Vinyl Meltdown: Side B

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Part 1 in Datacide 13 set out the dialectical character of noise, arguing that distribution media can be used to amplify a disciplining or intensifying function, and that for those attempting to create spaces of possibility media becomes an important site of struggle. Here, part 2 looks closer at the move from tangible to intangible sound objects, and the tension between engagement and pacification.

The strange loop
In 1999 it was rumoured that more turntables were sold than guitars (Collins; 2003). True or not, the turntable was by this point an acknowledged performance tool and for decades had been an important part of sound system culture. 1999 was also the year that Napster launched as a crude software tool that allowed peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing of digital copies of MP3s. MP3 compressed audio files making it possible to move them around electronic networks easily. MP3 compression was a standard developed by and for the culture industry, and together with the transmission potential of the internet and advances in digital audio recording, it appeared to enable a ‘democratisation’ of the means for distribution. The possibilities for the distribution of audio were emphasised by those interested in self-organising at the time. As Douglas Kellner and Steven Best pointed out in an essay written in the late 90s:

‘In the case of new MP3 technologies, both known and unknown artists can directly release their music to a listening audience without the mediation of the record industries that exploit artists, control artistic expression, and often enforce a bland homogeneity of available music. MP3 also allows any person with a computer, the right software, and a little technical savvy to be their own DJ and radio station’. (Best, Kellner;1999)

Thrown into crisis by Napster’s rise, the RIAA (Recording Industry of America) acting on behalf of major labels and a number of ‘stars’, passed intellectual property court cases against Napster that effectively resulted in the company closing down in 2001. However, the two teenagers that had coded Napster had set in motion a short-circuiting of the distribution model of the wider music industry, a feedback-loop between technical reason and experience. The demise of the first incarnation of Napster was quickly followed by the development of more advanced, fully P2P clients such as Kazaa and Gnutella that decentralized traffic flow. Andrew Feenberg makes use of the concept of the ‘strange loop’ to describe the way in which ‘technologically mediated groups influence technical design through their choices and protests’. The ‘strange loop’ or ‘entangled hierarchy’ describes the actor and the object being acted on. Feenberg uses MC Escher’s famous image of a pair of hands simultaneously drawing each other to illustrate the entanglement and continuous interaction of society and technology. For him:

‘[..]feedback from society to technology constitutes the democratic paradox: the public is constituted by the technologies that bind it together but in turn it transforms the technologies that constitute it’. (Feenberg; 2010)

The mainstream music industry was subsequently forced into a restructuring that re-purposed physical audio commodities as intangible objects; part of a wider strategy to recapture the market from the free-flow of digital copies, and to adapt to changes in the way that audio and visual commodities were expected to be exchanged in an increasingly networked society. Now a decade and a half later it is clear that the entire media-ecology that existed around tangible sound objects experienced a major shift in moving toward intangible recordings, shifting first to a phase of file downloads, and then to the inevitability of streaming content. For the majority of consumers, music has moved from ownership of audio objects to access as a service: from ‘being in having’, to ‘being in appearing’.

Exterior design
While the wider music industry had by the 90s already transitioned to tangible digital objects (CDs), dance music and DJ culture continued to revolve around (and evolve the production of) vinyl records. Recorded music is of course not a pure transmission of the original signal, the mastering and cutting process greatly adds to the character of the object, and the entangling of these processes with the artists’ intentions can amplify or mute those intentions. Audio mastering must carefully work with the limitations of the sound container to exploit its potential. In the case of the vinyl record, a ‘strange loop’ developed whereby artists brought productions to mastering engineers, and engineers used the tools available and the character of the record to intensify the artists’ productions. When pressed, these objects moved through networks, and DJs in turn used them in the dance to create situations of intensity. Digital formats often skip these stages of post-production by releasing unmastered tracks, removing the power and reach of the sound object, in what seems to be a regressive step.

If one is to achieve the most effective sound object, musical carriers/containers matter. This is not to say that the digital container will never be as effective, but that that moment hasn’t yet arrived.

The record as container of soundwaves is a pregnant tangible object, what Evan Eisenberg calls a ‘sculpted block of time’. The passage of sound through time is carved into an oil by-product and mass produced. Unmistakably physical, its vibrations are reactivated when contact is made with the stylus. Eisenberg describes how the record ‘shatters a public architecture of time’, modularising moments that the individual can use to construct an ‘interior design’ (Eisenberg; 2005). Eisenberg’s sense is that the listener withdraws with a captured moment that can be re-experienced and re-contextualised; an experience that negates communal ritual. These oil rich blocks of time are of course encountered differently by DJs; they are used rather than listened to. DJs create an external sonic architecture that is intended to be consumed communally. For the vinyl DJ, interaction with the record object is direct and active. In a recent interview, Jeff Mills explained his preference for vinyl as:

‘[..]the physical aspect of connecting with this motion, this clockwise motion of this disc, information, the frailty of it all. The needle is just tracking on the surface of this record. And that any jolt would totally disorient it, and everyone else, and myself’.
The Wire, November 2011

The record is the result of a complex process, and like any commodity it hides more than it shows: ideas, social relations, networks and intentions. Mills emphasises the physicality of the object, but also what it hides and its fixing of time. Just over a hundred years ago, the phonograph solidified as commodity and gave music permanence and fixity. Music’s thingness has in the last two decades, however, been unravelling.

[..]this is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by ‘intangible as well as tangible things’

Post millennium, with the rapid rise of P2P sharing and the growth in the popularity of MP3s, independent labels that used physical sound carriers to distribute new releases saw a gradual decline which only became clear retrospectively. Consumption of the record-object became largely replaced by degraded digital audio characterised by low bitrates that were poorly reproduced in increasingly solitary ways (ipods, phones, etc.). So too tangible networks fell away with intangible objects becoming mediated by virtual networks: the web, social networking, etc. With streaming usurping downloads, we see a double regression: a degrading of the audio object and a distancing of use-value.

For a long time vinyl was the primary format that DJs chose to use, but now it’s one of many sound containers: vinyl, CDs, lossy (MP3s, AAC), or lossless (WAV, FLAC, OGG) formats. Many of these options attempt to mirror the physical experience of DJing vinyl. The tactile action is recreated in systems like Serato where timecoded vinyl is played on a turntable, but is linked to a laptop holding a library of data files.

The virtual sound object promised much in the way of democratisation (bypassing the mechanisms of production), but a decade after file downloads began to solidify as commodities, it is clear that the mainstream music industry benefited most from this time of flux. The move to intangible commodities has been part of a wider restructuring of the music industry, and its accompanying media-ecology. Intangibility reveals itself in streaming as a move towards a more contemplative interaction, and a denial of power of the radical audio object. Paradoxically the democratisation of technology that enabled the removal of barriers to musical production, and made possible self-directed distribution, also has the potential to degrade and dilute audio production and auditory experience, directly and indirectly contributing to an increase in pacification and alienation.

‘That is the trap. The trap of false liberation through the distribution to each individual of the instruments of his own alienation, tools for self-sacrifice’. (Attali; 1985)

In the wider mainstream music industry vinyl sales have for the last five years seen year on year increases, peaking this year with a 40% increase on 2013 (US figures) (Nielson; 2014). Looking at the list of top sellers, it‘s clear that the majority of those consuming and contributing to this rise in sales of vinyl are uninterested in radical noise; the renewed interest in vinyl is not about fresh sounds. The reversion to physical commodities is an industry of nostalgia: a misguided attempt to recover ‘being in having’ rather than ‘being in appearing‘.

The digital sound object has largely degraded and abstracted the recording into a lesser representation. The virtual sound object can share some of the record’s thing characteristics, however, the supporting media-ecology is lacking. Although it’s possible to bring abstracted sound back to a physical manifestation, eg. burning audio to CDs, using Serato or using Ableton as DJ tools, the commodity experiences a loss. Networked society opened virtual connections and virtual space, however, virtual connections and virtual space can only supplement not substitute actual connections and actual spaces of possibility.

References

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1985. Print.

Best, Steven and Kellner, Douglas. “Debord, Cybersituations, and the Interactive Spectacle”, SubStance, Vol. 28, No. 3, Issue 90: Special Issue: Guy Debord (1999), pp. 129-156. Article.

Nicolas Collins. “Groove, Pit and Wave”, Leonardo Music Journal, Volume 13, (2003), pp. 1-3. Article.

Eisenberg, Evan. The Recording Angel. Yale University Press, 2005. Print.

Feenberg, Andrew. “Ten Paradoxes”, Techne, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter 2010. Article.

“Nielson Entertainment and Billboard’s 2014 Mid-Year Music Industry Report”. 03 October 2014. Web. https://www.scribd.com/doc/232506898/Nielsen-Music-2014-Mid-Year-US-Report

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