BOB FINK, Wednesday
- This is a good time
to be a musicologist. Socio-economic crises like the MP3 wars bring
to the surface our usually hidden assumptions about what music is and
how it functions in society. I want to open up in this posting the music-historical
question of what the rise of the MP3 file as a musical medium tells
us about the evolving cultural status of this thing we call "music."
In particular, I want to approach the current crisis in the record industry
from what might seems an unlikely perspective: the historical interactions
between recording technology and the traditions of "classical" music.
- Let me begin by, as
the lawyers say, stipulating 99% of what Reebee laid out in his opening
post. It seems to me that his take on the ethical and legal issues raised
by the recording industry under the guise of "defending intellectual
property" is deadly accurate. I want to raise one technological issue,
- Reebee saysand
this is a position echoed by many commentatorsthat "the history
of the music industry is that it has greeted any new technologyfrom
piano rolls to radio to cassette tapewith suspicion." Now I know
what he means, but it seems to me that a key distinction is being lost.
The huge electronic conglomerates who own most record labels (Sony,
Phillips, etc.) are as committed to technological innovation as a competitive
strategy as anybody else. But they do distinguish between (for them)
good new technologies and bad new technologies. "Good" technologies
increase control over music and tend to increase the perceived value
and stability of the musical commodity (recording); "bad" technologies
do the opposite, decreasing control over music and lowering the perceived
value and stability of pre-recorded "objects." The classic "good" technology
was the stereo LP; MP3 is perhaps the worst "bad" technology ever unleashed.
Unfortunately for the electronics industry, it has tended not recognize
a bad technology until after the factlike cassette tapes, originally
invented to sell portable and car stereo systems, not to create
a home taping culture! (Not many people remember that MPEG Layer 3 is
the unintended consequence of what was supposed to be one of the "best"
new technologies ever, High Definition TV.)
- Here's where classical
music comes in. The record industry has traditionally sold "good" technology
under the rubric of "high fidelity." Where did this drive towards higher
and higher "faithfulness" in sound actually come from? From classical
music in particular, from a modern ideal of "authentic" performance
buttressed by what German musicologists called Werktreue, a term
best translated as "fidelity to the text." Musical scores (which were
copyrightable long before sound recordings) provide the most compelling
precedent for consuming music in terms of "pre-configured, read-only
piece(s) of physical property.In effect, "good" technologies borrowed
their ideological justification from "good" music, while making big
bucks off the "bad." In fact, historians of recording have argued that
the formal imperatives of classical music have been used to justify
almost every technological advance in high fidelity: orthophonic and
then "full frequency" reproduction, which allowed the basses and piccolos
to be heard; the LP, whose length of 17 minutes a side was carefully
chosen to allow unbroken recording of the most canonic sonata-allegro
movements; stereo, whose aural illusion was most powerfully deployed
in recording large ensembles in large halls; and finally, the CD, whose
74-minute length was famously determined by that of Beethoven's Ninth
- Since about 1925, record
companies and classical music have engaged in a mutually-beneficial
minuet: classical music consumers have always been audiophiles and record
collectors, providing a steady stream of income even in the hardest
economic times, and the prestige of "high art" music burnished the image
of the business and the self-image of its CEOs. In return, record companies
proselytized tirelessly for "great music," even though it never brought
in even a quarter of their total sales.
- But there was more than
social status at stake. The Victor Talking Machine company invited the
consumer of their musical recordings to listen to "His Master's Voice."
By positioning themselves as the custodians of musical high fidelity,
record companies harnessed the classical-music idea that our musical
heritage consisted of a "virtual museum" of fixed, authoritative, and
highly valued musical texts which required painstaking, expensive reproduction.
They used it to justify treating their textsi.e., their
recordingsas analogous to musical scores, as worthy of accumulation
in libraries and (eventual) protection under copyright laws. It is a
small step from the imaginary museum of musical works to the actual
record archive. (Early record albums were designed to look like bound
volumes, and were displayed on record store shelves with their lettered
spines out, like books.)
triumph, the classical music canon will really be dead, at least
as a legitimating metaphor for the recording industry."
- It is in this context
that I find MP3s so fascinating, for they provide conclusive proof that
the influence of the classical music model on the recording industry
is over. MP3s are a low fidelity, declassicizing technology for music.
It's not just that the short length and reduced sonic clarity of MP3s
don't work for classical music (try typing "Beethoven" into Napster!);
MP3 files are not texts in the same way that musical scores and record
albums are. When MP3s triumph, the classical music canon will really
be dead, at least as a legitimating metaphor for the recording industry.
As Reebee points out, people do not relate to the millions of MP3 files
indexed by Napster like CDs on a store shelf, where taking without paying
equals theft; I would add that they are much less likely in the future
to relate to such MP3 "collections" as virtual museums of highly-valuable
art objects. The hoarder who keeps thousands of MP3 files on her hard
disk is actually still playing by the rules of the Bach-Gesellschaft
and Columbia Masterworks; such behavior will disappear as soon as the
potential of Internet-enabled music-on-demand is realized.
- What makes me so certain
about this is the complete absence of any record company attacks on
the low fidelity and retrograde listening experience that MP3s provide.
The record industry managed to deflect the looming threat of cassette
tape by convincing us that tape was a "lo-fi" medium, OK for the car,
or to make a mix tape for a friend, but certainly not appropriate for
serious listening to serious music. (Classical music is the only format
where LPs went directly to CDs, and were not first overtaken by cassettes.)
But nobody is even trying to make this argument these days, at least
as far as I can tell. Record companies have been making good money convincing
us to consume Bobby Darin and Britney Spears as if they were Beethoven.
But Beethoven is (music) history; now that people have found a way to
consume pop music like, well, pop music, there is no going back.
- Let me be clear: I think
this may well be a wonderful thing for all kinds of musical expression,
and I will not mourn the collapse of the "high fidelity" model of music
making. (There must be art musicians right now attempting to adapt to
this new medium.) And, the ultimate irony: classical music is at present
the most successful music on the InternetMP3.com's "Classical
Music Channel" is an up-and-running subscription servicejust
because it is "dead," because it is no longer the high-status "expensive"
music it once was. MP3.com had no trouble licensing entire catalogs
of the "classics" from record labels for very little money.
You can buy and sell
Vivaldi in bulk on the Internet, and the RIAA doesn't care. They're
more worried about the Offspring. (Cf. today's paper, where Sony,
heir to the Columbia Masterworks label, successfully intimidated the
band into dropping plans to give away its next album over the Internet.
The battle continues...)