Loneliness Is a Cool iPod... Happiness Is a Warm Album Cover

by Joseph Fisher

21 March 2010

The communal nature of MP3 filesharing is often idealized to the point where the discourse surrounding it masks what are ultimately fractured connections between musicians and their listeners.

A curious thing happened a couple years back when I was organizing my iTunes music library. When I first uploaded Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights into iTunes, the digital media player listed each of the CD’s 11 tracks as coming from the 1978 Kraftwerk album, The Man-Machine. At the time, this technological hiccup seemed quaint, even semi-appropriate. After all, Interpol, at least on Bright Lights, were not shy about cribbing from post-punk and new wave, so this glitch in my laptop’s organizational matrix hardly gave me pause. I merely chuckled, and then manually typed in the correct album title next to each track. Order restored. Archive correctly maintained.

Since that day, I have spent countless hours listening to music on my computer and on my iPod—perhaps devoting a relatively large chunk of that time to Bright Lights—all without any kind of technical difficulties. Yet, that single insignificant digital hiccup has haunted me. And each time that I’ve cued up my digital copy of Bright Lights, I’ve become more and more convinced that what once seemed like a harmless electronic typo is actually symptomatic of something else entirely. This incident made me realize how iPod, and MP3, culture has widened the gap between artists and audiences, between musicians and fans. In that one instance, my home computer—my beloved machine—failed to connect me to the correct men, the members of Interpol, who created the record that I wanted to archive. In these heady days of social networking, it is hard not to view that failure as a kind of botched online friendship, where I was disconnected from the band of which I was a fan. Even though the appropriate music was saved to my iTunes library, my connection to the musicians—no matter how imagined it might have been at the time or even might be today—was severed, dropped, unplugged.

On the face of it, this line of reasoning probably seems over dramatic. To suggest that if iTunes correctly read the code embedded on my copy of Bright Lights, I would have been brought in more direct contact with Interpol seems illogically romantic at best—stalkerish at worst. Nevertheless, the fact remains that contemporary music journalists and historians of almost all stripes have been claiming that the rise of MP3 distribution has unquestionably lead to increased accessibility and enhanced networking opportunities between musicians and listening communities. In August 2009, for instance, Pitchfork  published an essay written by Eric Harvey titled “The Social History of the MP3”, in which the author claims that the “convergence culture” created by MP3 distribution has highlighted “the penetration of the audience itself into the spheres of production, promotion, and distribution”.

While there is certainly credence to this claim, there has been a larger systemic failure on the part of music journalists, in both the blogosphere and in print, to probe the argument that filesharing actually fosters the personal human connections implied in the term itself. Again, while I would never argue that trading, selling, and downloading MP3 files do not bespeak certain communal activities, I would argue that the communal nature of these activities is often idealized to the point where the discourse surrounding them masks what are ultimately fractured connections between musicians and their listeners. These fractures have emerged and, in my opinion, will continue to spread with increasing strength as long as we persist in fetishizing the technology used to play, or share, music over the physical artifacts—records, cassettes, CDs, etc.—on which music has historically been distributed.

Given that virtually all manner of technological gadgetry is successfully marketed and ultimately viewed as disposable, impermanent, and, as anyone who owns an iPod (or iPhone) knows, always subject to the inevitable breakdown and system-wide crash, now is a perfectly suitable time to examine what communal practices and connections are lost when those previously physical record, CD, or even tape, collections “go digital”.

This transference of music from tangible artifacts to a digital “medium” echoes the weighty philosophical concept of alienation. In Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels define human alienation in terms of the sense of loss that workers feel when the products of their labor are forcefully snatched away from them by the capitalist marketplace. For Marx and Engels, the products of labor—the objects produced by laborers—exhibit a certain amount of their humanity that has “congealed”, or solidified, onto their creations. Since those objects are eventually sold by others, to others, the end result of labor is alienation because capitalism, as a system sustained by the sale of commodities, ultimately sells the humanity poured into each commodity during the act of creation.

Employing this framework to reexamine a time when music was distributed via records or CDs or other physical media—objects, in Marxist terms—is admittedly tricky. For starters, my entire argument hinges on the value that I am locating in physical commodities—records, CDs, etc. Likewise, to suggest that fetishizing the physical music artifact is somehow more genuine or authentic a gesture than fetishizing the technology used to play those artifacts seems simply to transpose the problem that I am locating in the contemporary era onto a former one.

Or does it?

Still, history is not without a sense of irony; so it is silly to overlook the possibility that pre-MP3 distribution models provided a window, no matter how minimized it might have been, for bands and musicians to share both their music and pieces of themselves with their audiences. After all, we cannot speak the term physical, as in physical artifact or physical release, without echoing the physicality of the bodies—of the musicians themselves—who congealed onto those releases.

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