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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.