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

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.

Supporters of digital distribution notoriously cite the emergence of MP3 blogs…

Supporters of digital distribution notoriously cite the emergence of MP3 blogs (and other similar networking websites like MySpace and BandSpace) as evidence that the digital era has ushered in a time of increased communal exchange. Additionally, MP3 blog advocates often champion the sites because they prioritize filesharing, a practice often heralded as revolutionary for purportedly being outside of traditional capitalist marketing and exchange. These sites, the argument tends to go, prioritize direct interaction between artist and audience without a corporate apparatus serving as a conduit, or even barrier.

Again, these claims have legs, and it would be bullheaded to claim otherwise. However, even though the proliferation of MP3 blogs, particularly ones run exclusively by bands themselves, like Deerhunter’s blog, do somewhat streamline the digital distribution process, the claim that such websites facilitate unfettered band-fan convergence, to use Harvey’s term, is largely overstated. Such sites exist precariously on the backs of countless unseen and unacknowledged laborers, not to mention that not every single home — yes, even in the West, let alone the rest of the world — is outfitted with an Internet connection. In addition, the concept of “convergence”, while narrowly focused, also serves as a distracting smokescreen. In other words, is it not possible to read the mediation of technology — MP3 players, laptops, etc. — as actually inserting a(nother) layer of separation between band and fan, as that technology is frequently littered with the fingerprints of laborers other than the musicians themselves?

On the b-side, literally, the legacies of some record labels, like Washington, DC’s Dischord Records, have left more tangible DNA traces of band-fan convergence. As Michael Azerrad relates in his book Our Band Could Be Your Life, Dischord’s Minor Threat not only handmade the packaging of their releases but also occasionally sealed their records with kisses or, in some unfortunate instances, farts. While the kisses might have been more romantic than the farts, the fact of the matter is that both cases of workmanship demonstrate the human touch of the bands literally congealed onto their products. In turn, a certain measure of band-fan contact did result when fans opened their records upon purchase.

Such gestures, no matter how performative or symbolic, are utterly impossible in an all-digital distribution model.

What is also interesting to note are the contradictions inherent in the critical consensus surrounding digital-music distribution. For starters, many online music publications, like Pitchfork and Stereogum, are literally linked into the corporate marketing machinery for MP3s (via the assorted iPod and Zunior ads that frequently adorn their homepages), rendering those sites’ endorsements of digital media suspicious at the very least. To their credit, though, these sites, which are themselves products of the digital era, do not always toe the line when it comes to championing entirely digital models.

These contradictions came to the forefront of the popular music press with the innumerable articles and reviews on the recent Beatles remasters that were released in September 2009. While near-universal praise followed the Fab Four catalog’s sound-quality revamp, it was also commonplace for music journalists to comment on, or outright condemn, the decision not to make the remasters available for sale in iTunes.

In the midst of this highly charged criticism, however, there also arose, ironically, a heightened appreciation among many music critics for the care with which the physical CDs — from the packaging down to the duplication of the original text of the album labels — were manufactured. Writing for allmusic, editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that the packaging of The Beatles in Mono is “gorgeous” and that “as a package, the mono box is a thing to behold”. Similarly, Allan Kozinn of The New York Times includes a fairly extensive overview of the new packaging in his review of the remasters, admitting that even though new cover art might be a steep buy-in, “it is a distinct attraction”. Finally, Pitchfork‘s Mark Richardson, writing in the shadow of Ryan Dombal’s initial derision of the physical release campaign, claims, “The packaging in general is very well done; the albums feel like they were put together with care and attention to detail.”

“You hold one in your hand and it feels important”, Richardson quivers.

Collectively, this praise for the updated packaging of the remasters, apart from the music contained on them, suggests that despite the alleged primacy of digital media, physical interaction with the artifacts — the ability to touch — matters when experiencing the Beatles. Their importance, as Richardson argues, is communicated through feeling. Sure the repackaging of the discs was in large part marketing, as Kozinn correctly points out, but that work also enacted a moment in which fans could behold the Beatles — a sense, perhaps, of being with the Beatles.

Another intriguing corrective to pro-digital arguments can be found, interestingly enough, in the materiality of the widely championed campaign behind the 2008 release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows — a campaign that was, in itself, contradictory. Though the proper album was initially released online, with the now-legendary pay-what-you-want sales scheme, the band still baited fans with the limited-run physical “discbox” version, containing two vinyl records and a CD, the format that the digital download model was, at least in part, meant to render irrelevant. Then, of all things, Radiohead went ahead and simply released In Rainbows as a physical CD and LP shortly after removing the downloadable version of the record — only then to upload the extra tracks from the discbox for download. Trent Reznor might have been onto something when he called all of this a marketing gimmick.

While this largely schizophrenic release campaign deserves its own examination, what’s more pressing to note is simply that In Rainbows, from its very inception, gestured toward physicality, not strictly toward the kind of musical technocracy that the band had a hand in constructing. Moreover, the physical release of the proper record came with all of the materials (stickers, CD inserts, etc.) for fans to make their own physical CDs. Though these materials did allow for a certain amount of convergence — fans could inhabit the role of cover artists — the end result of that convergence was still the creation of a physical artifact, a hard “record” that served as proof of human handy work, as well as a recording of the band’s music. Even this innovative and forward-thinking approach to distribution reached its conclusion by looking backward.

And so as I, in turn, look back on my own starting point, it is clear that my argument could collapse under the weight of my copy of Turn on the Bright Lights. Whatever temporary disconnect that record afforded me was a direct result of the coding that was inscribed on it, rendering the physical artifact the mechanism of alienation. Also, it is quite possible my feelings toward digital MP3s are that of a neo-Luddite. I would be willing to admit that much. At the same time, though, it strikes me somewhat paradoxical that if the proliferation of technology has not resulted in some palpable measure of alienation, disorientation, and/or confusion, then Radiohead’s twin musical statements regarding the phenomenon, OK Computer and Kid A, would not matter as much as we all seem to think they do.

I have to think this is a claim that many contemporary music critics would not buy, even if it were given away for free.

To be clear, I acknowledge that it is not objectively, scientifically, or technologically possible to determine what distribution model actually brings musicians and listeners closer together. That impossibility, however, simply reaffirms my core belief that we need a critical culture in which those who argue for the continued relevance of physical releases are not dismissively tagged as “romantic” — as if writing music, in any form, or writing about music, in any form, aren’t inherently romantic exercises. (Moreover, it is entirely possible that there should be a discernible gap between artists and their fans.) At the end of the day, though, even if it is romantic to hark back to a bygone era when music was distributed in physical form, which might resemble a distributional Dark Age for some, that might not be such a bad thing. After all, when it comes to romance, sometimes a little darkness, away from the computer and all of its bright lights, goes a long way.

Joseph P. Fisher holds a Ph.D. in American literary and cultural studies. He is currently employed as a Learning Specialist at the Office of Disability Support Services at George Washington University. His scholarship focuses on disability studies and popular culture — music culture in particular.