There is a song that I have seen performed live probably a dozen or more times, though not in the last two decades. It's called Miracle, and it's by a Trinidadian roots rock band called (The) Orange Sky. This song is not available on any streaming service. You cannot find its lyrics anywhere on the internet, whether you search via Google or ChatGPT. There are no references to it on any major social media platform. This song, as far as the 2023 prompt-based digital economy is concerned, does not exist and has never existed.
What led me down this rabbit hole was a voice memo from a relative, a cousin with whom I shared many of those music-intensive evenings and experiences back home all those years ago. Most of our messages back and forth include or are links to songs or playlists. We have years of letters that feature an extended in-joke about making as many references as possible to certain reggae lyrics. Though neither of us is a musician - whereas many of our friends are - music has been a consistent throughline of our relationship. The voice memo: them singing the refrain from the song, and asking - hey, what's the name of this again?
If he'd asked me this in 1998 or 2006, I'd have fired up iTunes and run through my painstakingly curated playlists, playlists that represented hundreds of hours of spent cataloging songs by year and genre and rating and BPM and that lived in carefully organized folders across multiple hard drives. I'd have flipped through the albums of CDs, carefully preserved with their liner notes and track listings.
But because it is 2023, and those albums of CDs are under a bed in room in Trinidad, and those hard drives are in a box that I have been meaning to get to pending buying a new desktop computer and having the luxury of several uninterrupted days off, I did the other thing I know how to do: search through digital ephemera. I am very good at finding things on the internet, but the internet is very good at decay.
There used to be a website dedicated to the local Trinidad bands I grew up listening to and following around the island. It included, for some of them, track listings and even audio files. That website is lost to time and 404s and probably takedown notices, and not even the Internet Archive could help retrieve it.
But there was another thing I could do, and that was text one of the several friends with whom I had shared these particular musical experiences, and who I knew also had carefully cultivated libraries of music and efficient systems for retrieval. "Pop quiz," I texted, to a friend who also happens to be both musician and excellent record-keeper. Four minutes later, "Think it's called miracle". Three hours later, another reply: an MP3 of the song. "Dug up some old hard drives to find that one", he said. An understatement.
How so much of what we have access to is subscription-based and prone to revocation. I think about whether anyone gets to experience art and animation and music and movies depends on whether tech and media behemoths are willing to pay royalties.
Access is not ownership. Digital ownership is precarious, because hard drives might fail or your phone gets stolen and Apple and Google decide you no longer have access to your files and there's no way to appeal, or because Amazon can change the terms that govern that Kindle book you bought from them.
This is less about the fetishization of any particularly analog medium (if you have ever tried to repair a cassette tape then you know physical storage formats have their challenges too) and more about the fragility of rights in a digital ecosystem. It is about the importance of systems of distributed memory and collective memory; of shared experiences and the shared recollection of those experiences. So many of our experiences now are designed to be uploaded, surveilled, licensed, streamed, and mediated; monetized by platforms that decide whether something is "appropriate" based on how advertisers are likely to want to spend their budgets against it.
I think about how having friends who were there too, and who want to hold on to the same things as you, make it possible to remember who were then, and why those things matter still. A miracle.
– and suppose
we could scroll through its pages every day
to find and pronounce a Let meant only for us –
we would stumble through the streets with open books,
eyes crossed from too much reading; we would speak
in auto-rhyme, the world would echo itself – and still
we’d continue in rounds, saying let and let and let
— from Book of Genesis by Kei Miller