Taste in the Age of Universal Access

Nick Hornby’s column ‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading‘ in the McSweeney’s writing mag The Believer is always the thing I turn to first, and this month’s (well, March/April – but it has to be rowed across the Atlantic in a bath tub, it seems) is one of the best for ages.

He is ostensibly writing about a book called The Train in the Night by music journalist Nick Coleman, which documents his terrible journey through sudden loss of hearing in one ear – a disaster for a man whose life was so engrossed in sound. I’ll leave you to consider the piece at your leisure, but the section that jumped out at me in Hornby’s article concerned the future of taste in a world of universal, free access:

‘Taste is a complicated edifice that has been under construction since the early 1970’s, and it’s now in danger of collapsing – not just because Nick (Coleman’s) relationship with his stuff has had to change, but because, in the new digital world, just about every form of engagement with art is up for reevaluation.

‘What will it mean, when we have access to every worthwhile piece of music ever made, and none of us own any of it, and none of us have had to save up for it, to choose between one album and another, to leave our homes to obtain it, even? Does that make us all the same? And what happens when your libraries disappear into one Apple’s clouds, young people? How will you decide who to have sex with then, eh?’

It’s an interesting thought… Though we may have unlimited space for virtual music and books, we do have limited time to listen and read. And thus we have to engage in some process of rejection and selection. The difference between the world as Hornby sees it now, and the world of record stores and physical purchases, is that your selections now cost you almost nothing, whereas in the past, having a limited budget meant that you really had to consider very carefully which album you were going to add to your collection that week.

With the removal of that financial constraint, the question is whether our tastes have benefited or not. In one sense, now that we have access to everything, we might be able to construct a far more interesting collection of things we listen to (or read) because we have such a wide palette.

But I’m not convinced. It’s a cliche that the super-rich have no taste. Vulgar, ostentatious things apparently fill their vast houses… and perhaps Hornby is suggesting why: because they have no budget, they have no discrimination either. So perhaps universal access to music serves to denigrate taste, rather than enhance it? We don’t have to practice so much discernment, so…we don’t.

Yet regardless of financial situation, taste is still about careful selection. With such a wide variety of things, perhaps it becomes too easy to go for the familiar and the obvious.

Either way, I wonder if those we regard as having very good taste are those who use a far narrower palette, focusing on a smaller number of things, and doing them very well, often picking things out from places outside of the obvious.



2 responses to “Taste in the Age of Universal Access”

  1. Hi Kester. What strikes me most about the difference between analogue and digital eras is how less likely we are now to be confronted with each others’ taste. When I was a kid I had to listen to Madonna and Aha and Marillion on Top of the Pops before I could see (if I was lucky) one song a week that I really liked. The Chart Show’s Indie Chart (once a month, for about 300 seconds) was like being granted temporary access to heaven. Now there are websites (or even TV or radio channels) that mean I never have to bump into music outside my taste zone. If you’d asked me at 14, I’d have thought that was brilliant. But it isn’t. It’s like being moved to an island with a bunch of people who are sub-culturally defined as being like you. And (even if you’re not a self-hating bore like me) people who are ‘like you’ are bloody boring en masse.

    Also — though this is less comfortable territory — in an analogue era a lot of the taste selection was done for you. Getting a record deal was hard. Now anyone can get their music up in the cloud. Again, in theory that should be better (particularly for punk DIY fans like me). But I have to say I don’t think it is.

    Sooner or later we will work this all out. We always do. But at the moment music consumption seems to be following the same queasy slide to the individual as our politics is.

  2. Yes, I agree. Taste was developed in opposition – you grew to know more clearly what you liked by forced exposure to what you didn’t. There’s something about dirt and purity here, which you know is a thing of mine.

    Music and politics sliding towards the individual – as with information too. Not only do we create our own filters for feeds we want and sites we visit, big web companies are then using these, plus all our other aggregated data, to focus content even more closely around what we are supposed to ‘like’ – so we are never exposed to challenge, to opposition…and thus our tastes are never work-hardened, to use an industrial metaphor.

    As you say, it’ll probably work out…but my view is that we’re going to have to do some of that work ourselves, and get some backbone back, rather than rely on some new tech to do it for us.