Archiving the Past

So what lies ahead for independent booksellers and record stores? In my opinion, their fate unfortunately lies hand-in-hand with Darwin: adapt or die.

The past is now present and the distinction between the two is blurred. Today in our digital age, black-and-white movies, pop songs, forgotten TV shows and historical videos are all made available to us with a credit card, or in many cases for free. Our cultural history, once out of reach, locked away in the storage basements of libraries, is slowly transforming its impact on our present. The digitization of music, film, video and even books has created an explosive profitable opportunity to exploit and reincarnate our past cultures right alongside our present.

From Spotify to Apple, and Netflix to YouTube, these enormous businesses are booming as they normalize the concept that the old is as easy to consume as the new. Let It Be by The Beatles and Rolling In The Deep by Adele are both available to download for $1.29 on iTunes. Our past is growing closer to our present.

The past is no longer a foreign land, as the Internet could bring any historical subject or classical artist to life, right before our eyes. We can immerse ourselves in our past, we can re-live the live broadcastings surrounding the 1969 Apollo 11 landing, Neil Armstrong’s first words from the Moon; we can experience what it would have been like in real time.

However, our history is not overtaking our present, it is simply lying a couple of mouse clicks away, whenever you want it, living right alongside the present. Our history is not static either, every day more history is washed up, uploaded, growing in depth and immersability. What was Project Gutenberg in 1971, the radical effort to turn old books into text files has now evolved to Google’s Google Books, Amazon’s Kindle or Archive.org. But what effect does the omnipresence of the past have on the present, on contemporary culture?

iTunes Genius will use the cloud combined with information about your music interests to direct you towards similar artists in the present as well as towards deep wells of influence from the past. On Spotify, the Arcade Fire radio will include contemporary bands such as The National, The Shins, Broken Bells, as well as Neutral Milk Hotel, a band from the early 90s. This is to say that the past gets as much preference as the present. With over 140,000 followers on Spotify, dead or alive, artists such as Mozart, Louis Armstrong and Grizzly Bear are as popular as one another.

In the past, music was physical. Records, cassettes or CDs fashion would erode as “new” songs sat on the same shelves as the old songs recorded 25 to 50 years prior. Indeed, the physical nature of the record or CD limited consumers to only a group of artists they would repeatedly listen to. With a maximum of twenty tracks, CDs meant that people would listen to artists albums’ and grow affectionate for a particular artist: Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin?

The digital era has changed how we evaluate our music preferences. Nowadays, we no longer have to purchase an entire record or CD to listen to our favorite tracks from an artist. The digital and compressed nature of audio devices have transformed listeners preferences, from albums to individual tracks. Ever since the Internet has allowed us to purchase individual tracks from different albums, artists and genres, our generation has developed a one-track mind. Spotify, amongst most other music applications, facilitate and propagate this transformation, as they rate individual tracks rather than albums or artists. Rarely do consumers purchase entire albums anymore, as downloading our favorite tracks off iTunes is cheaper, if not free and takes less space.

Digitization has granted us the privilege to be picky with our music interests. Today, we have a stronger tendency to define our music tastes by genres or even by moods (e.g. aggressive, reading, groovy), as it encapsulates and defines our music preferences more specifically than a specific set of artists would. There is no surprise that one-hit wonders are more popular today than ever before. The largest 160GB iPod can hold up to approximately 40,000 tracks, the age of transporting records or CDs is heavy! No wonder in the past decade, three quarters of all independent music shops have closed down as music lovers go online in Britain.

The benefiters are companies such as Spotify and BeatPort, who mine the past as they host it, exposing what was initially buried, as they profit from the forgotten sounds of the past, decades and centuries old, uploaded and available on the Internet to download, as they host the most incredible variety of music across any genre, from death metal to R&B to chillwave. Thus, music culture must adapt to the evolution of audio technology, and unfortunately, reducing the average price of CDs from £11 to £8 in 2009 is not sufficient keep retail music stores in business in Britain.

So what lies ahead for independent booksellers and record stores? In my opinion, their fate unfortunately lies hand-in-hand with Darwin: adapt or die. However, as ruthless as the acceleration of technology may be, there are benefits to archiving our cultural history. Ironically, when future generations seek to re-live their cultural past, our present, they will see this digital expansion defined by downloaded audio and video logs; who listened or watched what and where.

Words: Oliver Harrison

(Inspired by ‘The End of Then Past? Present? Online, It All Runs Together‘ by Paul Ford, WIRED Magazine, February 2014)


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