Jesse Jarnow

steal global, buy local. (faster times, 7/09)

Steal Global, Buy Local

by Jesse Jarnow

Faster Times, July 2009

The music biz ain’t dead. It doesn’t even smell funny. Not even jazz. Sure, labels are tanking, magazines are closing, and–like Gillian Welch sang in one of the most effectively heartbreaking laments about modern culture–everything is free. But music itself is perhaps more present at every level of society than any other time in human history. It is more disposable, too, achieving a level of ephemera not known since before recorded sound.

For musicians, it brings new creative challenges, to create something that requires an experience greater than itself, more three-dimensional than a simple recording can allow. For listeners, especially voracious ones, it brings new moral bounds. But, mostly, delicious, awesome gluttony.

It is, of course, a cosmic dick move to never pay for one’s tunes. On the other hand, it’s a total rube job to always fork over cash. (Parking lot hippies slinging grilled cheese and nitrous call square people “custys.” No one likes a custy.) But where is the line? What is the line? The problem is no longer whether or not it is permissible to download music–of course it is–but who to steal from. Or, more practically speaking, who to pay.

If one’s goal (as it should be) is a sustainable musical ecosystem, the answer is–as with food–to go local. Given music’s now usual expression as bits, usually housed on some distant server, the definition of “local” is entirely up in the air, gone to the ether.

It could be you are a resident (in Bill Wasik’s terminology) of the hipster archipelago. Maybe global psychedelic weirdoes like the recently reunited Os Mutantes seem like kindred spirits, or maybe cough syrup-chugging Houston hip-hoppers. Perhaps your Facebook network describes the arc of your locality. Perhaps your apartment building, your block, your college friends. Maybe you belong (in Kurt Vonnegut’s phrasing) to a karass, its fellow members unknown to you until spontaneous discovery. What’s your scene, man?

No matter where you are (or they are), it is more fun and satisfying to buy your friends’ albums than to spend money on (say) the new Wilco record or a Rolling Stone subscription. Unless you happen to be friends with Wilco, of course, or strongly identify with their mission. (One of the reasons I was happy to pay $10 for Radiohead’s In Rainbows is because their pay-what-you-will gesture seemed a clear indication that we were of the same locality.) Local could be local, spending money on music that is only available in your immediate vicinity — like buying a neighbor’s home-pressed CD-R, or going to one of his gigs, checking out the other acts he’s playing with.

It is not that one’s immediate vicinity is better than anywhere else (which would be nationalist) or that he should exploit the music of musicians in far away countries (which would be imperialist). Simply, it is never bad to think about one’s consumption. In the case of music–as opposed to say, wondering how the proverbial sausage gets made–thinking local can only make the experience richer.

Very often, especially now that one doesn’t have to enter the commerce-based community of a record store to acquire it, music can feel beamed in, created someplace far away, by other people. The internet is more than the celestial jukebox, it is the celestial big box store, sucking everybody into the vast Everywhere. The disappearance of regionalism in American culture is as old as the interstates, but it is a mistake to think of that transformation as anywhere near complete, that life is effectively the same all over the place. Of course it’s not. But only you know where you’re at.

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