Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Listening to digital music

Listening to digital music

Just a few personal thoughts on digital music in the afterlife of that lecture I gave last week. I didn’t really talk as much as I wanted about how the way we live with music has changed or just intensified things that were already happening in the analogue realm. Some of you have been talking about gadget fixation—not being able to leave your mobile phones at home without serious anxiety. I’m like that with my iPod. And despite having music on other formats—vinyl, cassette and CD—I’m always desperate to get more of it onto the iPod for convenience sake. It’s easier to access with a flick of the finger on the click wheel than messing about with CDs and CD players etc. I’ve got 36 gigs on it now and not much more memory left so have to start thinking about which albums and tracks to delete for now if I’m going to put more files that I’ve downloaded or copied from borrowed CDs or taken from my own CDs or records. Too many decisions to be made!

In his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali argues that once music is a commodity it enters a period of ‘repetition’ and encourages ‘stockpiling’. We want more and more because it’s easily available and the industry encourages us to want more. I’m definitely close to being a music addict because I constantly want new sources of sonic pleasure. Now some graduate students have told me that they listen to a whole bunch of MP3s on their computer database/iTunes or whatever and then dump most of them after a couple of months or so, and start with a new set of MP3s. There isn’t a need to keep things permanently. I’m older and trained in the vinyl era when the idea of the record collection was stronger and the fetishism for the recorded object was stronger. You did sift through your records and flog them to a record store or exchange them every so often but on the whole you just keep collecting and even kept the records you didn’t listen to much because you never know if something you’ve liked and then no longer liked might come back into your listening favour or into fashion. For example, all my early 80s electro tunes are now rokkin’ the house again. Do you think the consumption paradigm of us old farts from the vinyl era is gone or does it still hold true? Or is the new consumption paradigm more likely to be a combination of these two ways of buying and listening to music.

Recent surveys suggest that those who download music are actually the ones that buy more CDs too. I know that’s true for me. I’ll buy stuff that I’ve downloaded sometimes, but not all the time. It depends on the desirability of the CD itself and the inferior sound quality of the MP3, rather than any moral judgment about ripping the artist off or not. I think more music companies need to concentrate on giving added value to the CD rather as the DVD gives you ‘extra features’. Some are already doing this with their ‘enhancements’ like music videos. I would like to see those crappy and easily breakable jewel boxes replaced by more ecologically sound and durable boxes or digipacks. I also want record companies who are trying to make money off their back catalogues give you more interesting and well-researched notes and more careful thought put into the artwork for CDs. Independent labels like Warp and Ninjatune seem to do that more than big guns though. People will always like the physical object because people like things, and that commodity fetishism for the music object that you can feel and touch will remain, though it’s been somewhat displaced on to the player with the iPod.

Digital music also makes music more mobile from one platform to another. I can read about a particular track on the web or in a magazine, download it from the web, copy it onto a CD or simply plug my iPod into the mixer and console at the radio station and broadcast it to Aucklanders who are listening in. That stockpiling of music doesn’t diminish the fact that most of us who like music want to share it with other people. Friends do the same for me. Music is invariably more social than the record companies imagine it. They want you to pay for every copy out there in the world. Can you imagine if we didn’t read newspapers and magazines that other people bought? It’s unthinkable in terms of social practice. As human beings we like to share stuff. And in that regard music is like food.

What I’ve also recently noticed as I’ve downloaded music (only the last year) is that I can quickly recover old tracks that have disappeared from the shelves, discover new things that someone mentions to me or I’ve read about that haven’t appeared in the shop yet or never will, or I just come across stuff that is unexpected. For example, I’ve been listening to jazzy or funky vibraphone stuff recently, by the likes of Roy Ayers and Cal Tjader and others. While I was online I remembered that there’s a jazz musician called Milt something who recorded vibes. I couldn’t remember his last name so I just typed ‘Milt’ in the search engine. A whole bunch of artists and tracks came up, including Milt Jackson, who I was after. I downloaded a version of a song I know, ‘People make the world go around’, by him. But I also noted that there were some files of film dialogue attributed to ‘Milton’. These were the bits spoken by a character in one of my favourite films Office Space. So I downloaded these small files and I’m sure I’ll put them in a radio show or integrate them in a mix CD. I gained something unexpected from the technology.

As a mix tape and compilation CD freak, I often make CDs around topical themes that occupy me during the weeks and months. So recently as someone obsessed by the London bombings and the war on terror, I’ve just typed ‘terror’ or ‘suicide’ or ‘Baghdad’ or ‘Palestine’ or ‘London’ or ‘George W Bush’ or ‘Bin Laden’ into the search engine and yielded some unexpected gems as well as some duds. It’s a different way of finding and listening to music than trawling through the music store for hours, which still by the way, gives me regular pleasure. And it means you can juxtapose different kinds of music and not be tied to genre. I think the mixtape really kicked all this off in a big way and is one of the most important developments in popular music. People were trading them before the era of the MP3. They were personalized collections of tunes for a specific purpose—your own incipient database. Think of John Cusack in the film High Fidelity with his monologue about the careful construction of the mix tape. I think I once persuaded someone to go out with me after sending them some heartbreaking love songs. 50 Cent began his career rapping on mixtapes sold in downtown NYC. There’s a new book on the culture of the mixtape and its personalized graphics etc. edited by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.

The other thing worth mentioning is that music blogs have become something of a hybrid of the diary, music journalism, the radio, and even the record company with their official and unofficial MP3 files.

Even record companies are allowing you to download some artists’ music, then remix it yourself, send it back to them. The label posts the remixes for downloading and people can vote for the best one.

There are so many legal and illegal sites and MP3s, and as I said in class, the boundaries are blurred between the legit and illegit. That recent big German hit “Schnappi” has been remixed many times and you can find scores of mixes online, most of them unofficial. But these have created the ‘buzz’ that fuels consumer demand for the legit CD that you can buy in Real Groovy or The Warehouse.

Anyway, I’ve blathered on for a while, so look forward to reading about how you guys consume, or should I say, listen to music individually and collectively.



PS another plug for my radio show:

The Basement with Nick and Nabeel
Saturdays 4-6 pm
107.3 FM Auckland


At 6:56 PM, Blogger Daniel Sadgrove said...

I noticed in your lecture you talked about the mash ups like the Jay Z VS Beatles - Gray Album for instance. In my earlier blog ( there is a link to download a new album mashing up Frank Sinatra and Notorious BIG called Blue Eye Meets Bed Stuy. As you have a diverse range of musical tastes you might like to check it out, it's pretty good.

At 5:35 PM, Blogger Mike B said...

You talked about mix tapes and what not, in terms of mashups and remixes, in both your lecture and blogg post. You probably already know that there are offical mix complilation CD's out there but my question sort of runs along the line of that non-stop CD. The likes of DJ Sir-Vere, or DJ Rectangle, where each song on the CD, is remixed onto another track side by side, so to speak. And you have a type of night-club flow to it. Where the whole CD has no real break in between songs, giving it a real nice flow, and listening pleasure, better yet there are intervals where the DJ makes his mark on the CD by doing a "fancy scratch", or a "signiture break" in between songs almost like a signiture of his skill as DJ. In the states, it quite a big thing there with more recognizable names such as Funkmaster flex. It has a great deal more towards Hip Hop music: im guessing because its easier to put beats together that actually have a beat such as 50cent interlocking with a Eminem track.
So I guess what im trying to ask is do you prefer the non-stop CD or single song remixed with a begining and an end?
Personally I like the non-stop CD format becuase of its flow on flow song characteristics, it gives a sense, when listening to it, party mode, clubbing, even relaxing impact, each song is different in a way and then given a unique touch by the DJ, which is really skillful and cool!.

At 11:48 PM, Blogger Andrew Cozens said...

Not really related to the discussion but i was watching High Fidelity at work this evening (great movie imo) and it reminded me of Nabeels lecture, what with the art of making the mixtape and blurring the line between producer and consumer, and John Cusacks top 5 of everything hehe, should rent it out sometime if you havn't seen it before.

Oh and Base Fm, isn't that an offshoot of George Fm? im sure they are both on Ponsonby Rd. Are the Base Fm dj's playing at the George Fm Winter Warm Up?


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