Sunday, September 23, 2012

Music's Gradual Change from Being a Service to Being a Good

We are all currently witnessing something that traditionally was thought of as a service transform, through the magic of technology, into a good. And it seems that the trend might render music as a person's livelihood into something truly rare, and something reserved for the relative few.

We didn't think it would happen with 78 records, LP records, or tapes, but the transistor radio and the Walkman made it extremely enjoyable to listen to recordings while being out in the world (i.e. not at home), and listening to music became something private and personal. The quality of the CD and the quality of the technology that has gone into recording music on one end, and "spitting it out" on the other end has come to the point where rendered "readings" are even preferable for reasons of balance and of accuracy to natural ones.

The change has sure put a lot of musicians out of work over the past hundred years or so, because in places where musicians once provided the desired ambience, recordings do it for a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the price.

You can buy a CD for $15.00, and play it a thousand times without paying a cent more to anybody (and you can download the files for even less). The guests at your party, the people eating in your restaurant, or the people shopping your store will be bathed in its ambience, and the people who made the recordings, if they are still alive, will never even know. If you sell enough of these to enough people, the world will be flooded with electronically-generated sound with nary a musician attached to it. Oh yes. It already is pretty much that way with the "classical" kind of music.

I have been wracking my brain, and haven't found anything in current life or in the life of times past to compare this transformation of service to good with.

Can you?

UPDATE: I finally found one on-line discussion about this matter, and then another discussion about the question of whether music is a product or a service. If Jeff McDougall (the person who wrote one of the articles that started the discussion) happens to be reading this, I would love to have his take on this question.


Carl said...

See Jacques Attali's "Noise": I find it puzzling, infuriating, and enlightening.

Elaine Fine said...

Thank you for introducing me to Attali's book, Carl. I also find it puzzling, infuriating, and enlightening. His thoughts are from 1977, and Brian Massumi's English translation and Susan McClary's afterword are from 1985, when the CD was in its infancy, and the idea of digital musical transfer was as foreign to us as "traveling by map."

Perhaps I should pose this question to McClary.

Anonymous said...

Printing press from its inception? -- meet printed music for centuries. Edison cylinders forward? -- meet recorded music, now in your favorite CD or MP3 file. This "change" has been going on a long time. The same thing is happening to plays and theater and politics and lectures and books printed in bulk and now on Kindle and all manner of e-things. Service to a good? I find this just dandy, and do not understand the worry. Petrucci is busy distributing goods, not services and for free. The world is changing and we are required to change with it, not rue the change.

Elaine Fine said...

Perhaps, Anon., you have never tried to make a living as a working musician. Attali makes a point that musicians usually saw these things as good, and not as things that would change their basic way of life. Now we see that musical automation is well on the way towards rendering the professional musician, who used to play for weddings and parties, out of business.

I'm interested in reading your answer to my original question. Any ideas about a service that has transformed into a thing that must then be sold by the people who had been put out of business?

Anonymous said...

Pharmaceuticals sold over-the-counter are goods which have slowly overtaken the physicians' house call services, as an example.

By the way, I have been a working musician most my life. Perhaps your concerns about the market for weddings and parties is a function of your instruments and ensembles. Piano combos and organ are the usual choices for such venues, and I've profited by both on the side while working in studios. Along the way I have happily sold some "things" of my own. I suppose it is all a matter of perspective and location.

Elaine Fine said...

This is an interesting idea, but physicians and pharmacists are people in different professions, and there is actually a growing field of pharmacists who now do delivery house calls, where they make sure the patient is taking his or her medicine correctly, and make sure that everything in a patent's medicine chest is current and appropaiate.

Physicians have every right to complain about having to do administrative work in their practices, but I doubt that there are many who bemoan not doing house calls. Some still do, because it is the best thing for the doctor and the patient. My mother's podiatrist, for example, comes to her house, because most of his elderly patients (like my mother) have mobility issues.

Anonymous said...

Music copying, from service to good:

History: No notation to single copies on parchment with ink, to more copies on cheaper paper with ink, to printing on paper with ink, to ozalid transfers from onionskin to multiple copies, to photocopying from hand written originals, to Finale and Sibelius and other computer programs. The services of the copyists is now well replaced with individuals pushing a button. It happens in Ms. Fine's stuido, as in mine.

This same service-to-good may be said about plays and theater. Handwritten folios to printed copies to Samuel French editions, to Gutenberg on line in many documents formats.

Or theater and music theater: from live performances to film to video to DVD.

And about the house call, while some few physicians might still make them, most don't. This is why we rely on OTC pharmaceuticals in ways that our grandparents could not have imagined.

Not all have the worry that music is becoming a good rather than a service. Now I think I'll play a CD, because it would have recorded a performance by a string quartet, none of whose members live any longer. Thank goodness for "goods."

Elaine Fine said...

But did people pay for the joy of watching the copyist work? A written document is still a thing rather than a service, and the exchange of it for money is the exchange for something solid and lasting, not something ephemeral like music.

But people do pay more money, on the high end, for good service. Consider upscale hotels and restaurants. But that is the case of a service being done well having more value or adding value. Some people pay mightily for their hair to be cut, and they become a returning customer for the person who provides that service. In the days when cafe owners employed musicians, people went to clubs and cafes because they enjoyed the music. Consider the piano bar.

I'm not disputing the value of CDs or the value of electronic notation tools, but I'm still trying to come up with a parallel transition in another field to compare with what has happened with music.