsense. Bangs famously was forever mistreating the thousands of LPs he owned—he valued the music, not the possessions—or giving away recordings he thought other people needed to hear right now. I personally walked away from my own encounter with the great one carrying an armful of books and records, and years later, someone gave me the copy of the import single of “God Save the Queen” that Lester had bought upon its release and given away to him a short time later. There also is the story in Let It Blurt about Lester buying boxes of “Raw Power” at a time so that he could give a copy to anyone he met who hadn’t heard it—and this was a guy living barely above the poverty line. So he was all about the sharing, and it’s not hard to imagine that he’d be way down with the downloads.
The more substantive point is one Wyman failed to make, something that Greg Kot and I have been talking about at our occasional “Future of Music” speaking events: The fact that almost every note of music ever recorded soon will be available to all of us is so daunting that rather than diving in and indulging, some are tempted to just throw up their hands and say, “Where would I even start?” This, in my opinion, makes the need for what some call “the curated experience” more important than ever. Which is to say, while critics (as opposed to mere reviewers) may not be particularly valued at the moment, we could soon need them more than ever just to make some sense of the overwhelming rush of art threatening to drown us all. And we can only hope, Bill, that some of them are half as great as Bangs.