The Passenger
Gagged, Tied And Thrown In The Trunk
Digital Mafia Puts A Hit Out On The Album
By Benjamin Hale

My little brother is 15 years old and plays the drums in a high school rock band headquartered out of my parents’ basement, where they rattle the plaster out of the walls and explode lightbulbs with a brand of music that seems to lie in a sphere of influence somewhere between Green Day and Yes. I was driving them all to see a movie (as none of his bandmates can drive yet) - and when you’re 16 a car is primarily a stereo and secondly a mode of transportation: you get in and crank the volume on the stereo loud enough to render inaudible any conversation short of a scream. We were listening to the radio. My brother sat in the passenger seat with his index lying on the dial like a trigger-finger, and between split-second gaps in the static he switched stations with the teenage impatience of anyone born after 1986, occasionally settling on a snatch of notes long enough for a kid in the back seat to yell, “This is ska. I hate ska. Change it.” Click. “This is emo. I hate that, too.” Click. These kids were basing their opinions of the music solely on what genre they could pigeonhole it in after three seconds of exposure-time.

In 1938 Theodor Adorno called this a “fetish character in music,” in his essay of the same title. A “fetish character” in music is when someone proclaims a like or dislike of a certain piece of music for reasons having absolutely nothing to do with the actual music. Adorno noticed this in the 1930s, after the concept of pop (as in “popular”) music began to trickle into our culture. The widespread “fetishization” of music was a direct result of the advent of radios and phonographs - i.e., the mechanical reproducibility of art. Up until the late 19th century, if you wanted to hear a Mozart concerto, you had to go to a concert and hear it played - and when the orchestra strikes up, you had better pay attention, because you’re not going to hear it again until the next time someone stages another recital of that particular piece. Once phonographs and radios were widely-produced and affordable, suddenly music became something you could buy and keep and play as many times as you like and whenever you want in the comfort and solitude of your own home. And however dull and cynical it sounds, technology’s most important effect on music was entirely economic; when music is recordable and reproducible as a tangible object, it means you can box it up and sell it - and make a lot of money.

Now, file-sharing programs that allow millions of anonymous users to illegally swap songs free of royalties are bringing the music industry to its knees and establishing an egalitarian new order to the way music is heard, distributed and culturally perceived - and I’m all for it. That’s not what concerns me about file-sharing programs. What concerns me is that file-sharing programs - where most users download only a few songs randomly taken out of the context from an album - breed non-album oriented music listeners who might kill the album along with the recording industry.

Recording technology in the 20th century changed the development of music more rapidly and dramatically than at any other period in all history. And it has been changing at this pace ever since. The music of our culture has since then been in a state of constant and immediate evolution, and the line between “Culture” with an elitist capital C and “pop culture” is always getting smeared closer to extinction - which I think is a good thing. Music in the 20th century, thanks to the availability and general affordability of recorded music, is not stratified by class distinctions - the aristocrats listening to their Mozart in the drawing-room and the peasant class three floors below with their “low” folk music. Richard Wagner expressed some ideas along similar lines, and once snidely described a Mozart divertimenti (a piece written to be played over dinner) as “melodiously softening the noises of the knives and forks,” meaning that (as beautiful as it is) it’s the music that 18th-century Viennese aristocrats were eating dinner to. I happen to love both Mozart and folk music, and am glad that technological reproducibility gives a virgin listener exposure to each on an equal footing. This technological reproducibility allowed for growth and cross-breeding that resulted in an explosion of new and interesting music in the 20th century (jazz, rock‘n’ roll, punk, etc.), and also for the wider popularization of what used to be considered low musical forms (such as folk music).

And the ultimate child of recorded music as a unique art form? The album. Call it pop music’s answer to the symphony. Pop music prior to the early ‘60s existed mostly in the form of radio singles, jukeboxes and 7-inch records. But with the play-time allowed by vinyl records of wider diameters arrived the concept of an album as a single, coherent work of art. Just like a symphony, the sequencing of tracks is important - they each build off the momentum of the last track and add something to the album as a whole. They grab the listener and direct his perceptions of the music in a certain way. Most people will say that the first official album that was organized in this way was the Beatles’ Revolver (others say it was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and still others say that it was the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds). I think Sgt. Pepper serves as the best example for illustration. Could you possibly imagine retaining the impact of the haunting ending of “A Day in the Life” if it was the third song on the album?

Technology drives the progress of art. Just like the printing press eventually gave birth to the novel as a form of literature, the recordability of music gave birth to the album. I think the two are similar in other respects. The album is a unique art form - it is not necessarily something to be performed live straight through, like a classical symphony (although Pink Floyd liked to do exactly that). An album-oriented musician is more like an author than a troubadour - an album is a piece of music carefully arranged, packaged and distributed to an anonymous public. The Beatles concentrated so closely on recording that after 1966 they bunkered up at Abbey Road and quit touring completely (and, for better or worse, the eight classic albums the Beatles produced during this period suggest that if musicians want to be immortalized in the future, they’ve got to get in the studio and record their asses off). The 1980s and ‘90s saw the emergence of musical styles (namely electronica) that rely almost entirely on the recorded form (though turntablists might disagree).

Recording technology, however, also indirectly engendered the “fetish character” in music. The fetish character, as Adorno described it, is rooted in a casual listener’s narcissistic self-identification through music, which became possible after its mass reproducibility. In many cases music becomes a source of personal cultural identification before it is something to appreciate for its own sake - and to back this observation you needn’t look any further than the next self-described punk you see wearing a black denim jacket littered with patches billboarding his appreciation of Bad Religion, or simply somebody wearing a T-shirt adorned with a band logo, which, as John McCrea of Cake sneers in his trademark sardonic drone, “proves you were there, that you heard of them first.”

Hence my teenage brother’s tendency to define music according to genre - as if listening to music were simply a choice of a certain flavor that all comes out in one fluid consistency - and here I’m imagining a musical soda fountain benevolently provided by the record industry: you just pay for your cup at the register and get in line to fill it up by pressing the tab labeled “emo,” and out comes a flowing spigot of Dashboard Confessional and The Getup Kids. There are a few different flavors to choose from, but really it’s all just the same shit.

Technological reproducibility mutated the old-world perception of music from an art that could only be heard and appreciated live into a tangible commodity. This resulted in some positive effects, such as the de-elitification and cross-pollination of different music, and eventually the birth of the album - as well as negative ones, namely fetishization and commercialization of music that feed on each other like symbiotes. But now there’s a new force changing our cultural perceptions of music, again driven by technology - a technology that Adorno could not have possibly foreseen in 1938. This time, the technological revolution in music is the result of not mechanical, but digital reproducibility - and this time, it’s free, and it’s going to throw the world of music into fresh revolutions.

It’s already been going on for a few years - Napster quickly flourished and then immediately died at the blade of the record industry’s lawyers, although dozens of different file-trading programs like Kazaa immediately rose up to take its place, and Napster has recently come back from the dead in a much-publicized resurrection (artificial legislation is always far too weak to control natural technological progress). This new development in the distribution of recorded music will have some very interesting impacts on the musical trends already established over the last hundred years. As for the symbiotic fetishization and commercialization of music? Network file-trading spells the death of the recording industry, however long it takes. Will the end of the recording industry also end the fetishization of music? Maybe.

Pop music is indivisibly entangled with economics - a record company releases an album because it believes it will sell, which you can hardly blame it for. Record producers will be naturally inclined to produce a certain band precisely because of their similarity to- not independence of - whatever else proves to be selling on the market. The neverending quest for profit-expansion increasingly limits the smorgasbord of music readily available to most of the public to a narrower and narrower selection, until all the kids are lining up to get their fill of “emo” at the musical Coke machine (the Latin American media’s uncontested stranglehold on the commercial availability of pop music is an extreme example of this). This curtails the musical cross-pollination of influence that the commercial availability of recorded music helped make possible in the first place. But now the revolution of Internet file-sharing provides an atmosphere in which users can find exposure to new and interesting music that might not otherwise be considered commercially accessible enough to widely produce and distribute. The development of music is just like evolution: in a rapidly changing environment, biological diversity is necessary for adaptation. The record companies of the old survival-of-the-fittest model are desperately trying to stagnate the environment through legislation rather than adapt. It won’t last.

And where does all this leave the album as an art form? Who knows? Some major label bands (in particular I’m thinking of Wilco and Radiohead) have so politically embraced Internet file-sharing that they’ve personally made their own music available to download for free online. That’s one solution; Radiohead’s publicly projected philosophy is both politically egalitarian and musically album-oriented. Then again, perhaps the album isn’t an important enough institution to keep. I know I would never listen to “A Day in the Life” jarringly taken out of its context as the last song on Sgt. Pepper, but I can’t help it if less snobbish music fans would. Maybe the album is really just the ultimate manifestation of the fetishization of commercialized and reproducible music that Adorno observed in the 1930s.

Perhaps the death of the album will come hand-in-hand with the birth of a music industry supported more on touring revenues than record sales - which is already a visible trend now. I mentioned earlier that the Beatles completely quit playing live in the late ‘60s in order to concentrate on recording. It would be absolutely unthinkable today for the most popular band on the planet to flat-out refuse to tour. In a way, this sort of a music industry would bring us closer back to the way music was perceived before its mass reproducibility, in that the musician regains a more direct relationship with the listener, instead of the late 20th century model of “musician-to-record-company, record-company-to-the-public.” This effectively preserves the diversity and evolution of popular music while eliminating the middleman. And good riddance. If the concept of the album as an art form perishes as the only casualty of friendly fire in this revolution (which, as Radiohead has demonstrated, will not necessarily be the case), then I’d say that in some respects the sacrifice is worth it. Recordability has resulted in the genesis of too much music that is hopelessly removed from any meaningful human interaction, anyway (and I’ve got my finger pointed at electronic dance music, by the way). Dan Bern, a folk guitarist and a hilarious songwriter (his albums are hard to find - I suggest you steal them off the Internet), ends every show by turning off the electricity onstage and playing the end of the set literally unplugged. At a 2002 show in New York City he explained, “I think sometimes that people have forgotten what an acoustic guitar and an unmiked human voice sounds like.”

I hope this revolution in the distribution of recorded music will eventually result in a return to a deeper sense of what is truly real and meaningful in music (after all, it is one of the things that makes life worth living) - music that people listen to purely for music’s sake. Call it a “de-fetishization.” Twentieth century pop music has perverted our conceptions of music from something that is played by musicians into something played by a stereo. Internet file-sharing might be helping to bring the reversal of this - or at the very least it’s making it more interesting.


As a nice note to end on, I want to relate a story I was told at a party once by a University of Chicago graduate student working on his master’s in musical anthropology. He was traveling in Mexico doing fieldwork for his thesis on Mexican folk music, recording the tunes of regional folk musicians with a set of studio equipment compact enough to fit in a backpack. In a certain village, he was told about a guitarist who would be blowing through town later that day - they said with full understanding of the weight of their words that he was the Greatest Guitarist in the World, although he had no desire for money or fame, and was a complete unknown outside of a handful of villages in a remote corner of rural Mexico. When the guitarist - a crusty old man in his 70s - came to town, the anthropologist listened to him play for a thin smattering of an audience. Sure enough, the little old man was the most astounding musician he had ever heard. He begged the guitarist to let him record his playing. Mildly insulted, he refused the offer. He saw recorded music as something inherently haunting and unnatural. For him, music was supposed to come out of a human being, not a machine. “I don’t ever want to be recorded,” he said (and I like to imagine this as the last line in a spaghetti-western, which he says right before firing up a cigarillo, slinging his guitar over his shoulder and thundering into the sunset) “because I don’t want to keep on playing after I die.”