For many years now, I’ve built up an extensive music collection.
It’s all digital, and the odd part is that I don’t even own it. I pay for access, not ownership. And instead of resalable assets, I have a collection of playlists that has compounded over the years.
I used to buy digital tracks, which are very accessible and affordable, but I choose to prioritise discovery. Having access to pretty much any track I come across, and being able to share and receive recommendations, is a huge benefit. Of course, most music can be heard in full somewhere online, but it feels like i’ve discovered so many more fantastic musicians than I would have otherwise, simply by having zero cost to listening to them. I pay my subscription fee upfront to remove this discovery barrier between me and the music itself.
The model here is based on abundance - open access (within the walled garden), prioritising discovery. Crucially, the practical aspects of ownership are all there: your music is available pretty much everywhere, on any device and offline. So if you just want to listen to music, there’s no difference between subscribing and owning it, as long as you don’t want to transfer the files around.
Overall, my experience of music over these years has been one of a world of opportunity - it’s never been easier to discover and listen to amazing musicians from all over the world, in pretty much any genre, and as a result I’ve also been to many more gigs - a virtuous circle.
The contrast with digital art is startling.
There are many wonderful digital art forms and, as a creative coder, the breathtaking technical and artistic innovation taking place right now is inspiring.
These are mostly media files - JPGs and MP4s to music’s MP3s, so in theory there shouldn’t be much difference. Both are digitally native in a time where distribution is simple and accessible.
But instead of building up a compounding art collection over time, through buying or subscribing, I follow a bunch of artists on Instagram, have various folders on my laptop of inspiring art that I’ve copied from the internet, and have a few prints on my wall.
Instagram shows me the latest posts by various artists, jumbled into a random ad-filled endless scroll. I see it on a small mobile screen, for a few seconds. I can’t build playlists, have any sense of ownership or build for the long term. It’s pretty much the opposite of an ideal art viewing experience.
My downloaded favourites are more promising - there’s something wonderful about letting them breath on the full screen, just like giving a song those few minutes to be the focus. But they are only for personal use, as they are all copied, and organising through folders is a hassle.
My prints are mostly not of digital art. Most of them have been on my wall for a good few years, and I have limited space to add new ones. Printing only works for some types of digital art - most need to be viewed on screen. They are also expensive - generally multiples of the cost of an album, and vastly more than the cost of an individual music track.
And if i’m honest, I don’t want most pieces on my wall for that amount of time. That’s not because I don’t like them - I love many of them. But just as I wouldn’t only want to listen to my favourite songs on repeat for years, the commitment required by a print creates a barrier to experiencing art in a discrete way, for a few moments.
I’ve tried various virtual galleries as well, often built as whole worlds. They offer a way to see a range of artwork quickly, but their interfaces create many barriers to just experiencing the art itself in full. They also lack a feeling of ownership and control and a way to build your collection.
As a result, I have a huge and growing music collection that brings me great joy, and I don’t have a digital art collection.
Reproduction of the image
The art world model is built on scarcity. You’re buying something other than the experience of the art itself - usually ownership, which often includes limiting ownership by others. It’s a Walter Benjamin approach, and it works well for unique physical pieces where there is a genuine joy in authenticity and ownership.
But digital art, by definition, has no original. Its inherent abundance and ease of access and distribution is part of its joy. And the two go hand in hand - increasing access and discoverability leads to more individual artwork sales, not less, as with gigs and music.
Listening and seeing
When I listen to music, I play the track, listen, and the track ends. Sometimes it gets my full attention, and sometimes it’s in the background. The experience generally ranges somewhere between 3 and 12 minutes (yes I do listen to some lengthy prog and electronica, why do you ask), making it a discrete entity with a start and finish time.
Art is generally more freeform, unless it’s a video of some kind. There’s no set time, and no obvious start or end.
So in our daily life, art gets experienced in very short bursts (a few seconds on instagram) or in huge lengths of time (hanging for years on the wall), because it’s bought as an ongoing experience (an object) instead of a discrete experience.
But when we go to a gallery, we might spend a few minutes at each artwork, and more on those that grab us, soaking up the complexities and the pleasure and challenge of the experience. These flexible but discrete experiences mirror how we listen to music, which aligns with our natural attention span when focusing.
It feels like this is the missing middle ground for digital art.
A way to experience art in full quality, not just on a mobile screen. To experience it for more time, without requiring a long term commitment. To build up a collection over time, replicating ownership without the high cost. And a way to discover new works and artists organically, creating a virtuous circle with other types of art ownership.
Digital art is inherently abundant and it deserves a better, longer term place in our lives.