This week, I’ve been following two stories in the popular music scene. The first concerns Bruce Springsteen’s just-released album “Magic.” I’ve listened pretty faithfully to Springsteen’s music since 1973 — when, as a sophomore in high school I saw him perform at the Allen Theater in Cleveland — so every time he makes new music, I feel my past rise up before me.
The second story, which is more deserving of comment here, concerns Radiohead’s decision to release its new album online, without the support of a record label or a (now traditional) digital vendor like iTunes. Also, the band has priced “In Rainbows” on a sliding scale, asking fans only to “pay what you want.” Plenty of bands have given away music on the Internet, but the fact that Radiohead — perhaps the best band in the world — is walking away from traditional profit margins is something of a surprise (though fans will also have the option of buying a pricey disc set) . Needless to say, this is not good news for the music industry.
On college campuses, Radiohead’s decision has a particular resonance. For several years now, the RIAA and Motion Picture Industry have diligently waged a battle against scofflaw students who’ve used college networks to download music and films. College officials have followed the law and joined industry watchdogs to dissuade student from illegal downloading. Here at Middlebury, we’ve issued stern warnings, confiscated computers (a rare occurrence), and contracted with Napster (to give students a legal outlet for music).
Yet all the while we’ve watched the world grow flatter by the moment. The Radiohead release, while not a revolution in itself, shows how an artistic and economic decision made in Oxford, England can have an immediate impact in Los Angeles and New York. The release may persuade reformed downloaders to think they’ve been right all along, and the band’s online offering may be a tipping point in the evolution of the music industry. More generally, though, the release underscores the creative power that the digital age now makes possible in a variety of fields.
With YouTube and Facebook one bookmark away, this kind of innovation may seem like just another sign that we left the twentieth century a long time ago. Still, I think it merits extended reflection. On the Middlebury campus (and beyond) we know from the logo protest how students can mobilize strongly held feelings, beliefs and ideas — via Facebook — to make change. Viva la resistance, yes, but let’s rotate this equation somewhat and ask what might be created (or, to use an old-fashioned term, “produced”) through and across the digital spectrum. Middlebury has a stake in this issue as it now seeks to build on a network of institutions — language schools, Bread Loaf, schools abroad, and Monterey — to become the world’s premier global liberal arts college. How will our virtual resources figure in the union of “Liberal Arts. Global Action”?
Meanwhile, “In Rainbows” is available for download on October 10.