In the pages of the Rail earlier this year, I reported on a tension I witnessed in live performances of experimental music, in which this genre is becoming enshrined within institutions of art. While perhaps necessary in an age when funding for artists comes not from ticket sales but from foundations, grants, and nonprofits, this change has transformed the audience from being active participants and listeners to passive spectators. But it’s not only in the live experience of music that we’ve witnessed a sea change. In our lifetime, music has drastically changed in its primary form of distribution, from vinyl records, cassettes, and compact discs to the seemingly immaterial MP3. Music critic and theorist Diedrich Diederichsen, in a 2010 e-flux journal article titled “Music-Immateriality-Value,” argued that when music was a physical object it possessed a radical potential to be both commodity and direct experience. Even though it had a physical presence and a price tag, once you put the record on the turntable all of that dissolved into a sensuous, immersive pleasure. Even stodgy Marxist critics like Theodor Adorno saw this great possibility in the long-playing record, which could present whole movements of symphonies or operas without interruption. Moreover, that record, as a commodity, led to other experiences—whether making friends who possessed the same taste or going to a live show and meeting others who liked the same artist. In this way, the musical commodity became a site for social interaction; in many ways, it was a network.
However, we live in a day and age when the physical form of the musical commodity has become highly fetishized. Consider the many highly auratic deluxe-edition repackagings, which come with remastered CDs, full-color booklets, 180-gram vinyl LPs, etc. The packaging of music aspiring to the level of art is nothing new, of course. One of the most iconic album covers, Richard Hamilton’s design for the Beatles’ White Album, was made to look like a limited edition of prints, with individually numbered, embossed sleeves resembling a lithograph, etching, or photograph. But we no longer live in an age when a work of art can slyly double as a musical commodity and be distributed alongside other artifacts of pop culture. Now, with deluxe packaging, music is traded precisely and only as objet d’art, a reactionary response to the ubiquity of the immaterial and “free” MP3.
In the age of its dematerialization, can the musical commodity still possess that radical potential to be both object and experience? Media historian Jonathan Sterne has brilliantly tackled aspects of this issue in his recent book MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Sterne places the MP3 within a much larger history of technological innovation, the compression and transmission of sound, which arises with developments in telephony at the turn of the 20th century. Suddenly, the MP3, an ostensibly novel, contemporary format, seems much more historical. Moreover, in Sterne’s detailed history, the MP3 is seen less as a teleological end to a history of sonic compression and more as a product of circumstances: corporate research, high-speed internet, cheap CD burners, hackers, etc. While this narrative of technological development is a key aspect of the book, Sterne also theorizes about the MP3 itself, coming to a dialectical conclusion similar to Diederichsen’s—that the MP3 exists “both inside and outside market economies.”
Sterne pegs MP3s’ method of distribution as “social circulation,” since they travel along networks and are often traded via websites and peer-to-peer programs. In many ways, the peer-to-peer networks that developed around the trading of music in the mid- and late 1990s prepared us for the broad online social networks later forged by sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster. Today it can be argued that music, while giving us this model of socialization, sharing culture, and information, is no longer the primary site of social interaction, as the musical recording once was. Rather, music is merely one of the many elements that travel through these social networks, competing with images, video, and text. Sterne notes that one revolutionary aspect of the social circulation of the MP3 is that the recording is no longer scarce but rather ubiquitous. Perhaps this means a return to much older ways of experiencing and thinking about music, in which music is not a commodity but rather deeply embedded in ritual and the social life of human beings, a language that we all share and can dispense at will. Diederichsen’s history, in which musical recording is an insidious commodity that allows art to navigate the waters of capitalism, is at an end. MP3: The Meaning of a Format is, in many ways, the resolution of Diederichsen’s story of the musical commodity. Sterne sees the MP3 as a format with the radical potential to model new forms of exchange, beyond the commodity.