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Slanted and enchanted

August 13, 2009

I've been hanging out at the TPM Cafe this week, discussing Bill Wasik's book And Then There's This. Here's my latest post from the discussion:

If, as Amanda Marcotte suggests, the Internet is like the Beach Boys in 1963, then I guess we have a few more years of inspired genius before the psychosis, death, and exploitation set in. Then again, everything goes faster on the Net, so maybe we're already in the psychosis, death, and exploitation phase.

Like Amanda, I think that Bill Wasik, in his book, glosses over the fact that one of the foundational characteristics (and joys) of popular music has always been its ephemerality, the way new bands buzz in and out of consciousness like beautiful stinging bees. As Stephen Malkmus observed in 1994 (well before MySpace):

Music scene is crazy
Bands start up each and every day
I saw another one just the other day
A special new band

And I don't think it's true that, as Bill suggests, "overnight sensations" have "almost always been manufactured by radio, or by big record labels, or by the interplay between the two." In fact, overnight sensations emerged regularly from the very "local scenes" that Bill contends (accurately and sadly, I think) that the Internet is undermining. Scenes are almost by definition fickle and hungry for the new. If you look, for instance, at the garage rock explosion in California in the late 1960s or the British punk movement of the late 1970s, you see that disposability was actually part of the point (and the excitement).

I was a bit too young for the Sixties, but I can speak from experience about the Seventies. That was before marketers came up with such terms as "indie rock" and "alternative rock." Back then everything was just "rock," and it all fell into basically two categories, which we defined for ourselves: "fucking great" and "fucking shit." At that time, radio and record labels largely concerned themselves with "fucking shit," and their goal was not to encourage one hit wonders but rather to sustain elephantine franchises like, say, ELO, Yes, and the Eagles. The ephemeral stuff, which also tended to be the good stuff, existed almost entirely outside the radio/label ambit. It existed in the scenes and was promoted, largely, via word of mouth.

So to the extent that the Web encourages "the ecstatic surf from new band to new band, from track to track, from style to style," it represents as much a continuation of the "scene" ethic as the "corporate" ethic.

The problem with the Web, as I see it, is that it imposes, with its imperialistic iron fist, the "ecstatic surfing" behavior on everything and to the exclusion of other modes of experience (not just for how we listen to music, but for how we interact with all media once they've been digitized). In the pre-Web world, we not only enjoyed the thrill of the overnight sensation - the 45 that became the center of your waking hours for a week only to be replaced by the new song - but also the deeper thrill of the favorite band in whose work we deeply immersed ourselves, often following its progression over many records and many years. It wasn't that long ago that buying an album represented, particularly for your average teenager, a significant investment. You thought a lot about that album before you bought it, and once you bought it you took it seriously - you listened to it. Repeatedly. Today, we're quick to dismiss those ancient days of "scarcity" and to celebrate our current "abundance," but scarcity had something going for it: it encouraged a deep engagement in listening to a particular piece of music, across the expanse of an album, and it also encouraged, in the artist, an interest in rewarding that engagement. I would like to get back the money I spent on records in my youth, but I would not give up the experience that money bought me.

It's the deep, attentive engagement that the Web is draining away, as we fill our iTunes library with tens of thousands of "tracks" at little or no cost. What the Web tells us, over and over again, is that breadth destroys depth. Just hit Shuffle.

Amanda's retreat to vinyl is, I think, a recognition that we're trading away something important for the riches of the Web. And while I applaud her retreat, I have to think it's a rearguard action that is happening a long way away from culture's front lines. Whether it's news stories or pop songs, we're skimmers now. It's a one-hit-wonder world.

Comments

In an amazing sinchronicity, yesterday I posted the article Maybe I would Not Appreciate Pink Floyd’s Music if it was Digital wrting how is difficult to listen to a complete album in his full narrative, when in digital format. Great music, to be revealed to our soul, need to pierce through our mental structures and conditionings which automatically tend to reject what’s not familiar.

But to allow to be possessed by music we need time, concentration, and an empty mind... so difficult to find online.

Posted by: Ivo Quartiroli [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 13, 2009 03:34 PM

Indeed the entire internet is "making us stupid", at lease music wise. Being an audiophile from the 60's I too wonder how the Pink Floyd classic album UmmaGumma would be interpreted today. Could there even be a "White Album" or a "Sgt Peppers". I am a victim myself, thoughtless filling my Ipod with "Songs to Workout" or travel, or whatever mode. We cherry pick the information or media we want and when we want it. Like a bird skimming the ocean devouring only the fish rising to the surface with no comprehension what lies below.

Posted by: Just Bruce [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 14, 2009 07:51 AM

May I just mention that if "having appreciated a certain kind of music record" is the only thing lost, it's not a big deal?

Posted by: self.maluke.com [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 14, 2009 04:32 PM

See and raise.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=518XP8prwZo

-t

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 15, 2009 01:50 AM

>> overnight sensations emerged regularly from the very "local scenes"
Pre-Internet there was also the phenomenon of isolated pockets of music evolution not unlike the biological ones Darwin observed. There were east and west coast sounds. Surf music arose from the southern California beach culture. There was southern rock, Texas and Chicago blues, New Orleans Jazz and etc. There was always kind of an extended period of isolation, evolution and local promotion until it became nationally popular. There were isolated local radio stations and battles of the bands. Multiple labels run by musicians like Motown or A&M. Artist exchanges of beats, melodies, and ideas were on the road backstage between groupies and joints. The speed and ubiquity of the Internet has changed all that. True you band can get noticed quickly on MySpace.com or GarageBand.com, but by then the quantum observer had disturbed the evolution. Your hot new sound is now Galapagos turtle soup!

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 15, 2009 11:04 PM

You're certainly right to say that the goal of the majors was never to encourage one-hit wonders but to sustain "elephantine franchises" like ELO, Yes, and the Eagles. (A nice turn of phrase, by the way.) But when you go on to say that the Web

imposes, with its imperialistic iron fist, the "ecstatic surfing" behavior on everything and to the exclusion of other modes of experience (not just for how we listen to music, but for how we interact with all media once they've been digitized). In the pre-Web world, we not only enjoyed the thrill of the overnight sensation - the 45 that became the center of your waking hours for a week only to be replaced by the new song - but also the deeper thrill of the favorite band in whose work we deeply immersed ourselves, often following its progression over many records and many years.... It's the deep, attentive engagement that the Web is draining away, as we fill our iTunes library with tens of thousands of "tracks" at little or no cost. What the Web tells us, over and over again, is that breadth destroys depth. Just hit Shuffle.

I have to say, with all due respect, bollocks.

The idea that breadth inevitably destroys depth on the Web strikes me as plainly wrong — and music makes a good case in point. Yes, the Web makes it easier, and a whole lot cheaper, to move from band to band and track to track (though it's worth pointing out that the shuffle function was present on CD changers long before anyone had iTunes). And no doubt it also encourages the sort of one-upsmanship that drives bloggers to fall all over themselves touting the next new thing. But to conclude that the Web somehow discourages fans from delving deeper into the music they really like is to take a rather large leap. Much of the information I've seen — not to mention my own experience as a fan, or most of the conversations I've had with people in the music world — suggests that the opposite is true.

For example, a 2007 study commissioned by the government ministry Industry Canada found that "among Canadians actually engaged in it, P2P file-sharing increases CD purchasing." In other words, rather than simply load up their hard drives with free downloads, Canadians tend to sample music on the P2P sites and then go buy the albums (not just the singles) they like. Possibly this is a peculiarity of Canadians; I can't say for sure. But a recent study of young people in Britain suggests otherwise. This survey, conducted for UK Rights, an industry consortium, found that while respondents had on average more than 8,000 songs on their hard drives, many of them downloaded for free, they also owned 100 CDs — and that most of those were purchased rather than ripped from friends' collections. If people are willing to pay for physical copies of albums they've already downloaded for free, can you really say that no one is deeply engaged with music any more?

These findings were certainly borne out by conversations I had last spring with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Reznor is probably the most Web-savvy musician around, and while he's not happy that so many fans want to download his music for free, he certainly hasn't found them all deserting him for next week's sensation. Quite the opposite. Over the past couple of years, he's built NIN.com into one of the most comprehensive collections of music, video, and memorabilia on the Web — most of it supplied and curated by fans. After he posted multi-track versions of his songs online, fans responded by putting up more than 11,000 remixes (as of last April). And when he offered a limited-edition CD of his most recent album — a work that was already available for free on the same site — fans bought all 250,000 copies at $10 apiece. That's $2.5 million that says the Web is actually drawing people in deeper.

Breadth? The Web certainly gives us that. Depth? That too. I see nothing to suggest they're mutually exclusive.

Posted by: Frank Rose [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 17, 2009 04:50 PM

> That's $2.5 million that says the Web is actually drawing people in deeper.

Well, isn't that $2.5m effectively the entire market for this different model at the moment? What his sales would be if he wasn't the only one doing it? What would everybody else' sales be?

Do you suggest that if all music was released in multi-track format it would increase sales globally? ISTM that if anything, NIN example shows that differentiation is important and that personal effort is often more important that where the industry as a whole is going.

Posted by: Sergey Schetinin [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 18, 2009 05:29 AM

Frank, Thanks for the comment. A few responses:

I certainly don't think "ecstatic surfing" (Wasik's term) is "wrong." I tried to make clear that it's a great part of the experience of enjoying pop music. But there's another side of the experience, which involves immersion in music, whether it's a song, an album, or a corpus.

It's not a particular surprise that those who do the most music downloading would also be among the biggest buyers of CDs - both signify interest in music. My guess is, though, that the contents of most of those CDs end up ripped into a digital library. That's the important thing: not the medium of purchase, but the medium of use.

My argument (drawn from my own experience, the experience of others I know, and general observation) is that we behave differently when we have an 8,000-tune digital library (mostly gathered for free) than we do when we have a shelf of records or CDs (that we mainly had to purchase).

Do you think that the medium doesn't influence listening behavior?

Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 18, 2009 07:06 PM

Nick,

Yes, I do believe the medium affects the way we listen to music. Witness Sony's cheap transistor radios in the '50s, which enabled teenagers to escape their parents and embrace rock & roll. Or the Sony Walkman in the '80s. I just don't think online music affects listening the same way you think it does.

If you have 8,000 songs, you're obviously not going to listen to each one as often as if you had 1,000. But if you care enough about music to have amassed such a library in the first place, you're probably going to listen obsessively for awhile to 10 or 20 or 30 of them. That's why so much P2P traffic is in not-yet-released tracks and albums that have just been uploaded by some guy in the pressing plant. And why a lot of the rest of it is in tracks that have never officially been released at all.

There's nothing new about low-involvement listening: That's what radio was for a lot of people. But the UK study and others show a clear lack of interest in streaming services, which are replacing broadcasting as the current form of aural wallpaper. My take on the Web is that it rewards obsessive fan behavior as no medium before it—that's why there's a wiki for just about everything. But since Bloc Party MP3s, unlike Ramones records, don't get worn down to a nub after thousands of plays, we may never know for sure.

Frank

Posted by: frank Rose at August 19, 2009 02:07 PM

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