I'm worried that music is becoming a passive entity in our lives. The idea of getting music "on demand" from a variety of formats in a variety of locations until you have basically around-the-clock saturation implies that there is a kind of active behavior in the seeking-out of this music. To a certain extent, this is the case, because deciding which satellite radio provider to choose, which download service to select, and what kind of personal media device to carry in your back pocket involves some basic kinds of decisions involving certain brands, certain genres, or certain payment structures.
There are two disturbing things. One is that none of these decisions have much, if anything, to do with the specific music that will be listened to, and the other is that what seems to require a sort of interaction with the material is merely consumer strategy, and people become actually disengaged from what they are hearing.
My first worry is pretty cut-and-dry: to choose iTunes over eMusic or vice versa could have something to do with the staunchly independent character of eMusic, or the a la carte availability of iTunes. It could have to do with being an iPod/Apple devotee. Regardless, there is an exponential increase in the potential for limitation of content, which is why a future that involves significantly higher digital download activity could be a bit like subscribing to BMG was back when I was a pre-teen: eventually the catalog feels like a cage. It's whatever the third (or fourth, or fifth, or whatever) party was able to secure licensing and distribution for. You start buying things simply because they are what's offered; they are what current DRM standards call for; they are what's sent to you in the mail every month on the hopes that you won't be motivated enough to repackage and send it back.
My second worry is really where things start to get scary. Pop music has been an integral part of movies since Apocalypse Now, or The Jazz Singer, depending on how you spin it. Teen dramas on TV have been similarly using music since the days of Beverly Hills, 90210 or maybe before. We are not surprised when we hear a song that exists in the real world playing on a TV show that we know is fictional; it's not outside our realm of understanding to pretend that a famous band in reality could be a famous band in the world that Seth and Summer occupy. When we see a picture of a watch in a magazine ad, we know that it is not a real watch; it is just a picture of a watch.
We are also accustomed to public places like stores and restaurants that play background music; satellite radio stations have made this incredibly easy- no commercials!
Walkmen and now iPods make it irresistably easy to actually carry a steady soundtrack to our own lives right in our pockets; we've actually become the people in those movies and TV shows; we now have appropriate, personally selected music running behind every stroll in the park, bus ride to work, even at work in some cases.
This is great! Isn't it? I'm not so sure. With devices that play streaming music for long periods of time, there is a weird paradox happening. Because just as consumers – excuse me, music listeners – seem to gain all the access they could possibly want to personalized, on-demand music 24/7, they can actually stop paying attention to the music. They don't have to get up to flip records or tapes, they don't have to search for the remote to chance CDs. They don't have to choose the order of the music they listen to – the technology takes care of all that. No wonder less people than I had originally hoped actually complain about the absence of liner notes- few people are spending that much time with the music to notice.
I want to see people pay more attention, and I mean real attention. I want to see people who care about music enough to give something of themselves to it. And I don't mean their money. I mean a kind of focus, a kind of meaning. Music needs to be brought back into the public sphere in a way that encourages participation. It's obviously going to encourage consumption; but it doesn't have to encourage this unfortunate breed of scavenging which ends up, in my eyes, looking like a weird, pop-art version of greed.