How Tech Has Changed The Way We Listen: Ownership

White noise

“When I used to make mix tapes, I would make the track lists by hand. I had notebooks full of my mix tape track lists, with notes about what I was trying to accomplish with them. And making them would take hours and hours.”

-Kelly Stitzel


The increased portability of music is, in the end, all about a shift in power. It’s about ownership and about scarcity. The easier it gets to access music, the less we perceive the creator as the owner. Sure, we can talk about the authority of the artist and our respect for his or her creation, but that’s just so much philosophy. But for the most staunch purists out there, we’re all more than willing to drag, drop, recombine, edit, skip, shuffle and redistribute music as we see fit.

But haven’t we always?

It’s easy to make the argument that a new format tramples on the purity of the art of music, but that’s really just a matter of perspective. A vinyl LP may be more “pure” than, say, the compact disc because it comparatively limits a listener’s ability to alter the flow of the album, but it doesn’t completely prohibit alteration. The listener can still lift the needle, still start on the B-side, still memorize the exact point where a particular track starts and repeat it manually.


“Radio was more magical, too. DJs were live on the air (unlike the voicetracked shows that are all the norm now), and so there was an immediacy to the listening experience.”

-Ted Asregadoo


Yeah. What about freakin’ radio? Talk about trampling on musical purity. Why, with radio a DJ can just pluck a song off a complete album, play it regardless of where it comes up in the track list and the context that provides, introduce it with his or her own twist on the experience… hell, you might even dial to the station in the middle of the song. Pssh. Radio.


“Technology has allowed us to basically bathe in whatever mass media we choose, 24 hours a day — but that can’t help but make us a little numb to it in the end. That’s the source of the disconnect so many of us are talking about in this thread, I think. No matter how precious music is to you, it can’t help but lose some of its value when it’s so easily accessible.”

-Jeff Giles


That’s the trade-off, isn’t it? Technology has made music infinitely more accessible and ubiquitous, but that ubiquity has resulted in some acclimatization. Back in the most pure days of music, before any form of recording at all, it was a 100% live experience. To hear music, one had to listen to another person making music in the moment. There’s nothing purer than that. This also lacks the perfection of the studio or the democracy of mass distribution. It may be harder to make music sacred in an era when music is everywhere, but let’s repeat that little phrase…




Isn’t that some kind of holy dream? Think about it: We are living in a time and place where music, the art that moves all blessed with the auditory sense to every emotion in the human spectrum, is all around. Is a loss of purity and a relinquishing of sole ownership a fair price to pay for this living dream? Is it better to let people bathe in music whenever they desire, using it to do whatever they want it to do, than to insist on purity for purity’s sake?

Music has lost its rarity and so the value of owning it has diminished. The same thing happened to apples. Something can be rare and special or ubiquitous and of negligible value. In the end, the only way to keep music meaningful in a world where it can be plucked out of the ether at a moment’s notice is to assign it the idiosyncratic value of things like personalized mixes. The listener must take originally undue ownership of music from the artist, tarnishing its purity, to distinguish it from the infinite ocean of noise.

  • Keith

    Drats – I thought this was going to be an article on the “terms and conditions” most iTunes users fail to read with their upgrades. For this point, we can ignore illegal downloads, just like we did the industry-killing epidemics home taping and CDR’s that came before it.

    When you buy a vinyl record or a CD, the music is yours to do with what you please. Play it at your house. Play it at a club. Play it at your neighbor’s house. Make your friend a copy. Add tracks to a mixtape. Make yourself a copy. Sell it. Lest not forget the pleasure of holding an album in your hands, reading the lyrics and liner notes, falling in love with the glamorous rock star pictures and marveling at the iconic artwork.

    When you buy a tune from iTunes, that isn’t yours to own. It is yours to rent. iTunes restrict how many computers can play it, how often you can burn it, and if for whatever reason a cookie goes missing on your hard drive, iTunes will snap your fingers like a Catholic Nun and say you are not authorized to play a song you purchased legally. You can’t share the track. You can’t sell it when you’ve moved on. At the least, you get an inch-by-inch album gif to lust over, at the most, a PDF.

    I still download legally, primarily from Amazon because the albums are cheaper (most of their inventory is between $3.99 and $8.99). But when I can, I go for the CD and the pleasure of buying and reselling at Easy Street Records in Seattle, Laurie’s Planet of Sound in Chicago, Time Traveler in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, Amoeba in LA, Daddy Kool in Florida, Freakbeat in Sherman Oaks, and so on. Barring the house burning down where you lose everything, my CD’s will faithfully deliver higher quality sound and outlive all of my hard drives. And you just can’t appreciate how hot Stevie Nicks is on the cover of Bella Donna in a 1×1 inch gif.