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How to build strawmen

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Nick Carr’s in his post about the book Everything is Miscellaneous picks on a particular thing on page 9 (and stops reading there).

For decades we’ve been buying albums. We thought it was for artistic
reasons, but it was really because the economics of the physical world
required it: Bundling songs into long-playing albums lowered the
production, marketing, and distribution costs because there were fewer
records to make, ship, shelve, categorize, alphabetize, and inventory.
As soon as music went digital, we learned that the natural unit of
music is the track. Thus was iTunes born, a miscellaneous pile of 3.5
million songs from a thousand record labels. Anyone can offer music
there without first having to get the permission of a record executive.

Carr baulks at Weinberger’s calling track the natural unit of music and proceeds to ruminate on the history of music formats – large pieces a la Beethoven, music albums that can transcend the ‘meaning’ of individual songs, etc., etc.. All vaguely interesting and possibly true. Alas, not relevant to the point David Weinberger is making. As a listener – and also a potential creator and distributor – I can now unbundle someone else’s albums (i.e. packaging of tracks) to create my own combinations. Calling something a unit does not suggest it is complete and finite, it merely makes it a discrete piece to be used as a building block to bigger, better or more meaningful things. In identifying the track as a unit, David Weinberger highlights the possibility of creating new ‘albums’ rather than reducing music experience to tracks or singles.

And yet it is the wholesale unbundling of LPs into a "miscellaneous
pile" of compressed digital song files that Weinberger would have us
welcome as some kind of deliverance from decades of apparent servitude
to the long-playing album. One doesn’t have to be an apologist for
record executives – who in recent years have done a great job in
proving their cynicism and stupidity – to recognize that Weinberger is
warping history in an attempt to prove an ideological point.

And what’s wrong with an ideological point? After all, we do live in interesting times, which even professional contrarians such as Nick Carr cannot ignore. We all have things that we appreciate and treasure – whether it be LPs or music albums, rustling of the Sunday paper, favourite ads and brands. It would be very odd indeed to say that things we are accustomed to are not worth our attention. Nostalgia for things past is not objectionable, forcing it on others as the best or only option is.

Will the new stress on discrete digital tracks bring a new flowering of
creativity in music? I don’t know. Maybe we’ll get a pile of gems, or
maybe we’ll get a pile of crap. Probably we’ll get a mix. But I do know
that the development of the physical long-playing album, together with
the physical single, was a development that we should all be grateful
for. We probably shouldn’t rush out to dance on the album’s grave.

We are getting a new flowering of creativity in music thanks to the internet, as well as in writing, video and spoken word. And yes, we do get both – a pile of gems and a pile of crap. So Nick Carr’s question is either an empty rhetoric or ignorance of the online world. As for the LP album or a single, nobody’s taking that away from him. There are some artists who are releasing new music on vinyl LPs for nostalgia’s sake. But there are millions of others that are no longer constrained by the tyranny of music industry (and of other industries that easily come to mind).  The choice of an album as well as your own mash -up is what it’s about. But to Mr Carr, a mash-up may be something that only cooks and amateurs do.

There are bigger fish to fry though then music albums. It is called …the liberation mythology of the internet according to Mr Carr.

This mythology is founded on
a sweeping historical revisionism that conjures up an imaginary
predigital world – a world of profound physical and economic
constraints – from which the web is now liberating us. We were
enslaved, and now we are saved. In a bizarrely fanciful twist, the
digital world is presented as a "natural" counterpoint to the supposed
artificiality of the physical world.

Historical revisionism? I don’t think so. I can see the difference between the digital and physical worlds in parallel existence right now. In music distribution The Long Tail is one of the most obvious example of the digital world not facing the constraints of the physical world.

Often the ‘liberation’ that occurs in the online world is so palpable that the constraints of the physical world becomes intolerable at times. This is disturbing many a business model and bringing some industries to their knees – the shifting balance of power towards people formerly known as consumers or audience. And as to the natural aspect of the online world? In as much human interactions and communication is naturally distributed and decentralised, or peer-to-peer in other words, the online environment has helped us come the full circle from the buzzing of the bazaars to the chatter of bloggers. Communication is natural, it is a survival trait and only in industrialised artifice of the media industry something like that can be called a skill. The internet has ‘liberated’ many a writer, podcaster and film-makers. In other words it has ‘liberated’ individual expression by giving it tools to produce, share and distribute. And it doesn’t take a history degree to know that this is a step forward.

Weinberger, Anderson and others trying to articulate and describe such changes will inevitably become lightening rods for those who feel threatened or do not understand what is happening around them. They attack those who put this to words, which is fair enough. Words can be imperfect reflection of reality, especially when the changes are fundamental and across many dimensions. That however, doesn’t make what they attempt to describe any less true.

After all it’s not about the demise of long player but the dawn of play-as-you-like-it.

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