Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Music History, Pt. 1

The novelist Jonathon Franzen hates e-books, at least according to an article in the Daily Telegraph. The article doesn’t really present a cogent argument against e-books. I’m sure Franzen has more elaborate thoughts on why e-books should be scorned. I can see some value to e-books as a way to carry multiple books in a small package. I’m thinking specifically of the small school children I see all the time lugging backpacks that appear to weigh half as much as they do. Give them e-books to alleviate the cruelty of having to carry heavy textbooks all day.

For the most part, I empathize with Franzen’s view of e-books. They’re the literary equivalent of iPods. Of course, iPods have their use for portable music. But if they’re the only medium through which you listen to music, then you’re impoverishing yourself of the full pleasure of listening to music. I won’t repeat my diatribe on the quality of music reproduction again. Instead, allow me to expound on Franzen’s observation on the “permanence” of the printed book. I’m not sure exactly what Franzen meant by the comment, but here’s my take on how it relates to vinyl records.

Each record is rich in history. As long as the record exists, so does its history. I’m not referring only to the music contained in the record, but more the physical entity of a record as a historical artifact. For example, the cover design usually portrays the aesthetic of the time, as well as the technology. Older records have a paste-over back cover. Newer records have covers that are folded over that doesn’t require pasting over a separate sheet on the back. Even the inner sleeve contains historical information, whether it’s a polyvinyl bag that Columbia used in the 50s or a paper sleeve advertising “loss leader” records one could order by mail from Warner Brothers in the 70s. One can date records by the design and content of the label or information contained in the dead wax. Each record you hold relates to a specific point in time. Then there is the personal history of the record, the fingerprints on the vinyl, the yellowing of the cover, the newspaper article clipped and saved inside the cover, the name of the previous owner written on the cover, the check marks next to favorite songs, etc. Compare all this information to a digital music file. The latter exists in a historic vacuum, with no reference to a point of time or any record of its history since its creation. I suppose you could track when a song was downloaded, how many times a song has been played, or assign it a rating in iTunes. In other words, a digital music file has history in terms of cold, hard data.

You could take Nicholson Baker’s lament of the demise of the library card catalog and multiply it by many factors for the demise of vinyl records. When music is converted to a digital format and the actual vinyl record is disposed of, a little bit of history is wiped out. Vinyl records are “permanent” artifacts in a historical continuum. As such they allow us to connect to the past and make sense of it, just as archaeologists learn about a past culture through objects they uncover.

The qualities that define digital music is detachment (from history and the physical world), disconnection (the ease of isolating songs from the rest of an album), and its defiance of being personal. To this last point, I have a few albums signed by the artists themselves. It’s a personal touch that adds personal value to the record. How does an artist autograph an mp3?

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