Saturday, October 31, 2009

Grandpa, Could You Tell Us What An MP3 Was?

There's a big feature on Pitchfork covering the last decade of music (they've dubbed it "P2K"), and while I don't even want to start laying into their "Top 200 Albums of the 2000s" list, I would like to call attention to an interesting article by Eric Harvey named "The Social History of the MP3." It's the kind of piece you'd almost see in a literary journal, where the author tries to milk more profundities out of his observations on the music industry than are perhaps truly there. Nevertheless I found it enlightening, although (please no angry comments from Sarah) I don't quite agree with his description of The Beatles and Michael Jackson as artistic equals. Some highlights:
One of the promises of leak culture was the possibility of a thousand new Greil Marcuses and Robert Christgaus blooming-- hundreds of new fan-critics, or critic-fans, starting conversations about music that were accessible to anyone, arousing reader-listeners enough to buy music the same way radio and print used to. To a degree this happened, and is still happening: Careful searching and curious clicking through blogrolls will reveal plenty of wonderful music blogs, with styles ranging from affective to academic, with writers penning more poignant, sophisticated, and funny things than many "professional" scribes.
You're damn right.
If, as so many newspaper trend pieces assert, the number of "tastemakers" has exponentially proliferated through unmitigated access to music, that means that, on average, individual tastes are on the upswing as well. It's hard to argue this fact, if only through anecdotal evidence. While the Internet does not represent "the world," and there are plenty of folks who are just fine keeping with their old habits, those who keep up with online music have the capacity to turn into bona fide musical dilettantes, and occasionally straight-up experts, in no time flat. But broadening out to the aggregate, this trend looks different, and less rosy. The ideal would have been that a new network of independent music lovers would have elevated different types of music, or even found new ones, the way nascent rock'n'roll, honky tonk, bluegrass, and R&B benefited thanks to the 45. But online, new genres risk being strangled in the crib before anyone knows they exist, and people are "done" with new albums before the cover art has been approved. This time-compressing aspect of mp3-based music culture does not flow naturally from the technology itself-- it's a result of a lot of people, at the same time, publicly failing to resist their most basic passions for acquisition. Experiencing music in small, never-ending bursts is exciting, sure. But it's far from sustainable.
I guess this only applies to people following contemporary music? I'm not sure some of these new genres deserve a fate better than "being strangled in the crib before anyone knows they exist." And you can't expect people to "resist their most basic passions for acquisition." That's like preaching abstinence. I think if a piece of music were really strong, it could withstand a "small, never-ending burst." Maybe the reason "people are 'done' with new albums before the cover art has been approved" is because those new albums aren't very good.
So I'm not sad that print magazines, or newspapers, are dying; I'm sad that music criticism and journalism are endangered. I'm sad that publishers, advertisers, and corporate owners have lagged behind so incredibly long, holding onto an outdated critical model out of blind faith, leaving so many talented writers in the lurch. People expressing their musical taste to an eager audience in the offtime of their day jobs is one thing, and by all accounts a very good thing. But alongside these folks, we desperately need people to get paid to listen, discuss, contextualize, and critique music on a full-time basis.
Do we really? Maybe Eric Harvey does. Sure, perhaps our society as a whole would benefit, but "desperately need"? That's a bit strong. And this coming from someone who would love to get paid to write about music!
These sorts of nostalgic recollections, to a large degree, are facilitated because the old industry, built on selling magic, purposefully obscured all the backstage collaborators that helped superstars to emerge. But now, we find ourselves within a historical moment that allows us access to all the previously hidden aspects of music-making. Instead of approaching this situation as if the "magic" were gone, wouldn't it be much more productive to seize the opportunity to create an entirely new crop of idols? In other words, if "fan" is going to continue to have any resonance as a passionate listening strategy at a time when its definition is up for grabs, it's clear that fans themselves need to do the defining. The first step in this process-- the establishment of new infrastructures and technologies-- has already happened.

The second step is much tougher: using these new tools to push against the illogical constraints of those who think the old model is still viable, and set about redefining music's value. We've been conditioned for the past century to think about music as a commodity. While in good faith ("support the artists"), this way of thinking only propagates the most fundamental ideal of capitalism: getting the most stuff for the least money. Otherwise known as "downloading." Artists need to make money for their music (if they want to), and they need a set of flexible legal and technological guarantees to ensure this. But these guarantees need to be flexible enough to allow the fans themselves to use their collective intelligence and passion to help the artists themselves, without being exploited, or written into a script fit for retired actors. If the networked public sphere shaped by mp3s could collaboratively re-imagine itself not as an audience or a market but as members of a civil society, who feel that they deserve a stake in its own culture, then the rules going forward, and our appreciation of music's social and affective values, might emerge like mp3s themselves: from the bottom up. We've long since figured out how to grab and recirculate music. Now, let's make something with it.

Amen! Unfortunately, just like the rest of us, Harvey has no idea as to what kind of music we should begin making. But yes, the power rests with us "fans," even if we haven't realized it yet. We're like Dorothy with the ruby slippers: we could have gone back to Kansas whenever the fancy struck us, we just didn't know it! I do like Harvey's phrase about not feeling like we have "a stake in our own culture." When I was a kid, all I knew was that I really enjoyed music, and that I didn't have any money, so I needed to acquire music as cheaply as possible. The "artists" seemed like distant, ephemeral apparitions. Acquiring music was like a game, where I needed to "outsmart" the record companies by taping music off the radio, or by borrowing CDs from the library. I never really did feel like I was part of the same world that musicians were a part of. There's another quote earlier in the piece where Harvey writes, "There is nothing inherent or natural about paying for music, and the circulation of mp3s through unsanctioned networks reaffirms music as a social process driven by passion, not market logic or copyright." Was there once a "golden period" where music did not come with a price tag, but was simply a social activity that was generated for free by Grandpa on the porch, or Ol' Joe and Crazy Sam down by the river? How did we start "paying" for music? I guess people started paying entry to clubs in Harlem or other urban places of that nature. At some point I guess capitalism completely took over. And it wasn't entirely natural?! Maybe there became a situation where the people making music needed a lot of money in order to keep making the music we started to like. And that's not really true anymore. It still costs some money to go into a studio, but much less than it did forty years ago.

And now it costs nothing to "buy" music. On the one hand it's great, but on the other hand it's killed the art form entirely. "Making money" was not the sole, or even primary, motivation behind the careers of The Beatles or The Beach Boys, but it was definitely a key motivation. I think part of what drove those bands to great artistic heights was the vague notion that they could also become obscenely rich one day. In a couple more years that notion may officially be untrue.

And, although seemingly an annoying obstacle, it's clear now that back when the music scene was being run by a small elite group of people, it forced people to concentrate their attention in a few places at once. We used to think it was a bad thing that we couldn't get our hands on music very quickly, or that we had to wait for hours and hours before we could see our favorite music video. Turns out there were benefits to such a system after all. Be careful what you wish for, eh Grandpa?

1 comment:

Peter Matthew Reed said...

But also: