Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The world we have lost

Came across an interesting article on Jim O'Rourke today:

Mr. O’Rourke’s production style is precise and dry; he creates a sound picture in which tiny sonic details matter. But where his Drag City records are concerned, everything matters: the pacing, the length, the sound, the cover images. For this reason he won’t allow “The Visitor,” or any of his albums, to be sold as downloads, on iTunes or anywhere else. He’s taking a stand against the sound quality of MP3s; he’s also taking a stand in favor of artists being able to control the medium and reception of their work.

“You can no longer use context as part of your work,” he said, glumly, “because it doesn’t matter what you do, somebody’s going to change the context of it. The confusion of creativity, making something, with this Internet idea of democratization ...” he trailed off, disgusted. “It sounds like old-man stuff, but I think it’s disastrous for the possibilities of any art form.”

Like me, O'Rourke is 40. I suppose, when you're that "old," and faced with the sort of industry-wide upheaval that the music business is currently going through, you're entitled to a certain degree of curmudgeonliness. And while I generally try to resist that sort of thing, for the purposes of this post I'm going to broadly agree with O'Rourke's assessment of where music is at, because it gives me a convenient excuse to express a few thoughts I've been mulling over anyway.

First: the obvious. To the extent that jazz's viability as a music of the future is in jeopardy, that situation has a lot to do with various threats to the existence of a strong and extensive fan community.

But what is a fan? Consider: a true fan does much more than simply "like" a certain artist or genre. True fanhood is, essentially, an irrational enterprise.

For instance: I have written before about the importance of context for a fan's love of a given work. I may be fascinated by the biographies of my favorite musicians, because they provide an engaging frame -- but the music itself is no different whether I know the relevant background or not. The fact that I seem to enjoy a given tune more once I have obtained said information strikes me as somewhat odd.

But if you really want to talk about irrationality, think about the extent to which fanhood has traditionally involved elaborate rituals of fetishization. While true music fans love music, and love stories about music, we also love to fetishize the objects that convey music.

(Right? I'm assuming that you too have lovingly caressed a well-worn LP jacket.)

So the fact that we are developing a purely digital, artifact-less musical culture is maybe a little concerning. Cuz, you know: how do you fetishize an mp3?

And what happens to fanhood when you no longer have an art object to fetishize? Do you stop caring about the art itself? I wonder. While people still do buy physical media, I suspect that in general our relationship with recordings (i.e., qua recordings) has become much more ethereal, and much more casual (I know, I know). Who really worries about losing, misplacing, or wearing out a recording anymore? In my own case, I transfer most of the digital music I download onto disc, but I rarely buy jewel cases in which to protectively house them. I also gave up on CD wallets. Generally I just let the damned things accumulate in piles on my desk, or else just stack 'em back on the spindle they came from. Once they have been "consumed" for a given period of time, the MP3s, in turn, get backed up onto numerous hard-drives, which I hardly ever consult because there is so much new music to get to.

One could argue that the whole history of recording technology thus far has been driven by the search for devices and media that make the experience of music durable, reliable, and convenient. At their most fragile, brittle, and finite, older forms of music media (the 78, say, or even the cassette, which was always getting "eaten" at the wrong time (in my experience, anyway)) seemed to invite a greater degree of fetishization. We knew they wouldn't last forever, we knew they might be hard to replace, we knew they actually required some effort to obtain -- so of course we treated them with greater reverence.

Now that everything is so much easier, more durable and convenient, is that reverence harder to come by?

[photo credits: puroticorico, carlcollins]

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Speaking of "fetishizing": the Industrial Jazz Group is having a fall fundraiser, in support of our October tour! You can find out more, and contribute to the cause (for as little as $1!), here.

Oh yeah, and we also have a remix contest.


Anonymous said...


Awesome post, I've been thinking about these topics lately, too.

"I may be fascinated by the biographies of my favorite musicians, because they provide an engaging frame -- but the music itself is no different whether I know the relevant background or not. The fact that I seem to enjoy a given tune more once I have obtained said information strikes me as somewhat odd."

When you say that the music itself is no different, you mean just the physical part, right? If so, what about the psychological parts? What about conceptual integration? For me, the biographies of the musician(s), the context of when and where I was when I first discovered the music, the particular culture(s) that the music 'swims' in, etc...all these things shape the music for me into some kind of story that in fact Does change the music for me everytime I hear it (or think about it). The differences are sometimes barely noticeable or not really worth noticing at the time, But when I discover something so major as the bio of a particular musician it definitely changes my feelings and experiences with that music.

Anyways...I'll see you soon!


Kris Tiner said...

"how do you fetishize an mp3?"

Good question. Although I don't think we're becoming totally artifact-less. We're being encouraged to fetishize the device now - the mp3 player, rather than the actual music that resides on that device. It's been starting to disturb me that the appeal of iPod culture is in being able to stockpile, transport, reorganize, and zap your music every which way. But the time spent working on that project is time that could be spent actually listening to the music.

Of course there is a fun factor to all of that, and everybody seems to love to use iTunes. But we are now capable of filing away far more music than we will ever be able to listen to, and so presumably we are stripping value from the art itself and applying it instead to things like gigabytes of storage space (quantity over quality) and owning the latest software and hardware releases... which could be one reason that fidelity is such a lower priority than storage capacity in the marketing of these devices.

"And what happens to fanhood when you no longer have an art object to fetishize? Do you stop caring about the art itself?"

When it's fulfilling enough just to own a recording (i.e., have it stored somewhere on some device), but it doesn't really matter if you know anything about it (i.e., there is no incentive to actually listen deeply, or read liner notes, or read a biography, or look at album art (which traditionally was supposed to tell you something about the music enclosed)), then both artists and audiences have some serious issues to work out, imho.

mrG said...

Where were the fanboi attitudes in the days before Sousa's "Infernal Machines"? How about in the days before we foolishly realized Satie's "Furniture Music"? (by which Erik intended to derride empty disposable musicianship that was overtaking the thoughtful composers of his day)

I'll tell you: Girls would swoon at the 3rd Trombonist if he was cute, guys would be transfixed by the cute cellist, instead of obsessions with serial numbers and swag, music was a means to phone numbers and real human connections. The barn dance musicians were respected because they were the vital avenue to community cohesion.

And in our bid to make a buck, we sold it all to those who cared not a speck for anything other than making a buck. And ex-flame of mine worked on one of the first really big Molsons Speedway shows up near Barrie, and all of the organizers thought it was 'cute' that she actually knew what the product, er, I mean what the bands sounded like. The life of the music, the ecology and context were all irrelevant to their purpose.

It didn't start that way. Sam Philips, Chess Records, all the old labels did it because they loved the community and wanted to act as catalyst. Border Radio, jump-ups, Studio-One, they all wanted to make a buck by greasing the wheels of community. It was all about a context, about an event, about an (unpackageable) happening experience of real-life living.

Somewhere it all went horribly wrong. I blame George Martin and Phil Spector, not that they set out to do destroy music, they were just trying to 'capture' sound and put it into a package that included the essence of what was so electrifying at the in-context event, but they stumbled on to a powerful and terrible secret.

In Food Science, McDonalds stumbled on to the same secret, as did TV commercial advertising and on and on, the story of our lives: human beings are not incorruptable gods, they are animals, with animal brains and sensory perceptors, and they can be fooled, they can be seduced, and they can be distracted by empty content provided the fat-sugar-salt ratios are over the top.

I love field recordings, can't get enough of them. I've heard everything Alan Lomax ever recorded, I get all tingly when I see an obscure disk like "Sea Shanties of the Great Lakes" sung by people they found in the legion halls or fiddle tunes of American First Nations or Georgia Spirituals. For me these are a precious, a gift from our ancestors, a rare signal from outer time-space, and what I notice most of all is how much we have lost, how much of our rich cultural birthright has been pillaged and sold off, like how they tore all the ancient accessories from the houses of post-war Europe, sold them to American restaurateurs, then replaced them with cheap, short-life, aluminum pre-fab.

And today here is me, raised in suburbia, surrounded by the aluminum pre-fab, and I only know this because I traveled, I have seen the worlds beyond the HMV; my neighbours have never known anything other than pre-packaged instant music from Nashville or NYC or LA and the London/Toronto knock offs.

Time was "Bruce County Fiddle Style" meant something, it's all gone now, most of it extinct like Native languages, some of it barely hanging on in the memories of wobbily 90-year-old players who find few under 50 who will give them the time of day. Some sanitized parts are preserved in the best intentions of the Mike & Pete Seegers, but the real vital and living heart of it, gone. Bottled up and pickled in 78 re-issues like the cow's eye at the back of the grade-9 science lab room.

Sorry for the ramble. The more I think about this, the more depressed I get, but I'll tell you this much, when I play with the community bands, I try to breath a new meaning into old John Philip's Liberty Bell, reaching for and dreaming of that magical ringing sound that will wake them up and bring them back into the living groove :)

harrit said...


This is the first time I’ve read about this. I keep learning new things everyday!

Andrew Durkin said...

Hey all, thanks for commenting.

Ian -- yes, I mean just the physical part. And I agree that psychology "changes" a listener's understanding of what a given musical work is. I should clarify that I was using the word "irrational" in a positive sense (love, after all, is a pretty irrational emotion) -- trying to identify some of the idiosyncratic practices that human beings engage in when they become fans.

Kris -- excellent point about the fetishization of the device.

But we are now capable of filing away far more music than we will ever be able to listen to

Yes. And even if we could listen to it all, how much of it would truly affect our lives in a meaningful way? How much of it is that good?

Gary -- I appreciate the "ramble."

Part of the problem is that the genie has been let out of the bottle. That's not the right metaphor, but you get my drift -- there's no foreseeable going back to the days when music was more communal and functional.

Unless of course that's exactly where we're going. Maybe that's the flip-side of losing our ability to be true fans -- if music is everywhere on the web, and free, and easy to make, maybe the end result of that everyone ends up engaging in the sort of stuff that ends up field recordings. Isn't that partly why the industry is so scared? The demolition of the star system, or the idea that music is the purview of a select few?

harrit -- Wow.

You can enjoy a great time with music as a form of fun by dancing. Simply get up and take to the floor. When listening to your blues, emo or folk songs there is no better way for you to express your feeling that shaking what you’ve got. Just let your hair down for a moment and let the music take you. You are sure to enjoy it every time you get on the floor. Music causes you to just want to move. It stirs within you slowly until you can’t hold still no more.

Again, I say: wow.

mrG said...

"there's no foreseeable going back to the days when music was more communal and functional ... Unless of course that's exactly where we're going. Maybe that's the flip-side of losing our ability to be true fans"

Yes, well almost: as you mention at the start, there will always be fantastic performers, magical gnomish people (funny, you don't look gnomish) and THAT, I believe, is the new old-business model, the impresarios!

Someone, someone with the mind for it, someone who can be the Leonard Feather or John Hammond of it, someone has to wade in the waters and find the gems and then return to the shore with a show, and whereas traditionally that job involved physical-space geography and miles of bus-rides and air-fare, today it is terrabytes of download and click-throughs, and frankly I am still disappointed at the offerings currently online, nearly all of them thinking they can automate the delicate taste required of the impresarios.

They can't. It has to be a human, because music isn't about mathematics, it is about human beings, and only human beings can detect good music. Unsurprisingly, that 'good' then has approximately 6 billion exact definitions, although fortunate for the impresario, there are similarities, harmonics and sympathies that can translate into a full hall of happy paying customers :)

But back to the dancing and the music everywhere, this too is a good thing, an ancient thing reborn, a vitally healthy thing. cf Robert Putnam and What Makes Societies Work esp as contrasted against our nearly dysfunctional I-Me-Mine anti-social life-by-contract society where everything is outsourced, even fun.

A sad case in point for us here at home today: for years we had a local celebration of the Celtic heritage of our area, a wonderful street event with buskers, makeshift stages, vendors of bodhrans and flutes and celtic motifs, we went every year. It was a free-for-all event with an evening concert series for the pass-holders, the day-stages giving children the chance to see 'pub' music live and up close.

This year the fest has a fence around it, $20 a head to enter, $10 for children, which means I better have $100 in my pocket to spare or I'm just not invited. It is no longer a celebration of community heritage, it is now a show, a revue based upon community history. I wish them well, you can't knock 'success', but for me, I'd be far happier back at the wild chaos barn-dance they hosted 12 years ago.

I hate to post compounded points, but tangent to that barn-dance, remember the movie 'Titanic'? Where was the most fun for a young couple in love (or anyone!), up in the stuffy pretentious first-class ball-room, or down in the stowage class with that amazing northumberland piper!! Either way, though, ballroom, opera or wildman jass-band, if you really think back about it, what has touched your live more, the release dates of specific recordings, or attendance at some magical musical event?

Maybe it's just me, but I'd say life is where the Live is, and I'd say to fetishize your attendance at every gig is just a tad more healthy than any obsession over acquiring bits of plastic :)

Anonymous said...

Have any of you downloaded a shit ton of music and NOT listened to it?


mrG said...

I confess, I downloaded the BBC Symphony full set of Beethoven symphonies and have not (yet) given it more than a cursorary listen, and I have this friend, see, and he, like, downloaded the entire High School Musical series for his kids, and I know he himself would shrivel into a coma if he heard more than a chorus of it, and the good news is, from what I hear you understand, that his kids only thought wanted it and two weeks later ask to have the lot of it removed from their mp3 players. At least I think so, from what I heard.

As a registered member of the Pirate Party of Canada, I cannot condemn nor condone the practice of downloading shit tons of music.

Andrew Durkin said...

Have any of you downloaded a shit ton of music and NOT listened to it?

That's a good question -- I think it depends on what the meaning of "listen" is. I "listen" to everything I download (and I download a lot), but much of the time I'm listening while doing something else -- i.e., in the car, around the house. I have much less time for the sort of concentrated listening (headphones, solitude) that I usually feel is more deeply rewarding.

Basically my process is to run everything through the casual listening process, and then, if it seems to warrant it, to try to make the time for "deep listening." But even so, not everything that is deserving makes it to that latter phase.

Anonymous said...

Many people I grew up with in the 50s and 60s bemoan what's been lost since those gentler days, but few see that it is WE who sold it off to chase the bling, and taught our children to do the same. Luckily, there are many today (as the thoughtful posts on this page demonstrate) who have never chased it or choked on the bling and are looking in new directions for oxygen.

Politics being what they are, I suspect that we'll be joined by many, many more in the near future and who knows - maybe as MrG says we'll revive new old fashioned business models and community ways of being. After all, human beings can only go so long without oxygen and people are always happy to pay the ones who restore them to life! mhr

Andrew Durkin said...

Many thanks for your comment, mhr.