In the wake of David Bowie’s death, I went on iTunes and bought a couple of his tracks, including the majestic “Blackstar.” In economic terms, I “consumed” this song. I am a “music consumer.” I made an emotional connection to a dying man who has been a creative inspiration of mine for more than twenty years, via “consumption.” That does not feel like the right word, at all. When did we even start saying “music consumers”? Why did we start? It makes my skin crawl.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the verb “to consume” descends from Latin consumere, which means “to use up, eat, waste.” That last sense of the word speaks volumes about America, our values, and specifically, our pathological relationship with music.
The synonyms for “consume” listed in my computer’s thesaurus include: devour, ingest, swallow, gobble up, wolf down, guzzle, feast on, gulp down, polish off, dispose of, pig out on, swill, expend, deplete, exhaust, waste, squander, drain, dissipate, fritter away, destroy, demolish, lay waste, wipe out, annihilate, devastate, gut, ruin, wreck. None of these are words I want to apply to music.
I’m happy to spend money on music. I’m not happy to be a consumer of it. When I consume something, like electricity or food, then it’s gone, and can’t be used by anyone else. But having bought that David Bowie song from iTunes, I can listen to it endlessly, play it for other people, put it in playlists, mull it over when I’m not listening to it, sample it, remix it, mash it up with other songs.
What word should we use for buying songs from iTunes, or streaming them on Spotify, or otherwise spending money on them? (Or being advertised to around them?) Well, what’s wrong with “buying” or “streaming”? I’m happy to call myself a “music buyer” or “music streamer.” There’s no contradiction there between the economic activity and the creative one.
My colleagues in the music business world have developed a distressing habit of using “consuming” to describe any music listening experience. This is the sense of the word that I’m most committed to abolishing. Not only is it nonsensical, but it reduces the act of listening to the equivalent of eating a bag of potato chips. Listening is not a passive activity. It requires imaginative participation (and in more civilized cultures than ours, dancing.) Listening is a form of musicianship–the most important kind, since it’s a prerequisite for all of the others. Marc Sabatella says:
For the purposes of this primer, we are all musicians. Some of us may be performing musicians, while most of us are listening musicians. Most of the former are also the latter.
I mean, you would hope. Thomas Regelski goes further. He challenges the assumption that the deepest understanding of music comes from performing or composing it. Performing and composing are valuable and delightful experiences, and they can inform a rich musical understanding. But they aren’t the only way to access meaning at the deepest level. Listening alone can do it. Some of the best music scholarship I’ve read comes from “non-musicians.” Listening is a creative act. You couldn’t come up with a less apt term for it than “consumption.” Please stop saying it.