Sustainability as a prudential ethical requirement, metalheads and the magpie mentality, the enduring popularity of the minidisc player

Sonic travellers in the age bracket of around 25 to 35 have witnessed something of a revolution in music consumption as they journeyed through adolescence. Through vinyl to CD, through the first revolution of file sharing, the Napster vs Metallica battle, through to the revival of illegal file sharing sites and the failed attempts by record companies to police them, the death of the charts this brought about, the forecasted death of the music industry, the rise of streaming, the debates over the fair recompense artists should receive from streaming companies, and finally full circle to the vinyl revival of recent years. And who could forget mini-discs…? Throughout all these developments there has been no shortage of predictions as to what these changes in medium would hold in store for the music industry. There has also been no shortage of methods and innovations to monetise the system. On one side the musicians, the noble and struggling artists, not out for the buck, but still desperately making the case for money as a necessity for what they do. On the other side the cynical market forces and larger record companies, who in this battle have always seemed one step behind the consumer in trying to police illegal downloading or underpaying artists for their efforts. Rather than embracing change and looking for ways to exist in harmony with new developments without compromising their capitalist orientation, they have denied the tide, treated consumers of music as enemies, and resisted any new technology that brings artists closer to their fanbase, fearing their increasing irrelevance.

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Arrogance and cynicism made flesh

 

The effects of all these changes have been played out in miniature within heavy metal circles. Metallica were either doing untold damage to their credibility in the eyes of some over the battle with Napster in 2000, or they were taking on an unfair system, and using their financial clout and popularity to protect smaller artists who were also feeling the pinch over file sharing. A different take on file sharing was adopted by Iron Maiden, who monitored data on where downloads and streaming of their music were most prevalent across the globe, and found a high number emanating from South America. They subsequently arranged a tour of the continent. All very well for Iron Maiden and Metallica, but what of small artists trying to get off the ground? Some have argued that technology that brings them closer to fans and eliminates unnecessary agents is a good thing. Others have argued that financial compensation for their efforts is still very necessary due to the costs incurred by even the most part-time of musicians. A third argument centres round quality control. Making, recording, and distributing music is now easier than ever, and as a result we as consumers of music are saturated, so overloaded with options that we have lost all notion of the good and bad. The genuinely hard working artists who plug their resources into what they do still deserve none cynical financial recognition for this if for no other reason than to weed out the lazy and the unoriginal.

For many the vinyl revival is a reawakening of what it means to be a music fan. When packaged well it is an important cultural artefact, a physical manifestation of the ethereal notion of music, conferred with an almost spiritual significance. The meaning conferred on it is more than the sum of its parts, and walking into a room stacked with shelves of records (depending on the records) is akin to walking into a library (depending on the library) for the stirring of intellectual and emotional senses it can provoke. The ever rising sales of vinyl in the last few years has drawn a line between casual listeners, who normally favour Spotify or even settle for good old fashioned radio, and hobbyists and collectors who are willing to put a great deal of money and effort into their home listening set up. These people never went away, but one of the reasons for its growing popularity is the notion of musical ownership. In the height of illegal downloading, people would look with pride on the size of their digital libraries in the same way a collector of physical records would. But now in the age of streaming people with an instinct towards the magpie mentality cannot satisfy this desire through Spotify, so they are caught between ease and ownership. Spotify may now be the easiest, quickest, and cheapest way of legally obtaining music, but it’s not a close enough connection with the artist for many, downloading and file sharing is still alive and well, but the combination of illegality, the extra effort it takes to get hold of safe file sharing software and amass a collection over downloading Spotify, and the added guilt you get free into the bargain, all this is enough to deter most from file sharing. So the defectors have either come back into the collectors fold, or else thrown in the ownership towel and converted to full time streamers. CDs, whilst not invoking the same magic, are a useful stepping stone for new bands who are as yet unable to afford the costly procedure of printing enough records to sell.

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A physical media enthusiast

For heavy metal, finding fans loyal enough to come to gigs and buy records and merchandise has never been a problem through all these changes, even if the fanbase has always been modest in number by comparison. In heavy metal, loyalty in buying music and attending gigs, this above all else can be counted on. Spotify – often used by metalheads as a testing ground for new music before a purchase is made – has also provided statistical evidence for this loyalty in their listening data. There are many reasons for this dedication in metalheads. In terms of collecting physical media, there are much broader reasons over and above arguments around the high fidelity sound that a descent turntable set up can offer. This need for physical media stems more from a gravitation to memorabilia, the desire to be cultural caretakers, museum curators of history and heritage. Who else will preserve the physical record of this subculture, and make sure that it is remembered as an important cultural movement even if contemporary interest in it should one day die? This is why heavy metal and her sisters within the sphere of alternative music will never fully be absorbed into the streaming culture which now seems to be the normalised way to consume and discover music. Artwork can be produced and distributed digitally, but it is but a pale replica of the real thing held in hand. The album is far from dead, even if the chart system is no longer an attractive ambition for mainstream artists.

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Acquiring and preserving the cultural artefacts of a people are all values I support in one sense. But this does come into conflict with an external obligation, an obligation much stronger than cultural loyalty, that of sustainability. This has rarely been talked about in the bitter battle ground of file sharing of the last decade, or the outcry over the insulting royalties artists receive from Spotify, because it is overshadowed by concerns for how the artist and industry are to sustain themselves in an age where consumers are rebranded as thieves. The digital age facilitates a massive reduction in the resources needed for printed media, for physical media at large. It is true that we are going through serious growing pains in terms of how to monetise streaming as a basis for quality control and artist reward, but that is no reason to resist the changing times. Even if you could somehow ensure your records and CDs are sourced sustainably, and are recycled and purchased second hand where possible, the amount of energy and resources required to produce them still far outweighs operating in the digital dimension alone.

Sustainability, as an idea put forth designed to change the way people behave, is a practical value. Its end is one of prudence, with the ultimate survival of the human race and the planet as we know it in the longer term as its goal, in this sense the concept of sustainability morphs into an ethical demand, owing to the fact that it places value on the long term survival of humanity and the natural world, just as other ethical demands place value on human or animal welfare and flourishing. Ethical demands are said to be overriding, when they come into conflict with other demands, such as the cultural or traditional for example, ethical demands take precedence. Further, ethical demands are said to be universal, in that if you undertake or proscribe a course of action on ethical grounds, you are making the proscription for all of humanity – if in your position or similar – to do the same.

So analysing the notion of sustainability in the light of this, it overrides all other concerns, no special exceptions for heavy metal this time, and it is universal, no special exceptions for heavy metal this time. Go digital, go sustainable, go green, don’t support physical media. But predictably I don’t want the argument to end there. Like most self-proclaimed dispassionate commentators, I extremely very much do have an interest in arguing towards a certain end; the end on this occasion being a justification of physical media. Firstly, we can question the idea that ethical demands are overriding depending on the urgency of the situation. The plight of the planet and vast sections of humanity place urgent and overriding demands on us as a collective certainly. But on an individual level, there are limits to what we can achieve. There are also many considerations that legitimately challenge moral concern for strangers. We may feel special obligation to certain individuals over others, family and friends for instance. As a result we may also feel that there is more to life than our being simply a vessel for value, to diminish the volume of pain in the world, and increase the volume of pleasure. Taken to its extreme, a life led by ethical concerns alone would be just that, ethics and nothing else, no time for any degree of selfishness. One could even go so far as to argue that the pain you and your love ones would endure in depriving yourself of any luxury, however small, for the sake of others, is outweighed by the good you could do. Peter Singer has called this crossing the line of ‘marginal utility’. The obvious answer to this is that there is room for ethical as well as selfish pursuits. As long as ethics does not encroach on the individual leading a life worth living, and as long as selfish pursuits are sensitive to the ethical limitations that may be placed upon them (see fox hunting for example), one can follow such a principle in good faith.

With all these loose ends in mind, let’s tie a bow weaved from recycled unicorn hair. In expressing and living by a desire to acquire artefacts of heavy metal culture, whether it be records, CDs, t-shirts, posters, patches, memorabilia in general, I am saying to the world that there is value in this, like any other cultural phenomenon, and it deserves to be preserved, maintained, and remembered so that future generations may enjoy it also. However, unlike the ethical demand for sustainability this is not universal. Cultural values, or more specifically artistic values, are much more abstract than the brute demands of ethics. By their very nature they are diverse, obscure,undefinable, my preference for a world with heavy metal in it is compatible with your preference for film noir, or another’s preference for street theatre. My preference for a world without the needless death and suffering of animals is not compatible with your preference for meat however.

Which brings us on to the expression of these values, because if my expression of my preference for heavy metal manifests itself in one form as the collection of physical media, I am not in turn willing a world where we all do the same; unlike for instance, my expression of a preference for a world without plastic bags which manifests itself through a refusal to use them.

So essentially the way this argument is panning out is a sleight of hand copout. Sustainability as a universally prudential ethical value places demands on my behaviour with the exception of heavy metal through the need to live a life worth living (collect records). Further, you may not be universalising this particular cultural expression, but you are universalising the need for cultural expression per se, which manifests itself in many different forms and shapes, only potentially giving rise to equally materialistic lifestyles. Do the efforts I make towards sustainability mitigate the damage done by collecting physical media, or is the opposite true? Or do I render my efforts towards reducing the acquisition of material goods in other areas futile by a personal preference for physical media? Call me biased, but I am inclined to argue that the former is true.

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Plastic Bags

This, like most things, is not without qualification however. The demands that sustainability will place on us as individuals will invariably centre around the kind of consumers we are expected to be, or expect ourselves to be. Where do we source our food from? What mode of transport do we favour? How many plastic bags do you use a month? How much of your household waste do you recycle? How much use do you get out of clothes and household items before discarding them?  Where an individual, whether through lack of foresight or ignorance, gives no weight to these concerns, there is a safety net, however imperfect and insufficient, imposed by governments. For example, the use of plastic bags was significantly curtailed in the UK by imposing a 5p charge for them in 2015, thus using a simple incentive system to deter their use. Bags are a necessity; plastic bags are such a convenient manifestation of this necessity that their use is pervasive, so any method to reduce this pervasiveness becomes an obvious target for a sustainability agenda. As with all the necessities of modern life, there are a thousand and one obvious targets to address before you address the low level, almost invisible by comparison world of heavy metal’s cultural materialism. Sustainability is not categorical, in that it is not an all or nothing pursuit, there are matters of degree.  So the question becomes: to what degree are we cancelling out whatever good we can do through a sustainability agenda by collecting physical media, even if we buy second hand and recycle where possible?

This, sadly, is the end of the honeymoon period for this meditation however, because that’s not the question really is it? I can argue that cultural expressions are part of the makeup of a life worth living, so at the individual level will occasionally take precedence over non-urgent  ethical demands, I can argue that a manifestation of heavy metal’s cultural expression is the acquisition of material goods, which in the context is unfortunate, but mitigated by the fact that this is not universalisable in the same way as ethical demands, I can argue that this could be justified if it is balanced by good practice in other areas of life that are subject to the demands of sustainability, but I cannot argue these things with anything approaching conviction. Choosing to become embroiled in the culture of heavy metal is just that, a choice, a positive choice requiring a conscious decision and a sustained re-affirmation on the part of the individual, the allegiance, if you like, is something that the individual has brought forth into the world, it wasn’t there before the choice, and neither was the want of non-necessary material possessions. Living in a society that has made very poor provisions for its long term collective survival is not a choice, it is something we are born into, and when the individual reaches the age and wisdom to explore ways and means to mitigate this where possible, making a choice to do the opposite is no longer acceptable. Add to that the fact that this is just one facet of heavy metal culture, the argument becomes even slimmer. But there is a line. Does the fact that gigs in general make demands on the national grid mean they should be prohibited? The beer we drink requires inordinate amounts of water, should we boycott it? The t-shirts we buy were manufactured on the other side of the world to where they are sold, buy locally sourced material? One can pick any number of additional examples, and depending on the issue will determine where you believe the line to be. And all examples will be interconnected in some way, which only serves to add to the complexity of the issue.

The balance to be had between living a life worth living and living it sustainably will be different for different people, precisely because it is a matter of degree not category. Of course there are right and wrong ways of living at each end of the scale, and where you fall will depend on your orientation. But at this point I am reluctantly conceding that I am living in bad faith by subscribing to material acquisition within a heavy metal framework, because it falls at the wrong end of the scale. This does not mean all forms of non-necessary consumerism within heavy metal are a wrong, and if I threw myself wholeheartedly into government lobbying on sustainability at an industrial level it may just do enough good to justify the notion of retail therapy I am subscribing to. Whatever lofty terminology I deploy, however rarefied the dialogue becomes, however flowery the language, it is a form of base retail therapy at the end of the day. Despite all this we are still operating at the individual level, where the limits of what we can achieve when compared to the damage done by large scale industry is bitterly debated, sarcasm intended.

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