The strange event that is Record Store Day produced some fevered arguments around here. I’m not emotionally attached to the concept of record shops – I bought a lot of cd’s but was never a vinyl person, and I didn’t have a favourite store.
The whole deal doesn’t affect me much, and I can see both sides of the discussion.
However, one mini-argument got started which I found interesting – how valuable the medium is when it comes to consuming music?
This lead me to spout forth my usual ideas that make everyone stop and say “Huh? That doesn’t make any sense!”
Hopefully I can lay it out here nice and clearly, and confuse as few of you as possible.
One argument in favour of digital downloads is that you get the music exactly how it came from the artist, whereas physical media, particularly analogue media, shape the sound.
My feeling on this are (and this is where the “huh?”s usually start) that music is an interface between the artist and the listener. The magic is not in one side of the the equation alone. It is when they come together that you have a result. It is a living interface, and this makes the reaction between the artist and each individual listener unique. People add in their own associations and thoughts to the fabric of the music.
In my opinion the medium can affect this equation – in three ways, positive, negative or neutral.
An example of a positive is the ancient singles my parents had kicking around, which were my first taste of vinyl and of quite exotic music. It was a drum solo by some big band jazz drummer (I can’t remember his name) and was crackly as hell to listen to.
The medium, with all its imperfections added an “aura” to the music. It became more than a drum solo, more than a track on a 45 single. It became an artifact… something that hinted at my parents childhoods, and perhaps even my grandparents youth. The interface between my imagination and the artifact (the music as well as the physical object) created this aura, and it was rich in emotional meaning. Thinking of that single still brings back those memories. The music, the object, the time and my childhood all got merged into that one, intangible “thing” – which has meaning to me, and brings a feeling of happiness.
A negative side of physical media is the fetishistic side – the strange and slightly sad sight of unopened records passing between collectors. As with all collectors, there is something strangely impotent about enjoying something objectively, but not allowing yourself to experience it.
There is of course nothing wrong with valuing or appreciating an object – but when that object is a record to be played, or a toy to be played with, keeping it wrapped up and out of harms way seems a little unhealthy to me.
Obviously a neutral medium doesn’t really enhance or detract from your experience of the music. That seems like a wasted opportunity to me. I feel that downloads are the only truly neutral medium. There is no added character, there’s no flaws.
If you were making a movie, the main character is what carries the movie, would you want your main character to be neutral? She has no strengths and no flaws. Nothing that stands out one way or another. Does that sound interesting to you?
I love experiencing music. I firmly believe that it is helped along by a medium that adds to the richness of the experience. Music is not just sound, it evokes a huge amount more than just a vibration in your ear. Whether or not you believe that wanting to listen to vinyl is fetishism, or if you like how a C90 cassette sounds, slightly stretched after a thousand listens, you can’t deny that a digital download adds very little, if anything at all to the listening experience.
David Learnt composition (harmony, counterpoint and orchestration) to degree level through studying Schoenbergs Fundamentals of Musical Composition. He is a founder member of Avant Pop duo Cnut, and orchestral doombience outfit Regolith.
Make Better Music is updated every Tuesday. To catch up on the series search for ‘Dave Graham’.
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