Silent Night: Why I can No Longer Give Music as a Gift

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The Holiday Season is upon us and once again this year I find myself flailing around for gifts. Music used to be my go-to gift, but no more. While there is much to recommend the Streaming Age, it has robbed us of the ability to give music as a gift. Very few of my friends still listen to music in the physical formats that pre-dated streaming. And while I could give someone a digital album, the absence of a physical object, coupled with the complete lack of effort required (gifting a digital album takes three mouse clicks) makes the gift seem impersonal. Plus streaming is quickly rendering downloads obsolete.

During our musically formative years, my friends and I learned about new music – and each other – by giving albums as gifts. To this day, the best gift I ever received was a perfectly square package containing the first three albums by the Clash which my friend, Steve, gave me for my Bar Mitzvah. The gift had an underlying seriousness to it bordering on the academic. It was 1983 and the Clash’s Combat Rock was all over the radio then, but Steve didn’t give me Combat Rock. He wanted me to hear the Clash from the beginning so I could chart their musical course and come to understand their singular sound in proper context. Not only was it a great gift, but it was a gesture of intimacy, of one friend sharing his passion with another.

Such was the power of Steve’s gift that long before I had a son, or even a girlfriend, I fantasized about presenting my unborn child on his Bar Mitzvah day with mint copies of every classic Rolling Stones album, from Beggars Banquet to Some Girls: “Here son, now you are a man.” The prospect of that future gift got me through endless childbirth classes, dog-eats-baby prevention lectures and diaper-changing tutorials. Sadly, I have abandoned the dream of giving my son the Stones’ albums for his Bar Mitzvah four years from now. Unlike most of his nine-year-old cohort, he knows what a record is, having been permitted to ever-so-gingerly thumb through my wax. But it is hard to imagine him at 13-years-old sitting in his room, lights down, headphones on, listening to vinyl on a turntable, since none of his friends will be experiencing music that way.

Assuming anyone still bothers with music downloads four years from now, I could buy digital copies of the Stones’ records for him at the iTunes store, and instead of making a grand show of handing him a stack of physical, gift-wrapped albums, tell him to watch for an email from Apple with instructions on how to download the digital copies. But that approach doesn’t quite fit the fantasy. The physicality of the albums is important. Can someone legitimately identify as a Stones fan without ever holding the Sticky Fingers album cover in his or her hands and contemplating its irreverence for the entire 44:08 length of the record? There is also the unthinkable risk that without my even knowing it, my son could with a mouse click reject the digital Stones albums in exchange for iTunes “store credit” and use it to download One Direction.

That was not an option for me and those Clash records. I couldn’t reject them back into the ether or bury them in a digital locker under tens of thousands of other tracks. No, those Clash albums were in my face, a physical object in my room.

In addition to its lack of physicality, I think my problem with giving music as a gift today is that I associate buying music with effort and sacrifice. I spent a good part of my adolescence in New York City trying to avoid being mugged as I rode the subway downtown to one of the dozens of now-defunct Greenwich Village record stores. Walking into shops like Second Coming Records and Venus Records was like entering a religious shrine. You got the sense something very serious was going on there, something a bit mystical and beyond your complete comprehension. The employees were like high priests guiding you to the proper bins to perform the sacred rituals of identification, selection and inspection. There were also strange, totemistic-like objects on display. Vinyl of all shapes, sizes and colors hung from the walls. There was the 45 of Toto’s “Africa,” shaped like the continent, and red vinyl 45s, like R.E.M.’s cover of “Femme Fatale.” And there were rare treasures, like the 3-LP December 1978 Springsteen bootleg from the Winterland in San Francisco.

The high priests would actively proselytize and demand sacrifice. I remember one day looking through the Sex Pistols vinyl when a store clerk came up to me and said I should buy Never Mind The Bollocks, that it would “change your life.” I told him that I was just looking, that I was going to a movie later and didn’t have enough money for both the movie and the record. In words reflecting both harsh judgment and omniscience, he told me I should blow off the movie, that I would never remember anything about it, and he repeated that Never Mind The Bollocks would change my life. I went to the movie. I still feel like I owe penance for that bald act of defiance.

Listening to new music today involves no sacrifice, financial or temporal. If you want to check out a new record, you don’t have to give up a day at the movies – you can simply stream it as part of your monthly Spotify fee. Because buying music today is fast, cheap, and conducted through a connection with a computer server rather than a person, giving it as a gift no longer conveys a deep personnel expression of who we are, nor the sense that we are giving something of ourselves to another person. All of which leaves me heading back to the drawing board this Holiday Season.

[I read an abridged version of this post on NPR — check it out here.]

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