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Nostalgia, or Appreciation?

If Tim Quirk wanted to start a conversation, he succeeded. And thanks to Paul Resnikoff at Digital Music News for giving those of us who missed his remarks the opportunity to react to them.

For those you that missed it, at the Future of Music Coalition, Tim Quirk accused some critics of the current digital music landscape of “fetishiz(ing) the past.” He said it isn’t possible to “devalue music” because “music is priceless.” The world has changed and the music industry and artists need to adjust.

That’s my summary. You should read his arguments for yourself because, tossing the needlessly inflammatory parts aside, he is making an argument.

As a former record store clerk, I imagine I could be accused of “fetishizing the past” at times. I certainly have good memories of those days and the connection they forged between me, music, and other fans. Tim Quirk, in his own words, would say “F--- him” to all that I suppose.

But there’s nothing wrong with being nostalgic about the tangibility of music, of riding the bus to the record store, and forking over some hard earned one-dollar bills for an album. There’s nothing wrong with having happy memories of a kid coming to a record store with nickels and pennies to buy a vinyl or cassette single. Or a fan asking for an album that wouldn’t be released for a month, and then showing up again on “rack day” as you unboxed it.

And there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that, as the world changes and those things go away, we lose something that had real value – even as we gain amazing new things as well. That’s not gauzy nostalgia, it’s an honest look at the trade offs of modern life.

Tim Quirk doesn’t like it. But it is really beside the point.

We all know that the digital, streaming world is the world we are living in. We value digital services and want them to succeed. But digital services need to value music as an art, not just a commodity. They should recognize that the economic value of music is driven by the emotional power that it carries – and that in the past that emotional power has come from collecting albums, from memorizing liner notes and from digging out overlooked gems, those small songs that never made it to Top 40 but meant something to the dedicated fans who listened all the way through. When the artist Storm Thorgerson died this year, he was mourned by music fans across the world – not for any songs or lyrics, but for his iconic album art like the Dark Side of the Moon triangle or Peter Gabriel’s melt.

Music fuels the Internet today. According to this handy chart from our colleagues at the RIAA, musicians are the top draw on social networks (the top seven of ten on twitter; the top nine of ten on YouTube, and the top nine of ten on Facebook).

So to me, leaders in digital music like Tim Quirk need to think harder about music and how we experience it, about why it has the value it does.

No one is calling for a return to the past and no one wants to give up the amazing availability and access that digital allows. But at the same time valuing music in all its forms and complexity is important, not just because it is right, but also because it is necessary for a sustainable future for the artists who create it. Tour til you die (and set up a merchandise table outside) can’t be the answer to artists trying to make a living, or for the music labels trying to break new acts.

We need to think seriously about what it means that so much music is no longer tactile and, because of that, it is perceived to be more disposable. For those of us that are “a little older,” that means we might stream music that we never get around to listening to or we just buy singles, instead of albums. For those a little younger, it might mean thinking music is free (or not worth paying for in any event). In this world, it definitely is possible to “devalue” music.

And it’s worth thinking about what music will be like if the art form of an album is lost. It’s worth thinking about what music becomes if our delivery models require it to be immediately comprehended, easily digestible, and just as easily forgotten tracks. A song is not a tweet. And how do any more than a handful of music creators make a living in that world?

Digital music services might no longer be real “curators” – record store clerks for the next generation – but instead find they become fast food, selling cookie-cutter product, with empty calories, off a barely profitable “value menu.”

I don’t think this is where we are headed. I think we are entering a musical golden age where more people can make, find, and enjoy more and better music than ever before. But there are no guarantees. And if we brush off concerns about the structure and meaning and fairness of the musical business we are building with a sneer and a profanity as Mr. Quirk seems happy to do, we are putting something deeply important at risk.