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The iTunes Abyss


One morning over winter break, I was browsing my Facebook newsfeed when I came across a blog post by Norman Lebrecht, whom I am a subscriber of (although I don’t always agree with what he has to say). Its subject was the current rankings of classical music recordings in the U.S., and how cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s recently released recording of the Elgar and Carter concertos had edged up to the number five slot. As an aspiring cellist and enthusiastic fan of Weilerstein’s work (her performance of the Elgar with a Chicago-area symphony had been the first time I’d heard the piece as a sixteen-year-old), I had been aware of the new recording, but hadn’t had a moment to buy it and give it a listen. Now, however, with my final exam of the semester complete and my mind eager to engage in an activity other than studying, I decided that the time was right to indulge in this latest interpretation of one of my favorite pieces. Logging into my iTunes account, I did a quick search for the recording, intending to purchase each track of the Elgar individually for only ninety-nine cents each (a price my graduate student budget can actually accommodate!). Yet to my dismay, I soon discovered that the all-important fourth movement was only available with a purchase of the complete album, due to the fact that it exceeded ten minutes in length. I shifted uncomfortably in my desk chair as I contemplated this dilemma. The price of the entire recording was $9.99. Should I save six dollars (which could be otherwise spent on a much-desired cup of hot chocolate at the local coffeehouse) and just purchase the first three movements, or should I bite the figurative bullet  (forgoing the hot chocolate) and buy the whole thing? Or, should I simply forget the entire idea and just watch the video of Jackie du Pre doing it on YouTube (perhaps while drinking the hot chocolate)? Decisions, decisions.


Ultimately, I made the decision to cough up the $9.99-the prospect of hearing Weilerstein’s luscious tone embellish the poignant strains of the fourth movement was just too tantalizing for me to resist-but what subsequently struck me as intriguing was that these various options I had at my disposal gave me the freedom to make a decision in the first place. I had more than one way (and cost option) to listen to a piece of music without even leaving my desk, while a mere decade ago, I would have had to leave my house (!) and buy a CD at Borders or Tower Records in order to listen to a piece-and unless I felt like making the trek over to the local library, which may or may not have had what I was looking for, there definitely wouldn’t have been a “free” option. A couple of decades prior to that, the same situation would have been true for obtaining an audiocassette tape, and before then, an LP or a record. But now, with the unyielding sea of digital media gradually trickling into every aspect of our daily lives, such technologies have been rendered obsolete, and so has their cultural significance. In 1965, when Jaqueline du Pre released her own recording of the Elgar concerto, it turned heads (and ears) across the classical music world, but when Alisa Weilerstein (whom I’ll boldly venture to say is right up there with Jackie in terms of talent) released her recording forty-seven years later, it didn’t impact the field in quite the same way, merely because it emerged within the context of a different aesthetic.


Ironically, as the technology necessary for the creation of a quality recording has become easier to obtain and utilize, the influence within the classical music world of recordings themselves has lessened considerably, purely because of their virtual nature. In the past, if you were going to purchase a recording of a concerto, you were going to make a careful decision about which interpretation you were going to buy, since it would most likely be sitting in your CD collection for the next thirty years. But now, if the only thing you have to lose is ninety-nine cents, you will have no reservations in purchasing two, three, maybe even four versions of the same movement of a piece, which will subsequently proceed to languish in obscurity on your interminable playlist until that fateful day you drop your MacBook into the sewer and lose everything. Sure, you could feasibly back up your music-but how many of us honestly take the time to actually do that on a regular basis? The twenty-first century reality is that we’re quite literally walking around with our entire CD collections in our briefcases, with the potential to lose it all represented in one precariously placed cup of coffee (or, in my case, hot chocolate). Technology is constantly changing, and if the only place we store our music is within that technology’s evanescent brain, the potential for today’s recordings to achieve longevity is significantly diminished.  As a result, recordings are no longer timeless but fleeting, only briefly rising to prominence before they are sucked, lost and forgotten, into the unrelenting void of the iTunes abyss.


Now, I’m not advocating that we should abandon online music entirely, shut down YouTube, and break out our record players; the progression of modern technology is unstoppable, and whether we like it or not, CDs will be a thing of the past before the end of the decade. What we can influence, however, is how we handle the situation, from both an ethical and artistic perspective. Just because something is virtual does not mean it is any different than something that is physical-it simply exists in a world in which we cannot penetrate. Thus, it would be in our best artistic and ethical interests to treat online recordings as if they were physical recordings, and take measures to ensure that we cannot lose them in the case of accident. There may never be a perfect solution to the conundrum represented by the influence of technology on the consumption of artistic products, but if we continue to keep our focus on the intended purpose of the product we are consuming, rather than the means through which we are accessing it, then we will ensure that the most cherished traditions of our art are upheld well into the future.



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2 comments feed top ↑

  1. Comment by Zachary Preucil
    January 31, 2019 at 5:39 PM

    Hi Drew,

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and informative response! I am very appreciative of your feedback and interest. While I don’t have personal experience with the type of cloud-streaming technologies you described, it does seem as though they present some solutions to the issues I mentioned. However, it is my impression that the majority of people do not use this type of technology and are still using hardware-based storage systems, and thus these problems continue to be timely. Additionally, even if using cloud-streaming services eliminates issues such as those relating to just compensation for artists, the fact remains that the advent of digital media and the increasingly virtual nature of recordings has significantly changed the cultural impact of recordings in general. As I stated in my post, there is no changing this, but if we all were as conscientious of the issue as you seem to be, we will most certainly be headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, we’re not all there yet, and so I feel that these issues remain relevant.

  2. Comment by Drew
    January 31, 2019 at 1:53 PM


    This precise problem is why I have opted to use Spotify almost exclusively as my resource for listening to music. Here are my reasons why a cloud-based streaming source solves the inconveniences and liabilities of both physical records and hard drive-based storage you expounded upon in your post:

    1) Streaming services such as Spotify are easy to use. A simple download of an application for PC or Mac, or an app available in the app store on iDevices or Google Play will provide access to an enormous library of recordings.
    2) Spotify and other streaming sources are completely legal and gives the artists royalties on their work. A monthly (or yearly) subscription provides access to the entire library and, in most cases, becomes cost-effective over iTunes of CD purchases before the end of a single hour of classical music while still offering artists funds that would be otherwise lost through YouTube or piracy.
    3) Streaming services mean that the ripping CD’s and using cables to transfer libraries of music between devices is a relic of the past. All media on a streaming service is available on all your devices instantly- and many (if not all) services automatically sync your playlists to all devices connected to your account.
    4) You can still use your own music. Featured prominently on the left sidebar of the Spotify for Mac application is a “local files” option. You can incorporate your existing media into your streaming service and upload files so they can be accessed on all your devices. Furthermore, you can simply download a utility to your Mac or PC that will extract audio from YouTube videos so you can use them in your own library of upload them to your cloud-based service (I personally use YouTube to MP3, a free download for Mac). The creators of streaming services are aware that many potential customers have immense collections of music- and wish to provide these individuals with every possible method to access the music they have already purchased.
    5) Streaming services eliminate the risk of lost media. When all of the music you want to listen to is stored on an enormous server with many layers of redundancy, “that fateful day you drop your MacBook into the sewer and lose everything” simply means you have destroyed your MacBook- not both your Mac and the library of music contained within.
    6) Streaming services offer increased fidelity for recordings in many cases. When you listen to music on a streaming service, there are options for how high a bitrate you desire for the recording. This determines how much of the outermost frequencies the MP3 eliminates to save space. The 320Kb/sec. rate is higher than that of the average CD recording, so your music actually will sound better through a streaming service (though you will need a fast connection to take full advantage of it).
    7) Cloud-based streaming services are the direction that music and all types of media seem to be going. The evolution from low quality and bulky technologies toward smaller and more convenient ones will undoubtedly continue. The progression from wax cylinder to vinyl record to cassette to CD to hard drive and solid-state storage will continue as the world becomes ever-increasingly interconnected through the Internet. Personally, I welcome this future and the promise it offers listeners of classical music: an ever broadening and increasingly accessible world of music that resides a mere click or tap away.

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I enjoyed your views, and, were published a mere 10 years ago, I would agree wholeheartedly with your points.