The mode of the music changes, the city quakes, or at least those blocks of primer-than-thou office space quake that house the HQs of worldwide record companies. The reason, apparently, is MP3 technology, which you all know about and most of you use, and which has been the subject of acres of ruminative, pessimistic music biz newsprint over the last year.
Business reactions to MP3s aren’t what interest me (they’ve mostly been laughably ineffectual, as far as I can see), nor the economic consequences, nor even the theory that MP3 is going to democratise the production and distribution of music and open all our minds to amazing new, unsigned talent (not likely, in my opinion – small record companies are useful and will remain so precisely because they act as quality control, not as a block to the new). What interests me, rather, is the way MP3s will accelerate current trends in the way we’re listening and relating to music.
First off there’s a shift in listening attitudes, away from a concern with the progression and maintenance of specific genres towards a catch-all eclecticism where an only fairly clued-up listener might well be switching from Martin Denny to Mutantes to Merzbow to Monster Magnet in a single session. The kickstart of this was the CD revolution of the 80s, which at first acted to reinforce the hegemony of classic rock. When CD pressing prices descended, though, and it became apparent that there was only so many times one could re-release Sticky Fingers, record companies started edging towards re-releasing everything else they’d ever spewed out on CD too, or at least selling the rights to those small outfits who wanted to. The vast dumps of vinyl resulting from successful pro-CD industry propaganda helped, too, creating a scavenger culture, a substata of music fandom that lived to buy wild, cheap old stuff in bulk. (On one delirious occasion I remember a friend and I coming back from one afternoon’s shopping with 133 records, which had set us back all of fifteen pounds each tops.)
We’re the hippest and most open-minded music-listening generation ever, and MP3 is the perfect medium to reflect this. The one-track-at-a-time format of MP3 means that downloading entire LPs, while obviously possible, is a lengthy and tedious process – how much easier to cherry pick individual numbers and dump them all in one glorious mix? MP3 Players are the Dansettes of the new era, perfectly geared to the disposable, instant-hit format of the single song.
The current organisation of the MP3 newsgroups (my main source) links to this. God bless whichever altruist set them up in this way, but their chronological organisation (alt.binaries.sounds.mp3s.1950s, a.b.s.m.1960s, and so on) results in a democratic riot of sound, with genres piled higgledy-piggledy and the sonic seeker left with no choice but to scan through everything in search of whatever it is they might be after. It’s an environment where the genre-bound may be left fuming, but where the dilettantish raider is right at home, happy to grab a trash-disco oddity alongside some arena rock and a post-punk rarity. Currently, it’s got to be said, some types of music are barely represented (any that weren’t big in America), but others thrive: there’s an apparently endless supply of doo-wop, girl group, 80s disco and 90s alternative nuggets which are spewed onto the newsgroup unfiltered and devoid of comment. It’s a critic’s nightmare but paradise for a certain type of fan.
In this sense, of course, MP3s are reversing some of the less keen trends of the CD Years. There are no sleevenotes to MP3s, no opportunities for any imposed context except the listener’s own. Some sleevenotes are works of art, many – especially when it comes to glorious obscurities – are historically ‘useful’, but they all reinforce the cult of the artist, which has always sat ill next to the economic hucksterism and personal epiphanies of pop music.
Not so MP3s, where even track information, let alone biographical info or music history, is often a complete irrelevance. The twilit world of MP3 circulation gives a kicking to the artists’ autonomy in another way, of course: every bootleg or lost album, as well as every banned record you could name, is out there somewhere. Smile? U2? Plunderphonics? Bat Chain Puller? All a URL and thirty minutes wait away. The mysteries of rock are being revealed and rewritten four megabytes at a time.
The other great thing about MP3s is the way in which they reinforce the best aspects of the music fan community and erode the worst. The MP3 is made for trading, and at no loss to the trader to boot. And the MP3’s status as a datafile eliminates the element of swagger and strut that the physical fetish status of a record or CD brings with it. There’s no peer pressure in the world of MP3s, nobody to know that you’re buying and listening to something uncool or out-of-date or ‘trashy’ instead of something hip or worthy: gradually the MP3 prises music from the fingers of its mummified, tasteful custodians. The trading aspect also counteracts the downside of MP3s, the way that (at least for the moment, with the Rio portable player prohibitively expensive) they’re the most hermetically private way of consuming music yet devised.
Cultural flaneur Mike Daddino points out that the MP3 situations outlined above are a microcosm of a bigger cultural moment, catalysed in part by our very own Internet. “Our culture now seems destined to be incapable of forgetting”, he writes, speaking of the Western (and specifically British-American) obsession with resurrecting every recording, programme, fashion, pose, and attitude of the postwar generation, a kind of pop-culture genome project which catapults us into a perpetual, shimmering now where “all rot is postponed”, like Michael Moorcock’s immortal postmodernists in his Dancers At The End Of Time sequence. What ‘communal’ culture remains lies in the hands only of those brand managers savvy and rich enough to make their charges more-or-less universal points of reference in this morass.
Where does this leave us? Maybe better off. The corrosion of ‘taste’ we see in the growth of MP3 culture is maybe part of a greater and more general collapse of the semiotic striations which have given consumer culture so much of its aspirational momentum. The best we can hope for is an existence where some few dominant symbols (Coca-Cola, Ford, The Beatles, Shakespeare) are so mainstream, naturalised and monolithic as to be no more worth ‘criticising’ than a rock formation, and where everything else moves so fast that meanings become perpetually up for grabs, no longer dictated by a media that can no longer itself keep up. ‘Criticism’ – the vertical dissemination of ‘taste’ – once more falls back into just conversation, friends offering one another comfort and inspiration in a blind idiot world.