More Than a Few Words on the Form of Music

This week I received a CD from Owen Chapman, my colleague at Concordia. Entitled Calling the Voice-O-Graph, it is an album of sample-based music though he also plays some of the parts himself. If you click the link to the online part of the project, you’ll see the idea behind it is pretty interesting: free music in exchange for dialogue, or more accurately, commentary. That works well when you don’t have to sell your wares to get by. Owen’s attitude toward the record is like my attitude toward the articles in the “text” section of Sterneworks. We’re both more concerned about an audience than about revenue since we both draw a salary by other means (thank you, Canadian taxpayers). I read it as a slight escalation of the process you can see at places like bandcamp, where you have to give your email address to the band. In fact, there’s a great deal of free stuff available online in exchange for your email address and the implied right to promote to you.

Allowing for their differences, in both Owen’s case and the bandcamp case, there is a slightly coercive exchange dimension to replace the economic relationship with music that comes when you buy a record. The music isn’t truly “free” because you’ve got to give something to get something. Even if you are downloading music of bitTorrent or listening to a swooshy myspace track, you’re paying your ISP (and the hits no doubt generate some kind of “value” for myspace as well). Music is never really totally “free”–though what these new strategies do (bandcamp, Owen, but also Radiohead and Saul Williams, among others) is force the relationship into one between audience and performer, even if it’s just giving up your email address to allow some for some more marketing news to flow through email, the sewer of the internet.

The last chapter of MP3: The Meaning of a Format is called “Is Music a Thing?” and is an extended rumination both on the economic form of music and a debate that has ravaged music studies for at least a century. Stated roughly, one side argues that the primary “ontology” of music is artifactual–music is a “thing” that exists in scores, records or some metaphysical notion of “the work” itself. The other side argues that music only exists relationally, in process, and inbetween people. Of course there are many shades inbetween. The position you take on this debate subtends arguments about both what we should do about the music industry and what a better future for music might look like. If you are a historian of sound recording, it also shapes your understanding of what recording does. Here’s one of my favorite quotes in the chapter, from Evan Eisenberg (with some text around it from me). You’ll see Eisenberg was writing in the 1980s:

Eisenberg writes, “when I buy a record, the musician is eclipsed by the disk. And I am eclipsed by my money–not only from the musician’s view but my own. When a ten-dollar bill leaves my right hand and a bagged record enters my left, it is the climax. The shudder and ring of the register is the true music; later I will play the record, but that will be redundant. My money has already heard it.” Eisenberg’s argument is a pretty straight-up variation on Georg Lukacs’ account of reification, where relationships among people become relations among things. In Eisenberg’s world, relations that once existed between musicians and audiences are transformed into relations among cash and records.

I’m not entirely sure I believe this account since it assumes a prior relationship between musician and audience that is somehow less “damaged” by commerce. Let us not forget that before recording, many 19th century relationships among performers and audiences were mediated by money in other ways–whether we are talking about paying audiences in concert halls, cellists playing “middle music” in the back rooms of bars, or middle class women serving as home entertainment systems at the family piano. But let’s go with Eisenberg for now since there is also some bit of truth in his quote. If Eisenberg’s account is true, what happens when there is no cash and there are no records? My physical copy of Calling the Voice-O-Graph is a short run CD-R. The art on it is really nice, but it doesn’t even have a jacket. As far as I can tell, it is a “promotional” copy. But promotion for what? Promotion for the website and the project, of course.

I’m thinking about this not just as a scholar but as someone who makes music. I’ve now got two “music” projects in two states of incompletion, and one of my therapies during all this cancer crap has been composing soundscapes (and increasingly, beats) that will no doubt turn into some kind of recording as well. Then there are a couple random recording projects sitting around that I guess I would call capital S A Sound Art though I wish there were a better term (here’s an old one). I enjoy making the stuff (a lot) more than I think I enjoy the getting out and promoting it (not at all). And with bandcamp and other resources, I’d started to think of abandoning physical copies altogether. There is plenty of great music I’ve discovered online (for those who enjoy abstract electronica, try track 2 here for this week’s discovery). And yet, a physical record does something. I’m Facebook friends with Owen and no doubt got the invite to the release party for Voice-O-Graph. But I get so many invitations to so many things on Facebook that I don’t even remember getting it. And I might well not have been able to go anyway, since the whole out-in-loud-public-places thing isn’t working that well for me right now. (I also don’t really like the promotional culture of social-networking sites, and therefore don’t pay a lot of attention to it. It’s probably an age thing more than anything else.)

Conversely, I dutifully put on the CD this morning, a few days after receiving it, and then went and checked out the site. And here I am writing this post now (Owen, this is your comment!). In fact, the only times anymore that I put on a CD are when I buy them or receive them. Then they’re in the computer and I go back to them, or not as the case may be.

I won’t end this with any grand claims about how the materiality of music still matters. After all, it is a lie to call digital music immaterial (this is also a major theme in the mp3 book). And consumption patterns are intensely generational. I’m not in a position to judge the affective investments of people a whole lot younger than me, and I know that many people my age and older still populate their musical lives with recordings that live as artifacts, whether as CDs or records. That’s also the pattern I grew up with and so my reactions to a CD vs. a link are themselves second nature. So I guess I will be making some hard copies after all.

As for the mp3 book, I have yet to see (at least for me) a viable e-reader for something so thick as a scholarly book. I’m sure it will come someday. In the meantime, I’m going artifact all the way.