Living with Digital, Resurrecting Analog, and Our Shifting Search for Sound

Abstract:

Over the last few decades, music technology has gone through a process of evolution from vinyl to 8-track, cassette tape, compact disc, and now, MP3. While the 8-track and cassette have become more or less extinct, with the CD well on its way, there has been a strong resurgence of vinyl record sales over the last few years. This article identifies the distinct characteristics of the MP3 which have contributed its rise as the dominant format of music, and juxtaposes them with the opposing characteristics of the vinyl record which have allowed the format to avoid extinction. The comparison between the MP3 and the vinyl record suggests that consumers desire convenience and modernity, but are unwilling to completely sacrifice sonic superiority, permanence, and authenticity. Though it can be quickly assumed that digital technology will eventually consume all aspects of our culture, this resurgence of vinyl brings into question whether or not we are ready to accept this takeover, and is an applicable example ways of the how society will react.


In 1964, Marshall McLuhan made the bold statement that “the medium is the message . . . What we are considering . . . are the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (McLuhan 7-8). To McLuhan, the medium itself was of foremost significance, as opposed to the content delivered, which took a secondary role. Though McLuhan’s statement is one of extreme technological determinism, it is interesting to consider this theory as we witness the shifting relationships between consumers, the MP3, and the vinyl record

Over the last few decades, music technology has gone through a process of evolution from vinyl to 8-track, cassette tape, compact disc, and now, MP3. While the 8-track and cassette have become more or less extinct (at least in market value), with the CD well on its way, there has been a strong resurgence of vinyl record sales over the last few years. The New York Times recently reported:

Through late November, more than 2.1 million vinyl records had been sold in 2009, an increase of more than 35 percent in a year, according to Nielsen Soundscan. That total, though it represents less than 1 percent of all album sales, including CDs and digital downloads, is the highest for vinyl records in any year since Nielsen began tracking them in 1991. (McGeehan, A23)

While the figures in the article are minute compared to album sales in total, it is interesting to watch vinyl sales rise as CD sales continue to fall, with a drop in sales as much as 20 percent this year (McGeehan, A23). In light of these facts, McLuhan’s theory that “the medium is the message” is one to re-consider.

Noting this unanticipated comeback of vinyl, this paper asks: What makes vinyl so resilient that it can perhaps refute our usually dependable concept of technological evolution? To answer this, I first analyze the specific characteristics of the MP3, including portability, new modes of reproduction and distribution, as well as increased accessibility to new music. I then discuss file sharing as a movement in terms of participation and social collaboration. Finally, I investigate why vinyl has continued to resonate with listeners, focusing on sound quality and the permanence and preservation of music offered by a physical medium. I conclude by arguing that even though the habits of listeners have shifted with the rise of the MP3, as seen through its resilience and resurgence, listeners continue to desire for certain aesthetic values associated with music in the format of the vinyl record.

Portable, Programmable, and Distributable: Why Digital Rules

Although vinyl sales have increased over the last few years, MP3s are still by far the dominant format of music. Like all digital formats, MP3s are made up of a quantifiable binary code, existing in an intangible form and providing a condition of portability. This convenience of portability has boosted MP3s in their popularity. In Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, Mark Katz states, “The portability of live music depends on the size of instruments and the number of musicians needed to perform a work . . . With recording, all music is more or less equally portable, from harmonica solos to the massive works of Mahler” (14). Lightweight, mobile, and compact, iPods, laptops, and iPhones now serve the role that stereo systems, the Discman and Walkman once did. Through their intangibility, MP3s allow listeners to store their entire music collections on iPods, laptops, and portable hard drives.

Unlike vinyl, the binary coding and modularity of MP3s allow for them to be easily reproduced, reassembled, and distributed. Lev Manovich describes this composition in Principles of New Media: “A new media object can be described formally (mathematically) . . . and is subject to algorithmic manipulation . . . in short, media becomes programmable” (27). He goes on to describe the modularity or, “fractal structure of new media” (30), as well as its variability (36). “Because [media] elements themselves are broken into discrete samples (for instance, an image is represented as an array of pixels), they can be created and customized on the fly” (Manovich 36). Though vinyl has been able to be manipulated through analog practices such as turntablism and sampling, these production mechanisms are used mainly by professionals and serious hobbyists.

Perhaps impractical in terms of production, vinyl is also difficult to reproduce and distribute commercially, and usually must be processed by an industry professional. In contrast, the digital coding of the MP3 (as well as home production programs such as GarageBand and Pro Tools) has brought sound manipulability and new means of reproduction and distribution to the masses. As early as 1999, this potential mode of audience participation through the manipulation and distribution of the MP3 was being examined. Musician David Bowie expressed:

A few days ago a kid downloaded one of my songs from my website. He re-recorded it at home, changing the bits that he didn’t like and then put up his version on his own site. The new version is written his way, with changes to the melodies and some of the lyrics and it is available as an MP3. It is unbelievable. If he can do that, imagine what can happen in the future. (Brown)

While vinyl usually relegates most listeners to being just that – listeners, MP3s have encouraged these listeners to be creators and participants as well.

From the Record Store to the Search Engine

The methods of accumulating vinyl and MP3s also diverge greatly. The search for vinyl has been associated with the term “crate digging” – the physical search for records. To Katz, “collecting [vinyl] is about the thrill of the hunt, the accumulation of expertise, the display of wealth, the synesthetic allure of touching and seeing sound, the creation and cataloging of memories, and the pleasures (and dangers of ritual)” (Katz, 11). Major retailers such as Barnes and Noble and Best Buy have recently begun to sell vinyl records, but the majority of vinyl is still purchased at independent record shops, second hand stores, and online – mail ordering and online auctions now play major roles in vinyl purchases. For many, the hunt for sound that Katz describes has moved on to the Internet. Online music stores, streaming services, music blogs, blog aggregator3s, peer-to-peer networks, hosting services, and social networks have all become prominent modes of collecting and sharing music online.

Digital music stores such as iTunes, Amazon, and Napster sell MP3s, either as single songs or complete albums, at lower prices than those offered in most retail outlets. These digital stores usually sell single songs for $.39 to $1.29, with full albums ranging from $5.00 to $9.99 each. The option of purchasing single songs through these digital stores is of particular note. Instead of only being offered music in complete album format, audiences now have the option to purchase only the songs they wish, and the downloading of single songs has become a common practice among listeners who often wanting to avoid “filler material” on full albums. Similarly, music streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and Last.fm give listeners unlimited streaming access through legal means – users with free accounts are usually subjected to advertisements, though most streaming services also offer users low-priced fee-based subscriptions without ads. Even through monetization, compared to most major music retail outlets, which average $14.00 to $17.00 for complete albums purchased in CD format and $10.00 to $50.00 and above in vinyl format, these online services operate at a much lower cost for consumers.

Outside of monetized and legal means, the distribution of data on the BitTorrent network through hosting sites such as “The Pirate Bay” and “Gnutella” predominantly offer full albums to listeners, while music blogs (operating both legally and illegally, depending on the site) post thousands of MP3 singles daily, also downloadable and free of charge. A point of interest in online distribution of music is that many music blogs are now encouraged to post MP3s by artists, record labels, and promotional companies to help “generate artist buzz” due to their role as trendsetters of taste in music. Here, free downloads are encouraged by the music industry.

Systemizing the online distribution of MP3s, music blog aggregators such as The Hype Machine and Elb.ws list direct links to recently posted songs from a selection of music blogs. In the case of The Hype Machine, users often have the option of either following the link to download the MP3 from the original blog post, or purchasing the song directly from iTunes, Amazon, or eMusic. These blog aggregators assist the listener in the curation and discovery of music, making music even more available as even an online search is unnecessary here. While it is not uncommon for an individual to pay a considerable amount of money for a rare, collectable record, through these various methods of digital accumulation (whether through legal means or not), these once rare recordings can now be found online, either downloaded for free or purchased for a few dollars.

File Sharing: Meaningless or Movement?

In his presentation “Is Music a Thing,” Jonathan Sterne argues that, “recorded music has lost its exchange value while retaining its use value. This phenomenon is normally explained through variations on a story about the Internet as a gift economy and its radical potential for changing the way we think about exchange . . . but [file sharing], strictly speaking, is not any kind of self-conscious movement” (316). However, if Sterne were to situate himself into any of these new social networks, he would most likely find that there is a shared sense of social collaboration. Many of them are making very self-conscious decisions to participate in the uploading, linking to, historicizing, and reviewing of music to share with others. This is seen in one extreme through the actions of Pirate Bay founders Frederik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Carl Lundstrom and Peter Sunde, who, after being found guilty of breaking copyright law, continue to contend that their site promotes digital freedom, seeing file sharing as a form of activism. But even the most casual music bloggers often post files to express their passion for music and these bloggers often link to each other, acknowledging shared ideals. As Yochai Benkler notes in The Wealth of Networks, “[programmers] do not generally participate in a project because someone offers them a price to do so . . . programmers participate in free software projects without following the signals generated by market-based, firm-based, or hybrid models” (60). Like programmers, many individuals who contribute to these various music file-sharing networks act without financial ambition, as well as to assist in the progression of arts and culture. While perhaps not always defined in terms of Sterne’s “self-conscious movement,” there often is a common goal among participants.

Sonic Superiority, Permanence and Ritual: The Persistence of Vinyl

MP3s are convenient, portable, appropriately malleable in our current participatory culture, and allowing of access to a vast music library for little to no cost. So how has vinyl managed to not only avoid extinction in the market, but gain an increase in market value as well? It has been argued that much of the rise in consumer preference for vinyl does come down to the fact that vinyl often sounds superior to the MP3 (Van Buskirk 1). The grooves in vinyl contain uncompressed, high-resolution data, while MP3s compress dynamics in order to favor loudness, and more efficient speed and storage – sounds which are inaudible to the human ear are actually eliminated. Daniel Levitin, a professor of music and neuroscience at McGill University says, “The excitement in music comes from variation in rhythm, timbre, pitch and loudness. If you hold one of those constant, it can seem monotonous.” (Levine 3). I would argue that what we receive in return for the conveniences of MP3s, we give up in sound quality, and most listeners are (perhaps unknowingly) accepting of this agreement.

As examined earlier, through the rise of MP3s into the music market means that an immense amount of music is now available through the downloading of a file onto a hard drive. These new purchasing and accumulation habits require less monetary investment and almost no physical effort, and hence, audiences are eager to consume music and search out new sounds. Through the dematerialized form of MP3s, music can now be hoarded similarly to how record aficionados once collected vinyl. While physical storage space is often a concern for vinyl aficionados, the main spatial concern for that of the MP3 is one of hard-drive space but streaming services eliminate even this concern. So how much of this music are we able to actually listen to? Is it possible to reach a point where we have too much music? Since MP3s can be accumulated and shared with little effort, and are always readily available, I would argue that even though we own , more music , music in MP3 form has become disposable. This argument can be furthered when we discuss streaming services which offer thousands upon thousands of songs, but are not stored permanently on one’s hard drive. Here, what we give up in ownership, we gain in access.

The tangibility of vinyl records allows sound to be preserved in a physical medium. In contrast to our digital options, the physical aspect of vinyl allows music permanence, and gives the listener a sense of ownership much stronger than that offered through digital means. Given the rise of MP3s, this loss of music as a physical format is a common lamentation of traditional vinyl enthusiasts. The digital coding of MP3s allows music to be stripped down to its most essential components. Artist, song title, and length are listed, but artwork (although low resolution images can often be downloaded as digital files), artist notes, photographs, and lyrics are no longer readily available with the MP3. It’s important to also note that CDs (as well as cassette tapes and 8-tracks), like vinyl, do offer consumers a physical product, complete with artwork, liner notes, and often, lyrics, as well as a permanence and sense of ownership. But, like MP3s, CDs are known to be poorer in audio quality due to sound compression, and the tangible characteristics of CDs, including the plasticity of the actual disc, are seemingly much more disposable and fragile. Twelve inches in size, vinyl records allow for great artistic detail in album art, and the cardboard material of the album sleeves are much more durable than the 5-inch plastic cases which store CDs. I would argue that CDs simply contain music, while the medium of the vinyl record is part of the listening experience.

Katz describes the distinct characteristic of vinyl’s tangibility: “Taking the disc out of its paper sleeve, he held the frozen sound in his hands, felt the heft of the shellac, saw the play of light on the disc’s lined, black surface” (9). Most vinyl enthusiasts would agree that the purchasing and playing of vinyl comes with a definite ritual. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin said “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value” (224). Each vinyl record contains a unique history of where it was physically produced and purchased, and each time a record is played, the crackling, hissing, scratching, and popping that comes with listening to vinyl on a turntable makes it an original experience. As mentioned above, there is a definite ritual in the hunt for vinyl. Even the act of playing music by dropping the needle on to the record at the correct song is a distinct part of the experience. Benjamin also stated, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (221). As the MP3 is a digital reproduction of a reproduction (of the original recording) of the original performance, one can agree that Benjamin’s theory of the decay of the aura, as well as the loss of ritual can be applied here.

Vinyl records offer a sense of nostalgia to audiences as well – to older listeners, this could be a nostalgia for youth, since for many, these records contain music tied to personal memories. For younger audiences who have grown up with compact discs and in recent years, MP3s, this could be a sense of nostalgia for a non-existent past. “The record player speaks of a lifestyle for which many young people yearn. Having grown up on neon overload, babysat by the TV, fed a diet consisting of toxic levels of products containing corn syrup and deafened by the degrading sing-song lyrics of pop music, the vinyl experience is a detox for the senses” (Dell 1). It seems that each piece of vinyl has a story to go with it, and can have more of a connotative, and even emotional tie to the listener than music in its digital form.

Conclusion

Music as a tangible, physical object has now been dematerialized into a digital software format and is easily accumulated through free downloads from blogs or peer-to-peer networks, or purchased from digital music stores for reduced prices, it can be said that MP3s contain cultural and social value, but contain little monetary value compared to older media. But Sterne asserts that music retains its value as a commodity, even in digital form:

One of the most striking features of the MP3 phenomenon is the persistence of the commodity form in use, even if the music is not paid for . . . And yet there is a sense in which the concept of the collection persists, along with the bourgeois sense of ownership that subtends it. Although MP3s exist as software, as configurations of electrons on hard drive, people tend to treat them like objects (Sterne 317).

Sterne continues to say that “even if the music is not paid for . . . there is a sense in which the concept of the collection persists, along with the bourgeois sense of ownership that subtends it. . . MP3s walk and talk like the regular products of capitalism” (Sterne 317). There is a difference in the way music is viewed as commodity in the digital and physical form – here I would argue that Sterne’s argument is flawed, and that music in MP3 format is quickly losing its commodity value (as expressed in Marxist terms). However, this loss is increasing the commodity value of music in vinyl format. Because of the way they can be reproduced, distributed, accumulated and disposed of, MP3s are not treated as traditional capitalist objects. But because MP3s lack in permanence, authenticity, and sound quality, vinyl is now seen as “the authentic other” – once deemed as a dying medium, it has recently increased in use and market value.

Because audiences are continuing to seek out music in vinyl format while the same music is available online for little to no cost, and require much less effort, we must acknowledge McLuhan’s technological determinist assertion that the medium is one of major importance. This does not assume that the content is insignificant – the music itself is what motivates us to consume recordings in the first place. But the method that the content is delivered through does have an independent effect on listeners. I would also like to note that the juxtaposition between the two very different media illustrates a desire by audiences for convenience and modernity, as well as a stubborn unwillingness to completely sacrifice authenticity, permanence, and quality. While it may be assumed that digital technology will eventually consume all aspects of our culture, this resurgence of vinyl recording brings into question whether or not we’re ready to accept this takeover, and is an applicable example of what our reaction may be.

References

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schoken Books, 1969. Print.

Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Market and Freedom. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006. Print.

Brown, Janelle. “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Bowie Loves MP3” Salon.com. 19 Jan. 1999. Online database.

Dell, Kristina. “Vinyl Gets Its Groove Back.” TIME. 10 Jan. 2008. Web.

Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004. Print.

Levine, Robert. “The Death of High Fidelity.” Rolling Stone. 27 Dec. 2007. Web.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001. Print.

McGeehan, Patrick. “Vinyl Records and Turntables Are Gaining Sales.” The New York Times. 7 Dec. 2009: A23. Web.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Print.

Sterne, Jonathan. “Is Music a Thing?” New York University, New York, NY. 12 Feb. 2009. Sterne, Jonathan. “Techniques of Listening.” The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003. Print.

Van Buskirk, Eliot. “Vinyl May Be Final Nail in CD’s Coffin.” WIRED. 10 Oct. 2007. Web.

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