Apple Killed the Radio Star: Music, Videos and New Life in Box Sets

A lot has been written in recent years about the Napster revolution, illegal downloading and the itunes empire’s domination over the digital music market.  Like may other media-related topics today, this issue brings out a polarized view of the issue.  In his book “The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System,” Siva Vaidhyanathan provides a good overview of the cultural battle between the “anarchists” (who fight for free file sharing) and the “oligarchy” (who argue for institutional regulation of file-sharing).  Stuck in the middle of this war are the artists, who once produced those bulky things called albums- but is new media offering them a new way out?

This past November, Nirvana released its ninth posthumous album (twice as many then they released while still in action), which is actually an album and a DVD of their famous performance at the Reading Festival in 1992- a show that has been a staple of the bootlegger underground for nearly fifteen years now.  Re-mastered and color-corrected for the first time, the performance (CD and DVD) received 5-star ratings from Allmusic, 4 ½ from Spin, and 9.5/10 from Pitchfork.  Aside from the reviews, the greatest success of the DVD is that it offers something new to fans.  Nirvana was known as an incredible live band but they only lasted about six years.  Having a DVD to accompany a live recording is a way of exposing a new audience to aspects of the band’s work that they would never experience otherwise.  And with new re-mastering techniques, old dirty footage (via mom’s 1992 Christmas-time cam-corder) can become HD cinema.

Like much of their work, Nirvana’s release follows closely behind the Pixies, who released a gigantic (excuse the bad pun) new box set this summer.  The box, Minotaur, includes all the band’s studio albums, a live DVD, new artwork, and a book.   There are also rumors surrounding the new Arcade Fire album, which is scheduled to come out early next Spring- will they include a DVD as well?  Box sets offering extensive art work, unreleased songs and occasional live DVDs isn’t a new invention, but is the material once called “extras” going to become a standard expectation for recording artists moving forward?  Is it a way for the anarchists and oligarchs in Vaidhyanathan’s book to both be pacified?

While it may be a  viable option for some bands to offer a “pay what you want” deal for their music, other bands need to find new ways to sustain themselves- this may mean accepting a role as multimedia artist focused on producing video and visual art to complement their music.  This may not even be a huge shift as many bands have found themselves in alternate artistic territory before.  

In 2008, the noise-rock band Flaming Lips premiered their movie “Christmas on Mars.”  It took seven years to make and most thought it would either never be finished, or that it would be too ridiculous to be worth releasing.  The Village Voice gives the best overview:

“On its mostly monochromatic, ultra-grainy 16mm surface, Christmas on Mars looks like Eraserhead via John Carpenter’s Dark Star, a broodingly absurdist sci-fi fable set on the newly colonized red planet. The space station’s first baby is about to be born, and Major Syrtis (Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd) wants to organize a holiday pageant to celebrate. Alas, his Santa has committed air-lock suicide and the station is self-destructing just as a mute, messianic Martian (Coyne) mysteriously arrives to bring harmony and help bridge the religious and secular sides of Xmas iconography.”

While even the most devoted Lips fans were skeptical (I being one of them), the film was generally well-received for what it was- ridiculous and entertaining if you’re in the mood for it. Of course, musicians have always (successfully and unsuccessfully) ventured into film (Beatles, Bowie…).  But are these types of exploration going to be more prevalent as fans/music consumers begin to demand more from their favorite artists?  How will this change the listener’s relationship to the band and their music?  If expanding “album” content means more material for the listener and more record sales for the band, then the album might find more relevance on store shelves and at home.

Brian Mehler is a former MA student at Georgetown University’s department of Communication, Culture and Technology. While completing his BA in English Literature at Villanova University, he focused his studies on the role of new media in contemporary art, critical theory and digital poetics. A native of Freeport, ME, he has worked as a consultant and researcher in the non-profit sector for the Phoenix Foundation- a Portland-based organization that teaches ethical leadership and alternative learning throughout northern New England. Between his academic endeavors, Brian took a year off to travel, mostly backpacking through India and Nepal where he spent most of his time exploring the Kathmandu Valley and trekking in the Himalayas. In Washington DC, his research focuses on cultural narratives, social innovation, international development and visual theory.