From Analogue to Digital, From Pragmatism to Symbolism – The Cassette Tape as a Hybrid Artefact in Contemporary Popular Music

The following is my notes from a paper presentation at University of Westminster and Goldsmiths University’s Symposium for Student Research in Popular Music, on the 24th June, 2015.
tape 2
Around this time last year I presented a paper at University of Sussex’s Musical Materialities in the digital age conference entitled Revaluing a Devalued Format: Exploring Cassette Culture in Scotland’s Independent Music Scene. Drawing upon data gathered from semi structured interviews with participants in Scottish indie and punk circles, I attempted to present an account of the cassette tape’s reemergence as a unit of currency in these circles. Conscious of criticisms by commentators such as Simon Reynolds’ (2011) disparaging accounts of ‘retro’ faddishness and the fetishisation of ‘vintage’ aesthetics, I was keen to present an account that was less about prioritising the artefact in-and-of-itself, but rather, the relationship that those in the circles I was exploring had with the cassette. In that paper, I made the argument that the cassette’s post-millennial marriage to the digital download code had resulted in not just a re-emergence, but in fact a re-valuing of the cassette – a redefining of what it is, what it represents, and the practices that surround it – transforming it from a primarily pragmatic thing into one which is predominantly symbolic, and recreating it as a hybrid artefact – one which is at once analogue and digital, at once physical and intangible.

I am very much aware of the context of this symposium – as research students studying popular music, I suspect that for many of you the re-emergence of cassettes is neither new nor surprising information. However, what I intend to talk about today is not simply the artefact in-and-of-itself, but rather, our relationship with the artefact as a thing. My aim for this paper is to develop and discuss new theoretical perspectives on our relationships with things. I will begin by outlining my assertion that the cassette has transitioned from being a wholly analogue entity to something that is at once analogue and digital, discussing how this transition has impacted upon our relationship with the cassette, shifting from a predominantly functional and pragmatic relationship to one that is predominantly symbolic, and recreating the cassette as a hybrid artefact.

From Analogue to Digital…

mango tapeTransformuration‘ by Jo Mango

In order to examine the notion of the post-millennial cassette, I would first like to outline exactly what I mean by this idea. I use the term to differentiate between the cassette tape as a site of particular cultures and practices in an entirely analogue system of music consumption (broadly, from the early 1960s to the mid-to-late 1980s), and in its current incarnation as an analogue artefact that exists in tandem with digital functionality, through its pairing with the digital download code. In exploring exactly why the format had re-emerged, I carried out a series of semi-structured interviews with participants in this post-millennial cassette culture, in order to gain a first hand insight into the cultural forms and practices that defined their relationship with the cassette. From these interviews, several key themes around the value of the cassette emerged – physicality, collectability, convenience, and participation in “The Scene”. These themes, upon reflection, are actually all very closely linked, and effectively collapse down to a concern with the cassette as a thing on one hand, and how your relationship with that thing connects you to a wider system of culture and practice. In the conversations surrounding these key themes, it also became quickly apparent that many of the participants did not actually listen to the cassettes that they were buying, but rather, listened to the digital download that accompanies the vast majority of post-millennial cassette releases.

The question then turned to why is this the case? Why bother to have the cassette if you are not using it for its primary function. Participants emphasised the cassette as a convenient and cheap way of catering for their desire for a physical thing. The majority of them highlighted that even though they were aware that they could access the same music online for free, the purchasing and ownership of a certain cassette is important as a means of putting money in the hands of the artists and labels that you enjoy. It becomes a symbolic token of your involvement with a scene, as a person who doesn’t merely observe or listen, but instead an active participant in independent music who actively contributes to the production of culture. Based on these comments, I arrived at the conclusion that the practice of the participants in this particular scene is not about fetishising the cassette as a retro artefact, but about redefining it. While nostalgia clearly plays a part in this practice, it is not mere nostalgia. Rather, I argue that nostalgia is a contributing factor in the way in which participants in independent music in Scotland are revaluing the cassette, redefining it as a hybrid symbolic and cultural artefact.

From Pragmatism to Symbolism…

To fully understand the significance of this shift it is important to examine the cassette in tandem with the effect that it has upon our relationship with the artefact. Where this relationship was once a pragmatic one based on the functionality of the tape over any aesthetic judgements, the shift towards social-cultural hybridity has recreated the primary value of the physical cassette.

“I think some of (the people involved in the indie and punk scene) are going out and buying tape players. I would say that it’s fifty-fifty (between people who listen to the tapes they purchase and those who only listen to downloads). But you get the download code and it looks cool”

“I’ll be honest, I know two people who regularly buy from me who actually own a cassette player…”

The above quotes, taken from two of my research interviews, are a good example of this shift towards shift towards social-cultural hybridity. Based on this example, we can usefully apply Preston’s (2000) notion of ‘proper function’ of the cassette as initially being its music playing / recording / replaying capacity. It’s aesthetic and symbolic values were ‘system functions’ – functions that it served in a wider system of culture and society, but that did not explain its reason for existing in the first place. As evidenced by the above example, my assertion that the primary function of the cassette within particular music scenes is now predominantly symbolic rather than functional. The participant’s comments that as many as half of his customers who buy cassettes don’t even own cassette players demonstrates a shift in the proper function of the cassette, from being a music playing device (now supplanted to digital technology) to being both aesthetic and symbolic.

To develop this, I offer a brief comparison of an existing body of work that focuses on a previous cassette culture – Moore’s (2004) Mixtape: the art of cassette culture – with my own research into the post-millennial cassette.

tape 3From Thurston Moore’s ‘Mixtape: The Art of Cassette Culture

Mixtape

  • Entirely analogue in both functionality and appearance
  • Emphasises creative and social functions
  • Use, Exchange, and Symbolic Values all contained within the artefact

Post-Millennial

  • Analogue functionality is still present, but often unused, instead supplanted by digital functionality for listening
  • Shift of emphasis from creative production to consumption
  • Exchange and Symbolic values contained within the artefact, Use value is transplanted to digital technologies

In Moore’s incarnation of cassette culture, value in a cassette was an aggregate of its exchange value (what you paid for it / what you could swap it for), its symbolic value (as a statement of taste, identity, and cultural competency), and it’s use value (primarily as a means of transporting and reproducing music). For the participants that I spoke to, today these values have become fragmented, and the cassette tape itself reinvented as a hybrid artefact. The exchange value and symbolic value still reside with the artefact itself, but its use value as a means of actually listening to music now resides elsewhere. In this sense, the cassette as an artefact is no longer a pragmatic tool, it is a symbolic tool primarily (but not exclusively) used in identity construction.

At first glance, it would be easy to make the argument that this shift is simply a shift from an active, meaningful engagement with culture on one hand, to a passive, shallow materialism on the other. One of the commentators in Moore’s book summarised the relationship that people in his social scene had with the mixtape:

‘Predigested cultural artefacts combined with homespun technology and magic markers turn the mixtape into a message in a bottle. I am no mere consumer of pop culture, it says, but also a producer of it.’ (Veigener in Moore, 2004: 25)

This quote is broadly representative of the majority of conversations that I have had with those who engaged with cassette culture in the 1980s, emphasising the agency of the individual, and foregrounding the creative and social elements of their cassette culture in opposition to a perceived passive and shallow materialism associated with modern re-appropriations of cassettes, vinyl records, and other retro forms and formats. However, for those who I interviewed, their relationship with the cassette was seen as anything but passive:

“I think tape’s for people who care, who put a bit more into music than listening to the radio or watching TV. Its for people who care.”

“I think the tape is kind of materialistic because you want to own something, you know? … I think it’s sort of a collectors thing, and it supports the band, which is probably the main thing…I think its the thing of owning something, being able to own something…”

To those who I interviewed, the cassette, and their relationship with it, was seen not as passive or shallow, but as an active means of participating and contributing to ‘their scene’. While some participants acknowledged that there was a materialism to their relationship with the cassette, it was far from a passive or shallow materialism. To them, the cassette was a way of supporting acts and labels producing niche music, whilst coming away from the transaction with an artefact that physically connected them to the acts, labels, and spaces that they associate with that scene. “No one wants to buy a digital download code at a show”, remarked one participant, “you want to come away with a thing”. To those that I interviewed, the cassette served as a symbolic link between the digital practice of listening to recorded music, and the physical, concrete relationship that they have with the bands, labels, and spaces that they associate with their scene – a symbolic intermediary between digital and physical practices, and one that is both representative of and enacting hybridity.

Hybridity: The Post-millennial Cassette as a Thing

As I mentioned at the start of this paper, I am keen to avoid the trap of merely fetishising an object. As such, I am more concerned in exploring the various strands that have run through this paper culminate in telling us something about the relationship with cassettes specifically, as outlined above, might tell us something about relationships between people and things more generally. It is commonplace in current discussions of culture and technology to talk about the ‘Digital Age’ – a state of existence that is defined by digital technologies and our relationships to them. I would like to contend that, at least insofar as our relationship with music technologies, our current condition is less one defined by digitalisation exclusively, but rather, one that is defined by the same sense of hybridity that applies to the post-millennial use of cassettes. In this paper so far I have offered an account of the post-millennial cassette as something that is at once analogue and digital. Its unique and separate analogue and digital qualities are clearly identifiable, but yet they are inextricable when viewed in the context of our relationship with them. Today, the cassette is no longer an outmoded pop relic. Instead, like the turntable and records, participants in scenes and subcultures have recreated and redefined its ‘system functions’, shifting from a functional, pragmatic tool to one that is primarily (but not exclusively) symbolic, cultural artefact.

I believe that increasing digitalisation of culture in general has led to a re-approaching of physical things, like cassettes. Over the past couple of decades, many of our cultural practices have been defined by a rapid development and embracing of digital technologies. Yet, as shown through the example of the use of cassettes in indie music in Scotland, for some individuals and groups within contemporary popular culture, this increasingly digital culture has also led to the rediscovery and redefinition of artefacts and materialities from previous cultural periods. We often view technologies, and the practices associated with them, in a kind of binary way – analogue versus digital, digitalisation versus physicality. I would argue, however, that, in fact, they exist within a continuum of practice and consumption – an analogue-to-digital spectrum of things, and importantly, one where our relationship with one particular point of the spectrum informs and impacts upon our relationship with others. The participants in my research, who adopted digital listening practices, but still sought after a physical thing, are just one example of this interrelation of analogue and digital influences on cultural practice. Even practices that are, at first glance, defined by the analogue nature of the format involved, are impacted upon by digital technologies. When describing an analogue listening experience, such as listening to a vinyl record, the terms commonly used to describe the sound – ‘warm’ perhaps, or ‘textural’ – are used to in opposition to the implicitly ‘cold’ or sterile sound of digital music. Likewise, when we talk about the portability of digital music players, we are defining them in opposition to clunky, importable analogue formats.

So what does this state of hybridity mean for our relationship with music artefacts? Certainly, there is the risk that by separating our functional relationship with an artefact from the artefact itself, there is a danger that this leads to the fetishisation of objects for objects’ sake, a state of what Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton describe as ‘alienated attention’, or a culture which directs consumers to pay attention to attention-getting devices rather than the specific functions or qualities of the goods themselves (1981: 186). However, as I just argued, to describe their relationship with the cassette as mere fetish would be to take a very narrow conception of the cassette’s function in the context in which it is used. That the cassette is not used primarily as a music playing device does not immediately mean that is without function. I contend that by taking the hybridity of our relationship with recorded music, and the artefacts and practices that make up these relationships, as a starting point, we can move towards a more fully realised and well-rounded understanding of the ways that we negotiate value in a system of culture that is increasingly defined by accelerating digitalisation on one hand, and the rediscovery and redefinition of material things on the other. By viewing artefacts like the post-millennial cassette not as a materialistic fetish, but rather, as a symbolic thing, linking together sets of digital and physical cultural practices, we can better understand the richness and totality of how these practices as a whole enact meaning and value, without over-privileging, or arbitrarily dismissing one or the other.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Rochberg-Halton, E. (1981) The Meaning of Things – Domestic Symbols and the Self. Cambridge [Eng.]; New York: Cambridge University Press

Preston, B. (2000) ‘The Function of Things – A philosophical perspective on material culture’, in Graves-Brown (ed.) (2000) Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture. London: Routledge pp 22-49

Reynolds, S. (2011) Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. London: Faber and Faber

Taylor, I. (2014) Revaluing a Devalued Format: Exploring Cassette Culture in Scotland’s Independent Music Scene. Conference Paper presented at the Musical Materialities in the digital age Conference, University of Sussex, 27-28 June.

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Format and Temporality – Some Musings

temporality

It’s been a while since I wrote anything on here, owing predominantly to the usual tirade of marking and assessment that comes over the winter months coupled with the imminent prospect of my transfer event looming large over the coming weeks. In the interim period I have become one of University of the West of Scotland‘s two representatives on the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities’ (SGSAH) Doctoral Researcher Committee, aiming to help develop cross institutional provision of post-graduate research and training in the arts and humanities. If interested, I urge you to visit their website and read about the work they do, funding opportunities, and so on. As a result of this new role, I spent a weekend in January attending the SGSAH’s residential event – a combination of training, workshops, presentations, and the first meeting of the new Doctoral Researcher Committee. While some of the workshops were more relevant and interesting than others, the real value for me came from the opportunity to meet and connect with so many diverse and interesting people, each with a unique and fascinating research topic. It also afforded me the opportunity to discuss my own research, to gain insights and suggestions, and to benefit from the expertise of a multitude of researchers, perspectives, and disciplines.

One topic that arose on more than one occasion was the question of music artefacts not only as being more or less physical, but also more or less temporal. When talking about recorded music formats as cultural artefacts, many of us (and I count myself firmly amongst this category) are guilty of over privileging record collecting, and other forms of acquisition, as the primary point of interest. It is certainly true that in many cases the act of acquisition (and perhaps the displaying of acquisitions) is an end in itself. This is not a new thing. Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay Unpacking My Library, talked with perhaps a combination of guilt and pride at the fact that many of the books in his collection were unread, citing writer Anatole France who, when challenged as to how many of the books in his library he had read, responded:

Not one tenth of them. I suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?’ (1968: 62)

This prioritisation of acquisition as a motive certainly bears out within my own research in a variety of different forms. One participant that I interviewed told me that he had “between ten and twelve thousand” vinyl records, tapes, and CDs. Many of these are in storage, sealed in boxes. Some are unplayed. Others, who favour digital media, told me that they had over 82GB of music. If we assume an average track length of four minutes, and sample rate of 128kbps, that equates to around 20,500 tracks, or 1367 hours of music. It should come as no surprise that a significant potion of these tracks remain un-listened.

But what of our uses and motivations beyond acquisition and consumption? For all that collections of records (and CDs, tapes, and arguably digital files) are often seen as symbolic, aesthetic, or documentary, they are also functional, pragmatic, things to be used. Above all, surely the main purpose of acquiring music (be it on vinyl, CD, or a digital file) is to listen to it? While the motivation (for some people at least) may shift from pragmatism to symbolism when it comes to acquiring / collecting music, the artefact itself that is being collected exists because of its capacity to store and reproduce music, and the experience of listening to music is, amongst many things, a temporal one. As Edwards A. Lippman (1984), a prominent American scholar on the philosophy and aesthetics of music observes:

‘The feeling that music is progressing or moving forward in time is doubtless one of the most fundamental characteristics of musical experience; yet it manifests such a remarkable range of variation in its prominence and its quality that at times it seems to be absent altogether’ (1984: 121)

Lippman’s account focuses on questions of temporality in relation to the way music is arranged, highlighting pieces such as Webern’s Symphony Opus 21 and Debussy’s Nuages that he describes as lacking or defying any conspicuous property of forward progress. He (quite rightly) argues that the sense of temporality and forward motion in time is not a fixed quality in music, but is created within the arrangement of instruments, timings, and timbre. I, however, am not looking (and certainly not qualified!) to interrogate the finer points of classical music composition and arrangement here. What I am interested in exploring is the question of temporality in music, not in relation to composition, but with regard to format and physicality.

Music Formats and Temporality – An Illustrative Observation

Yet the mediality of the medium lies not simply in the hardware, but in its articulation with particular practices, ways of doing things, institutions, and even in some cases belief systems” (Sterne, 2012)

I would like to try and explore the question of music formats as being temporal by means of a semi-anecdotal illustration of how different recorded music formats, used in the same setting, serve to punctuate time and illustrate social interaction in different ways. This will take the form of a comparison of digital music streaming services in opposition to the use of vinyl as the means of playing music during a private social gathering. By “private social gathering” I mean a social gathering of people in a non-public space, like a house party. Within this space and context, music is generally used as an accompaniment to wider social activities such as eating, drinking, and casual conversation (let’s say that it’s a fairly civilised house party…). In this situation, I will argue that the format through which the music is played has a demonstrable impact on the wider engagement with music as part of the social event.

To illustrate this I make reference to two separate hypothetical social gatherings of similar social groups – one where music playback achieved through vinyl records, the other through digital streaming service Spotify. In his book Wax Trash and Vinyl Treasures, Roy Shuker notes that if we observe the chronology of music format development we will note that each new format has seen an increased ease of use (in both the users interaction with the technology required to play the format and the process of recording the music itself), but also greater potential for ‘user programming’ – “the ability of listeners to create their own musical experience” (2010: 58). This process has broadly involved a reduction in mass and physicality of formats, and thus their visual and tactile elements (McCourt, 2005), a process that can be clearly charted in the movement from vinyl to CD to MP3 to digital streaming. At the point that Shuker was writing, the MP3 and other digital formats were widely seen to be the end point of this process – a format with no obvious physical elements (at least, none that are distinct from the technology used to store and play them), and very limited tactility required in the user’s engagement with it. One need only click on a ready made play-list of digital music, stored on a computer or mobile device, to provide hours of music specifically selected for any given environment or event. However, it must be noted that this simply represents a reduction of tactility of the end-user-experience. Playlist generation of MP3s and other digital music is a time consuming process and maintains tactility insofar as it requires ongoing physical engagement with the user’s chosen hardware interface (a desktop PC running Windows Media Player perhaps, or an Apple iPad running iTunes) to create the playlist itself, not to mention other secondary tactile engagements with these interfaces in order to download the individual MP3s themselves that populate the playlist. In this way we can see the digital music format as being illustrative of the chronological process of format development described above (i.e. demonstrably less tactile that the technology that preceded it), but also retaining a less obvious, front loaded tactility that prerequisites its use.

The digital streaming format represents the next step in this chronological process of format development. It has reduced mass / physicality in that it does not need to occupy space on the hard drive of the user’s device, being cloud based (a small but clear shift from the downloaded digital format), but also a reduced need for tactility in the user’s engagement with it. We can access pre-made playlists of hundreds or even thousands of songs instantly on services like Spotify. We can use technology such as “Scrobbling” – used by streaming service Last.fm, whereby data is gathered on the tracks played by the user into their Last.fm profile. This data can be set to include tracks that the user listens to through other media such as Windows Media Player or iTunes. Users can highlight if they particularly like a track, or if they don’t want to hear a certain track again, via the service’s user interface. This meta-data relating to the user’s listening habits and preferences are collated and cross compared with those of other users, allowing the service to create a playlist based on tracks the user can be expected to like – a playlist without the need for active playlist generation.

These changes in the potential and ease of user-programming are best illustrated by comparing the application of two formats that posses different levels of mass / physicality and visual / tactile elements at relatively divergent ends of the spectrum – in this case the vinyl LP record and digital streaming. While both formats have a common primary purpose – the playback of recorded music – their differences in physicality and tactility have a marked impact on the way that they are used in a similar social setting / space. Let us first focus on the LP and record player as a means of providing music for the social situation described above. In this situation, the physicality and tactility of the format dictate its use. The set up is as follows:

scuffed record

A: ‘You want to put some music on?’

B: ‘Sure, help yourself.’

[The user selects a record from the available selection, places it on the deck, and drops the needle]

A: ‘Ah, good choice’

[At this point the conversation either progresses in relation to the album or artist in question, or moves on along other lines. Either way it is not directly linked or actively engaged with the music]

In this situation, the physicality and tactility of the format limit the potential for user-programming, and as a result the LP is allowed to play uninterrupted for twenty-to-twenty-five minutes (assuming there is no technical flaw that prevents it from doing so) until the end of that side of the LP. At this point in time the dialogue continues along these lines:

A: [Gets up] ‘You want the other side on?’

B: ‘Sure, go for it” OR “Nah, put something else on’

[The user selects a record from the available selection, places it on the deck, and drops the needle. The conversation again progresses in relation to the album or artist in question, then moves on along other lines.]

Throughout the duration of this social gathering, the music choice is decided in approximately defined twenty minute blocks. Between each block of time there is a discussion and a decision made relating to the choice of music, during which those present are actively engaged with the music selection. Once this decision is made, conversation returns to topics that (while potentially related) are not tied directly to the music being played. This creates a tension and resolution between active listening where the music is at the centre of each of the listeners attention (which in this situation is quite pronounced) followed by a return to passive listening as direct attention to the music dissipates and conversation resumes. This balance between tension and resolution can be seen to be broadly reinforcing the social use of music in this situation, punctuating and focusing conversations and social interactions without dominating them.

Compare this to the same situation with the same conditions applied (i.e. the same social circle, same non-public setting, same activities such as eating, drinking, and conversing), but where an online streaming service such as Spotify (used via a computer) is used for music playback. The decreased (to almost non-existent) physicality of this format leads to greatly increased potential for ease of user-programming, and the cloud-based nature of the music storage allows for a far greater level of musical choice in terms of albums, tracks, and playlists.

scuffed spotify

A: “You want to put some music on?”

B: “Sure, the laptop’s over there”

[The user moves opens Spotify and selects a track / playlist]

At this point, one of the following two scenarios is likely. In scenario A, a playlist is selected and allowed to play uninterrupted. The music retreats to a background role in the socialising and continues indefinitely. In this scenario, the temporal quality of the music is significantly reduced. Rather than imposing a tension and resolution between active and passive listening, this format strongly favours passive listening. The music playing no longer serves to punctuate time, rather, it diminishes our awareness of it. It becomes background and textural.

In scenario B (the far more likely scenario if your friends are anything like my friends…) the playlist is allowed to play for around a song or less, at which point the conversation evolves along the lines of:

A: “Have you heard the new track by…?”

B: “After this track we should totally listen to…!”

C: “Do you mind if I cue up a couple of tracks?”

In this scenario, the music remains, for some at least, the focal point of attention and conversation in the room. It is perhaps more temporal in nature than scenario A insofar as that those in the room are aware of the specific number of tracks that have played, or (perhaps more accurately) how many tracks they need to wait until the track that they selected is played. That said, for each person who is actively engaged in the music selection, there will be others for whom it bears no interest. To these people, the same suspension of temporality observed in scenario A occurs. For both, the sense of tension and resolution between active listening that was present in the first scenario of the vinyl record is no longer present here. Where the punctuation of time in 20min increments in the vinyl example will create pockets of quiet that will attract the attention of even the passive listeners in the room, both the other scenarios create a situation where the temporal qualities of the medium are suspended.

Format and Temporality – Some Observations

It could be argued that the above example might suggest a relationship between Shuker’s discussion of ‘user programming’ and our capacity to author individual musical experiences from bodies of recorded music, McCourt’s observations about the reduction in mass and physicality of formats and their visual and tactile elements, our sense of the temporal qualities of music, and the more or less active or passive music listening experiences (at least in the case of social listening environments) described above. The vinyl record’s inherent physicality limits the possibility for user programming, which in turn creates a more temporal listening experience that punctuates divisions of time in social spaces, resulting in a tension and resolution between active and passive listening. The significantly reduced physical presence in streaming services and the subsequent ease of user programming that this allows for, on the other hand, creates a listening experience where time is not so much punctuated as filled, reducing the sense of temporality to the listening experience, and in turn fostering a more passive listening experience (again, at least in the case of social listening environments). This would suggest that the greater the sense of materiality to the music format, the more pronounced the temporal qualities it creates (or possesses?), and the more it balances both active and passive listening experiences in social settings. Conversely, reduced physicality (coupled with increased ease of user programming) leads to a less temporal (and more passive) listening experience.

The idea that degrees of physicality and materiality relate exponentially to degrees of active / passive listening has interesting implications for questions of value in relation to recorded music artefacts. This line of argument is, of course, far from watertight, and requires considerably more development. It does, however, serve to take a step back from discussions of acquisition and consumption in relation to recorded music as a cultural artefact, and a tentative look towards other questions of physicality and materiality that I hope to explore in the coming weeks and months.

Benjamin, W. (1968) Illuminations. Schocken Books: New York

Lippman, E. A. (1984) Progressive Temporality in Music in The Journal of Musicology, Vol.3 No. 2. pp 121-141

McCourt, T. (2005) Collecting Music in the Digital Realm. Popular Music and Society. Vol 28(2) pp. 249-252

Shuker, R. (2010) Wax Trash and Vinyl Treasures: Record Collecting as a Social Practice. Surrey: Ashgate

Sterne, J. (2012) MP3: The Meaning of a Format. London: Duke University Press

We Buy White Albums

2014-08-27 14.32.17

In my previous entry I talked about music formats as representations of sound recordings and performances. In particular I noted We Buy White Records – an exhibition by American artist Rutherford Chang, who owns over 1000 copies of first run pressings of the Beatles’ eponymous ninth album, normally referred to as the “White Album”. Until September 14th 2014, Rutherford’s collection was being displayed in its entirety at FACT in Liverpool, and as we speak it is currently in transit to be exhibited in Hong Kong. Located in a re-appropriated loading bay just off Liverpool’s Bold Street, Chang’s collection was arranged and presented in the style of a record store, with visitors invited to browse and explore the different copies, to take them out and play them on the turntables provided, and (if they feel inclined) to sell Chang their own first edition copy of the White Album. At the end of August (and before a trip to New York interrupted my intention to write about it) I travelled from Glasgow to Liverpool for the day to meet Rutherford and to explore and experience his collection for myself.

2014-08-27 13.23.29

Chang himself was raised in California, and lives and works in New York when not travelling the world displaying his collection. He began this process at the age of 15 when he purchased his first copy of the White Album for $1 at a garage sale. At the time it didn’t seem particularly significant to him. “It wasn’t a particularly special experience” he recalls. “It was when I was starting to get into music and I had heard of the White Album as a famous album so I bought it, along with some Bob Dylan albums.” However, upon later acquiring a second copy of the record, his interest was sparked by the subtle discrepancies and minute differences in the way the albums had aged. It was at this point that he decided that he wanted to collect more.

But why the White Album? This is certainly one of the questions that was most pressing to me in the run up to our meeting, and definitely one of the questions that I’ve been asked the most since. When I put this question to Rutherford he explained “because it’s all white it’s basically like a blank canvas that collects everything from 1968 until now… and whatever’s happened to them becomes more apparent than the original design”. However, there is more to it than simply the covers’ immediate appearance. As each of the first run of the album (somewhere in the region of 3 million copies) was numbered, all of the records can be organised by number. The first one hundred copies that he acquired are displayed in rows upon the wall, the rest are catalogued, chronologically ordered, and contained in racks, as you would expect to find in a second hand record store. As is also the case in second hand record stores, the condition of the records varies dramatically, although the number of records that you might consider VG+ pales in comparison to the number of poor-to-pulverised copies. To Chang, this drastic variation is at the heart of what makes the collection so interesting.

2014-08-27 13.23.562014-08-27 14.30.362014-08-27 14.25.56

“Because it’s all white it’s like a blank canvas that collects everything that’s happened between 1968 and now. They become these artefacts where whatever has happened to them becomes more apparent than the original design, and that’s what you see rather than the cover”

2014-08-27 13.22.52 2014-08-27 13.23.01 2014-08-27 14.31.08

“It was when I got my second copy of the album and saw the minute ways that it aged differently from the first that made my interested in collecting multiple copies. The more I got, the more interesting it became, so I’m still collecting.”

The thing that I found so immediately compelling about We Buy White Albums (and the reason that I decided to take a very last-minute trip from Glasgow to Liverpool to see it and speak to Chang for myself) was that it illustrated a very particular kind of value that is inherent only to physical artefacts, one that is implicitly, subconsciously present in the minds of record collectors, and perhaps all collectors of physical, cultural artefacts.

These subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) variations are immediately and urgently apparent from the moment you walk into the space, and I have to say that the experience of walking in and being confronted with so many distinct, different representations of the same record is, initially, really quite overwhelming. Upon introducing myself and moving to interview Rutherford about his collection I found myself distracted, on more than one occasion, by the ranks of records crowding the walls and tables of the converted loading bay, uniform in their difference. So many of Rutherford’s copies of the White Album are damaged or degraded almost beyond recognition. In the eyes of the conventional record collector, many of the individual copies are worthless. The sleeves are mouldy, worn, decomposing. To a casual listener, many of the records themselves are not fit for purpose. They are warped, scratched, unable to accurately or adequately convey the music that was once inscribed on them. Some are deliberately defaced, with Rutherford drawing my attention to a specific disk that had had the tracks “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” scratched out in case the owners parents heard the tracks playing and confiscated the record. Individually, many of the records lack any real exchange value to dealers, use value to listeners, or aesthetic value to onlookers. Yet, when collected together, they possess a completely different value all together, where value resides not in the individual objects but in the countless variations between and amongst multiple copies of the same artefact. Every record is the same, but each record is different.

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Chang, however, isn’t just in the business of collecting. As part of his ongoing fascination with the White Album, and his exploration of the differences between each of his copies, he has created a number of derivative artefacts exploring and highlighting these differences in the form of a new vinyl LP, one that simultaneously embodies visual and sonic elements of the first one hundred copies of the album that he acquired. Conceived around the time of Rutherford’s original exhibition in New York, the “100 White Albums” record’s sleeve is made up of scans of each of Rutherford’s first one hundred copies, digitally combined to simultaneously embody elements of each. Remove either of the records from its sleeve and you can see that the label in the centre has been produced in the same fashion. Play the record and what you hear is the sound of the same one hundred White Albums, all at once. This resulting effect is a sound that, at first, is reminiscent of playing a record through a broken sound system – crackly, distorted, and out of phase. By the end of each side the sound is a cacophony of noise, a barely comprehensible garble of eerily familiar sounds,all playing at different times and caused by physical variations in each record; warping, scratching, skipping – a collective illustration of these albums that are individual yet unique.

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Formats, Facebook Arguments, and Representation.

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At the end of last month (July 2014) I happened upon an online article by the Guardian, shared on Facebook by Cambridge based music-technology bible Sound on Sound, entitled “How We Made the Compact Disk”. The article offered interesting personal accounts from research scientists who were instrumental in the research and development of the Compact Disk format, drawing predominantly on an interview with Jacques Heemskerk, a research scientist for Philips. Without paraphrasing the whole article (you can read it here), Heemsker’s account was interesting on a number of levels; it offered a broad technical overview of the development process, it offered a social / cultural glimpse into the tensions and difficulties involved in Sony and Philips’ collaboration on the Compact Disk format; and (most interestingly from my perspective) Heemskerk’s own personal reflection on the impact of the compact disk, and the effect that this had on his own personal music listening and collection habits.

“When CDs first came in, I was decorating my house. So I decided to get rid of all my vinyl albums and get my old Rolling Stones and Beatles records on CD. It still hurts. Even though I worked on the CD, and it’s technically the best, I’m not sure people will have the same warm, emotional feeling towards them as I did with the vinyl album, with the beautiful 12in artwork.”

For me this quote quite succinctly illustrates the conflict that exists in the debate between analogue and digital formats, and the wider questions of materiality and value that are inherent to this debate. The objective, scientific part of Heemskerk (coupled, no doubt, with a not unsubstantial sense of personal pride in having been involved in the creation of the CD format) believes that the CD is superior – it is smaller, holds more data, and is less easily damaged than its predecessor. However, something else in him, a more subjective element of his psyche, feels a profound sense of loss at having jettisoned his records. Not a sense of loss for the music itself, as he has already repurchased the albums on CD, but a sense of loss for that particular representation of the music.

In every argument about value and music formats (and, I would imagine, in cultural artefacts generally) it is this question of representation that is really at the heart of the argument. When listing to an album, regardless of whether you listen on CD or vinyl, cassette or FLAC, you are listening to the same recording of the same performance(s) in the same order (with some obvious exceptions such as the addition of bonus tracks). The distinctions between each listening experience stem from the differences in how these recordings and performances are represented, sonically and physically. Each format has its own inherent sonic qualities. Some, like the compression algorithm of an mp3 file, are uniform across all copies of the format. Others, such as the crackles and pops on the surface of a vinyl record, are unique to an individual copy, and inherently linked to that specific artefact’s physicality. When we talk about sound quality, we are talking about how detailed a representation of the original recording / performance the format in question allows for, either in relation to the amount of audio data that it contains (the mp3 format discards certain frequencies to reduce file size, while other high definition digital formats do not, and vinyl has no need to), the integrity of that information (a vinyl record is susceptible to scratches and damage and degeneration, while digital music formats are not), or more complex, aesthetic questions of listening preference relating to tonal or resonant qualities of the format (vinyl records allow for harmonic distortions that some would argue are pleasant to the ear, while others would argue that a high quality, lossless digital file gives a “truer” representation of the recording artists’ intentions).

Similarly, distinctions in the wider experiences associated with music formats, such as our aesthetic response to these recordings’ physical manifestations, hinge on the differences in how the same performance / recording can be represented physically (in the case of tapes, CDs, vinyl records, and other material music formats) and semi-physically (in the case of digital formats like the mp3 or FLAC file, that rely on the presence of a storage / playback device such as a personal computer or portable music playing device). A great illustration of this (and one that I will be coming back to in future posts) is American artist Rutherford Chang’s We Buy White Albums exhibition, currently taking place in Liverpool, where he is displaying over one thousand copies of the Beatles ‘White Album’, exploring and highlighting the idea that “the albums are identical yet unique… together serving as a collective artefact”. Each album is a representation of the same sound recording / performance, but, by virtue of their physicality, each representation is unique.

Photo Credit: Rutherford Chang - http://rutherfordchang.com/white.html

Photo Credit: Rutherford Chang – http://rutherfordchang.com/white.html

Returning to the Guardian article and its sharing on Facebook by Sound on Sound, while it was Heemskerk’s account of his personal engagement with music formats that prompted this particular post, what quickly became more interesting for me was the conflict that the article triggered in the comments section on Sound on Sound’s Facebook wall regarding formats and format preferences.

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Keightly (2001: 109) once observed that Rock and Pop cultures have always been “historically defined by … processes of exclusion”, defining themselves in oppositional terms and setting up binary arguments of “Rock vs. Pop” or “Real Rock vs. False Rock” as means of establishing identity. While the arguments that I refer to were not explicitly limited to rock and pop (there is nothing in the comments to suggest that the posters are not discussing jazz or classical LPs, CDs, or digital downloads), the comments were definitely illustrative of these same processes that Keightly describes. The tone of the comments ranged from moderate and balanced to barely coherent (as is to be expected from the vast majority of debate that uses social media as its forum), but the message was clear – my taste, and my choices are superior, and if you can’t see that, then you are not a real music fan.

sosbestcommentThe problem with many of the arguments illustrated above is that they are circular in nature. The majority of participants in this discussion that tried to make the case for their chosen format preference did so with their conclusion as an unstated (and in fact sometimes as an explicitly stated) premise.

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The above quote is one clear example of this. Rather than providing objective proof, the poster simply asserts their conclusion (vinyl is the only format for people who “LOVE” music) in another form (only a person who doesn’t love music could get rid of their vinyl records without regret), asking the reader to accept this as settling the argument when, as demonstrated by the huge variety and variation in the other comments, the argument is clearly not settled. Each of the posters in the debate have very individualised ideas of what constitutes “good” sound, with some highlighting the usual arguments about vinyl’s “warm”, and references to “harmonic distortion”. Others prioritised the higher-definition of lossless digital audio. Some highlighted the physicality of vinyl records and sleeves, and the aesthetic quality of vinyl records and packaging, while at the same time deriding the CD. Others attributed similar qualities to CDs (i.e. the pleasure the derive from CD inserts and booklets) and derided the lack of physicality in purely digital formats like Mp3. The common factor, however, In every instance that I have mentioned above, is that the argument is about a quality that is inherent to their preferred representation of a performance / recording.

While there are numerous theoretical parallels that could be explored at this point (Marshal McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” being the most obvious, or perhaps Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle”), I don’t feel that this is particularly the time or the forum in which to explore them right now. I do, however, hope to return to this idea of representation in relation to value in the coming weeks and months, along with a more detailed look at Rutherford Chang’s We Buy White Albums project, and the questions that it raises about collection, distinction, and value.

Pop-Relics and Adventures across Technology and Time: Part 1 – The Eigg Ferry Boombox

While travelling aboard a tiny ferry to the Isle of Eigg for Lost Map records’ Howlin’ Fling – a music festival that brings a broad array of independent artists (from folk singers to techno DJs) along with a few hundred music fans onto a Hebridean island with a population of about 87 people – I found myself sitting next to a group from Aviemore with this particular pop relic: a Philips Spatial Stereo 583 boombox. The boombox, while clearly a bit worse for wear over its three decade existence, and from having been found in a skip in the Highlands, was still functional and was being put to use by my new travelling companions.

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“Definitely the best skip-dive find ever! I couldn’t believe that it worked when we tried it. The best part is that you can use it with your iPhone.”

 

And use it with an iPhone we did. There was no need for any invasive modification of the boombox to prepare it for digital music, as this particular model came with a number of phono-in sockets (including, bizarrely, one for a microphone to take advantage of the unit’s Public Address function), and a simple phono-to-3.5mm jack cable gave this outdated relic a new lease of life. Setting sail from Arisaig on Friday afternoon, we departed to a rousing sing-along of Andrew Stewart’s 1963 rendition of “Campbeltown Loch”, ripped from the original His Master’s Voice 7” single, streamed via YouTube on my sailing companions’ iPhone, and amplified via this somewhat decrepit, but still remarkably functional, boombox. It was a sensory experience that straddled over five decades of music and technology, and we revelled in it, our giddiness at the novelty of seeing this old technology re-appropriated in such a way mixing with our excitement at the festival to come and the cans of lager and cider that were being steadily consumed. I remember thinking at the time “you need to get a note of this, ask these people what they think about this meeting of technologies, what attracted them to the boombox in the first place, how they would normally obtain and listen to music in more conventional circumstances”. It seemed significant that, at this stage of my PhD research, I had happened upon this trifecta of music format materiality, playing out in front of me in this very unusual situation. Unfortunately, while planning and packing for the weekend, my main concerns had been something along the lines of “is this tent still watertight?” (the answer, it turned out, was no) coupled with “how am I going to carry this camping gear, my backpack, and all of this drum equipment?” (the answer being with considerable difficulty, and a little help from some friendly strangers). Ensuring that I had suitable materials available for field notes wasn’t a priority, and, as asking my new friends to turn off the music and put down their beers so I could ask them some questions about their music consumption habits wasn’t really in the spirit of the weekend, I resigned myself to taking a few photos, taking a couple of mental notes, and sharing a drink with my travel companions, vowing to come back to this later.

 

Now back on dry land, and having had a few days to reflect, I decided that I wanted to come back to this experience and interrogate it a little more, taking some of the questions that I wished I had asked my travelling companions, and instead reflecting on them myself – what was it that I found so exciting about the boombox and its presence in that particular situation?

 

I think, in retrospect, that what was so exciting to me about this particular artefact in this particular situation was the combination of narratives that it embodied. With regard to its macro-narrative, the boombox as an object itself has considerable cultural resonance, the boombox being symbolic even now of recorded music’s migration from the home as a private listening experience and into social spaces, its implicit connection with musical subcultures in the 1970s and 80s such as hip hop and punk, and its associations with abstract notions of freedom and rebellion that have always been synonymous with youth culture. It is the Clash, the Beastie Boys, and Run DMC all rolled into one cultural artefact. However, it is in the micro-narrative that these abstract associations of the object come alive. The fact that this object has been rescued from a skip by a group of twenty-somethings on their way to a music festival on an island 120 miles away, and fused with both new technologies (the iPhone and cloud-based streaming services) and and echoes of old (a digital representation of an analogue recording now over half a century old) made this object interesting to me. The synthesis of different technologies, formats, and snapshots of musical history, all playing out against a wider backdrop of independent and unconventional music in an independent and unconventional setting had a pleasing sense of symmetry and purpose to it.

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Mixed in amongst these high-minded ideas of narratives and meetings of technologies is also the ever present spectre of “Retromania” to use Simon Reynolds’ term from his synonymous book, particularly the idea that “retro sensibility…tends neither to idealise nor sentimentalise the past, but seeks to be amused and charmed by it” (Reynolds, 2011). There is no doubt that the retro, kitschy nature of the boombox contributed to our enjoyment of it, illustrated by the way that we lightheartedly poked fun at it – “it has ‘Spatial Stereo’ – isn’t all stereo spatial?” or setting the ‘tape counter’ to 666 to demonstrate how rockin’ this particular pop relic actually was. That said, Id be loath to dismiss the whole experience that I accounted above as being retromania, or regressive fetishism of an out-of-date technology. I argued recently in a conference paper at the University of Sussex’s Musical Materialities conference that the resurgence of old music formats such as vinyl, or in this specific case the cassette tape, was not simply a rehashing of an old cultural form, or a nostalgic yearning for a bygone era, but instead a revaluing of an old artefact in a new way, coupled with new sets of social and creative practice that were serving to redefine these objects within this era of digital and cloud-based music. I see this experience with the boombox on the boat to Eigg, and the actions and practices that it facilitated, as being related yet distinct to that argument. In my paper I was talking about the release of new music on a old format, highlighting differences between the ways in which music cassettes are being used and valued by music consumers now in opposition to how they may have been used in previous decades by original adopters of the music cassette. The boombox sits apart from this argument in that in that it itself is a relic of those bygone decades, but is being re-appropriated by subsequent generations, and redefined as part of a wider system of current technologies. While it may have been enjoyed on a level that is retromaniac in nature, the events that I described above (in my opinion at least) go beyond a desire to be amused or charmed by the past – instead trying to redefine and revalue this relic and absorb it into music listening and consumption practices of the present. It is this act of revaluing and redefining the ways that we find value in music-cultural artefacts both old and new that intrigues me, and that I hope to explore further in this online space.

 

Hello.

I’m starting this blog with a number of goals; to articulate and share ideas and thoughts that come up during my PhD research into questions of value around music formats; to share media and photographs that relate to my work; to leave myself a trail of mental breadcrumbs from which to retrospectively explore my thought processes when I come to write up in (hopefully) a couple of years time.

The issue (as always seems to be the case) is getting started. While I write a lot, and I am no stranger to discussing my ideas and research in a public forum, my last experience of writing to address an unseen (and often non-existent) audience was contributing to fan-zines as an undergraduate student (going back the best part of a decade). As such, this initial post is kind of a way for me to ease myself into the practice of writing something intended not exclusively for an audience of academics or students, but for anyone who should take an interest in me, my thoughts, and my research. One of the perks (or so I am told) of blogging, for a person such as myself, is that it allows the writer the freedom to explore and articulate ideas without being held to the same standards of academic rigour and (at least the pretence) of objectivity in the discussion of ideas and theories that would be expected in a more formal publication. It is my hope to take advantage of this leeway to produce a body of work that will help me to articulate my thoughts and research in a more informal manner than an academic paper, but in a more structured manner than the sea of scribbled notes and sketches that are slowly filling up my office at work and spreading across my flat at home.

More specific and detailed posts to follow very soon.