Friday, January 06, 2006

pop music has gone digital

Wow, only the sixth of January and if I see a more thorough article about the state of music and the role of technology in pop this year I'll be very surprised. Thanks to Pete, who points me in the direction of Dan Hill of the City of Sound Blog, who has written a really fascinating and colourful piece, in which he argues that "For all the advances digital music affords, without some concomitant extensions to the way that digital music articulate music experiences, we could be in danger of hugely diminishing music experience, and music itself".

Dan is especially good on the various methods of 'music discovery' which the online experience offers, describing a system whereby although "'music recommendations from social circles' are as old as the hills; what's new is software's ability to formalise, archive and communicate these recommendations, emanating outwards from tight social circles to wider and wider circles of discourse around music. In some senses, to enable a systemic socialisation of those recommendations themselves", which is one of the things I like best about the web. This kind of thing is very much in fashion, of course, as all the recent journalism about pandora and lastfm - both of which Dan covers - has proved.

Yet the medium by which we transmit these recommendations has lost so much of the charm of mixtapes and even home-burned CDs: Thurston Moore has gone on record as dismissing the playlist as impersonal. Hill writes "Whilst a future digital identity might well be richly evocative, the current implementations are vapid to say the least. And while the personal curation of music will always be valuable when received, what are we losing by removing personality? What disappears when the physical wrappers around music fade away? Are the tracks alone enough?". He provides a dazzling array of beautiful packaging to remind us just what we are missing.

Dan is by no means the first to bemoan the lack of physical experience in digital music. But few have managed to describe this lack so eloquently. "So the physical experience", he observes, "is shifting quite radically. As I noted, the handling of the record sleeve was part of the experience, meaning a short journey, however subconsciously, through context to content. As the context has melted into air - as the music has 'become' digital; with music experiences embodied as mp3 players - some components of meaning in music have been detached from experience."

I won't quote too much more, as it'll ruin the article itself, but Dan goes to on to talk about hardware,websites, social software, metadata and its relation to sleeve design, the semantics of band names, digital rights management, and shuffling music. He also links to a variety of charming pieces of software which aim to bring the pleasure back to digital music listening - highlights are the Retroplayer, which adds that much needed snap and crackle of vinyl playback to MP3s, this marvellous interactive chart which tracks have sampled which tracks and Dan's own idea, which... well, I'll leave you to have a look, but it's the image with the Beyonce reference. I want one.

A truly brilliant article.

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