BOB FINK, Wednesday September 27:

  1. 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.

  2. 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, though:

  3. Reebee says—and this is a position echoed by many commentators—that "the history of the music industry is that it has greeted any new technology—from piano rolls to radio to cassette tape—with 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 fact—like 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.)

  4. 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 Symphony.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 texts—i.e., their recordings—as 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.)

    "When MP3s triumph, the classical music canon will really be dead, at least as a legitimating metaphor for the recording industry."

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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 Internet—'s "Classical Music Channel" is an up-and-running subscription service—just because it is "dead," because it is no longer the high-status "expensive" music it once was. had no trouble licensing entire catalogs of the "classics" from record labels for very little money.

  10. 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...)


Continue the discussion
at ECHO's Napster forum


September 25 - Reebee Garofalo
September 27 - Robert Fink and Casper Partovi
September 28 - Becky Gebhardt

September 29 - Robert Fink
September 30 - Becky Gephardt and Reebee Garofalo