Because their physical form is the quality that most obviously distinguishes vinyl records and CDs from digital music, we forget today that spinning discs were once more important as mechanisms of access than as objects. Music existed before record players, of course, and my grandparents could hear it performed in the dance halls of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Brooklyn, where they courted. Records were revolutionary for providing access to music of many kinds, from many worlds that young people like my grandparents might never have known otherwise, and that access came largely on the listeners’ terms. They could hear what they wanted at home, without going out, and do so for pocket change. I’m trying to keep that in mind now that I’ve signed on to the digital music service Spotify, a sensation in Europe that just became available in the United States this month.
There are multiple levels of Spotify, and I have only the free one, the one most subscribers to the service use. With it loaded onto my laptop, I’ve spent most of the past several days trolling around and listening to songs I’m curious to hear but don’t particularly care to own. The music streams; I can’t keep it. What I get with my free subscription to Spotify is access to vast catalogs of music; I get no objects, not even digital files to keep on my hard drive. (One of the premium options for the service allows for downloading.)
As a loyal citizen of the ownership society, I felt, at first, deprived by Spotify. What it offers is ephemera—the commodity of our day—with nothing to keep and collect or show off to my friends to prove that I have more than they do. For materialists like me, Spotify provides, along with a wealth of rich musical experiences, the sensation of withdrawal from object craving. It’s doing me good.
To ease the DTs, I rewatched the short film Record Making with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, made in 1937, my grandparents’ time. Shot in the Master Recording studio in New York, where Ellington actually recorded, the film shows him leading his orchestra in fragments of two of his compositions from the 1930s: “Daybreak Express” (unnamed in the film), a programmatic piece on one of Ellington’s favorite themes, train travel; and “Oh, Babe! Maybe Someday,” a pop tune Ellington wrote for his wonderful vocalist Ivie Anderson. Narrated with tin-can gusto by the radio announcer Alois Havrilla, the film instructs us that spinning discs are “an invention well worth looking into.” Watching the clip in the era of Spotify, it strikes me as well worth remembering that the great innovation documented in the film was not the pressing of records in shellac but the access those records provided people like my grandparents to music like Duke Ellington’s.