I have acted as a somewhat regular patron of Chipotle Mexican Grill for roughly six years now (let the record show that my patronage is always directly correlated to the given distance that lies between myself and a cheaper, usually better Mexican alternative, at the time of purchase). Anyway, having been accustomed to a higher standard of burrito in my youth, I never really understood the almost cultish mania that so many possessed for the restaurant chain. Nevertheless, I’ve spent my fair share of tip money there; and when my lips first touched the Chipotle Kool-Aid, I can distinctly remember the price for a standard steak burrito being a relatively modest $5.75 (plus tax).
Around the same period — meaning, in the mid-to-late 2000’s — I started to download music illegally. This was a revolutionary and exciting development at the time, as it meant that I would no longer have to burn through the entirety of my savings at record stores or on iTunes (which, back then, I most definitely was). There are a variety of methods for pirating music and video that have come and gone over the last fifteen years, some of which I have used, most of which have been shut down (e.g. Napster, Limewire, Torrentz etc.), but all of which pose a direct threat to the livelihood of something I believe we can safely say is the most commonly and affectionately shared medium of artistic communication, viz. music.
Since my induction into the respective cults of the Americanized chain burrito and music piracy (I’m willing to bet a generous amount on saying that’s a clause which has never been written before), some other, very significant changes have come to pass. For one, a steak burrito at Chipotle will now, in 2014, cost you something in excess of $9 (plus tax). This is due to the company’s stock rising meteorically over the last decade, along with its number of employees and locations. For another, prodigal musician St. Vincent’s perennial, self-titled album was released, also in 2014, for $9.99 on the iTunes store (no tax).
Now, whether or not these products are worth their respective retail prices is manifestly irrelevant and a matter of conjecture, but the relation between their perceived (i.e. market) value and their actual (i.e. real) value is all too latent in its relevance, and a matter of dire importance to and for countless of us. In the event that you don’t quite see what I’m getting at, I’ll condense it into two very clear statements: 1) We as a market have cheapened music to the extent that it is currently valued at the same price as a burrito, and; 2) Many in that market are statistically and irrationally more easily disposed to buy the burrito than the album.
I’ll let that sink in.
I don’t know about you, but that makes me pretty fucking uneasy — in fact, well beyond that. On the whole, I think we can all agree that music has done a great deal more for humanity than any chain restaurant ever has, no matter how organic the ingredients or environmentally friendly the paper bag. Think about it, how many unspeakably hard times has your favorite sad song gotten you through? How many mornings has the sun shined that much brighter because your favorite happy song is on? How many nights has sex seemed and been just that much more ecstatically transcendent because your favorite love song is playing?
Again, I won’t speak for you, but I’ve lost count already.
Yet for some genuinely unfathomable reason, we object to the idea of paying ten fucking dollars for something that could potentially enrich or utterly transform our lives, while remaining more than happy to literally get in line to pay the same amount for something that is all but guaranteed to satisfy us for no more than a few hours (on a decidedly and comparatively basic level, at that). If nothing else, let’s take a second to look factually at what all goes into each of these products. Think about what goes into a burrito — two or three people throw some beans, rice, meat and assorted accouterments into a flour tortilla. Now, think about a record — literally dozens of people invest hundreds of hours into the making of everything from the songs to the track listing to the album cover (and way, way fucking more).
My question, unbelievably, is this: what kind of world do we live in where the former is valued with even remote similarity to the latter?
Appropriately, it is St. Vincent herself who answers me on the fifth track of her new album. The song is “Digital Witness”, and I can think of no more fitting a title for the audience she is singing to, because it is composed almost universally of those who are content merely with witnessing. Music is no longer something to be experienced, but something to be consumed. When we used to have festivals, where scores of youth would come together to share something emphatically human, we now have raves, where they gather to numb themselves with designer drugs, and witness something that was digitally produced (let not the irony be lost that this is almost always recorded on digital devices, to be revisited later with similar removedness…if revisited at all).
I would very much like to avoid this being read as the tired musings of a stubborn nostalgic who just can’t get with the times — although I am aware that I will probably be labeled as such — so allow me to be perfectly frank in saying that my problem is not with electronic music (I’ve enjoyed many an EDM track) or chain restaurants or certainly with the people that find pleasure in them. I don’t think that rockstars need more money or that burrito-rollers need less. I think that people (Americans especially) have grown entirely too accustomed and comfortable with not just the idea, but the practice of consumerism. And do please rest assured that when I use that word, I mean it in the literal sense — that we consume things for the sake of consumption and nothing more. This is a tendency that leads to impulse buying, to chronic, unappreciative apathy, and to a deep feeling of toxic dissatisfaction that perpetuates the whole fucking mess.
It would seem, too, that people are just as uncomfortable with being asked not to consume — if not more so. And that’s OK, because for this generation in particular, it is not so much an action as it is a way of life. Ours is, after all, the age of immediacy. Anything that can’t be up- or downloaded in a matter of minutes can’t possibly be worth the bother. Which isn’t our fault, seeing as we have very much been raised to behave this way; it is a tragic part of who we are. But the really insidious thing about internet piracy is not the fact that it’s easy, or that it’s illegal, or even that it exists; it is the reality that we are desensitized to its existence, and the shameless ease with which we strive to keep its legacy of satisfying unreasonable need for transient satisfaction alive, while simultaneously facilitating the death of music as we knew it.
With that said, I can remember a time not so long ago in a galaxy pretty nearby when not only was I far from worried about spending ten bucks on an album, but I fucking lived for it. The first record I ever purchased (Songs About Jane by Maroon 5, no hesitation to admit that) brought with it a feeling of ineluctable bliss, excitement, and triumph, one that I dare say cannot ever be matched by the simple act of stealing — because, let’s not kid ourselves, we are stealing — a product that someone else worked very hard to make (well, sometimes….but that’s another subject altogether).
I know that I freely admitted earlier to habitually being guilty of piracy, and I also know that it is not unlikely I will be guilty of it again, at some point. But that doesn’t make the reality anything less than disturbing, and moreover, it doesn’t make the argument anything less than right. Contrary to what my tone may have conveyed to you, heretofore, I’m not writing this to preach or to tell anyone how to live or spend their money (although I readily submit to the notion that it will come across that way, to some). I’m here to suggest — and it is merely that, a suggestion — that the way our society has come to view the incredible gift that is music may be more than just slightly skewed, and that the way we take it for granted suggests a certain delusion we ought remedy, before the music stops.