Last year, I ditched a bunch of twentieth-century material: vinyl, CDs, turntable, speakers bigger than a lunch box. There was nothing experimental or investigative about this move. Shrinking my house was just convenient. My listening life had migrated years earlier to a few hard drives, a laptop, and a pair of small, cheap monitors. My attachment to music hadn’t diminished, and the epiphanies didn’t stop coming. The fancy stuff was firmly stuff and stuff only, and it didn’t hurt to part with any of it. None of this felt particularly radical.
Maybe it isn’t. No one who came of age in the digital era would think so; for them, recorded music was never a physical object, unless it was a couple of hard drives, an iPhone, or another storage or delivery device. What’s the difference between LPs and digital files? Sound quality, vinyl purists might say, though I’ve got plenty of digital iterations of music that could never be properly reproduced on a piece of vinyl. (Bass.) Size seems the most reliable answer. Though MP3s and FLACs need a physical medium, they take up less space than any previous storage method. The transition from LPs to CDs to MP3s, and now to streaming, can be thought of as dimensional, if by dimensional you mean the space taken up.
In any of those transitions, is music less of a thing? Does digital dematerialize the music it transmits? Not to any meaningful degree, area man gently posits. A few weeks ago, I found myself in the middle of an impromptu dance party. The DJ was a TV set channeling YouTube and several smartphones trading off songs. There was no kvetching about the lost halo of music as a physical object or diminished audio fidelity, though there were several loud complaints about logging in to and out of Apple Music. None of this bears any resemblance to listening circa 1997, or 2007; yet the idea of the streaming as immaterial still doesn’t seem like a conceptual fit. Sound is a physical event, whether it’s delivered via vinyl, CD, or Wi-Fi.
These questions have made their way to the main stage. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book — number four on the Pazz & Jop albums list — is not available in any physical format. Because of changes made by the Recording Academy last year, streaming-only releases are eligible for Grammy nominations; Chance got seven, including Best New Artist and Best Rap Album. More significant on a daily basis is a new metric being used by both Billboard and the RIAA: Fifteen hundred song-streams equals one album sale. A number one album can now be, essentially, nothing more than a playlist. (Earlier this year, Epic collected songs from streaming powerhouses like Future and DJ Khaled, added on tracks from unknowns like Lotto Savage and Gnarly World, and created an instant chart-topper called Epic AF.) Driven in large part by streaming payouts of more than $1 billion, the recorded-music industry is marking its first year-over-year revenue increase since the pre-Napster Nineties.
Is it money that links the immaterial of the digital back to the physical world? Digital has an appeal as a realm without physical boundaries or constraints, a notion that translates to artistic freedom: Kanye West treating The Life of Pablo as a public art project, tinkering with mixes and lyrics; Chance working by his own rules, with no a&r person asking if he’s thought about getting a verse from Drake. The utopian part of this scenario is where an artist puts her music on the internet, without the help of a large company, and powers herself into view, winning a Grammy in the process.
But Chance is in business with Apple, which had an exclusive with Coloring Book for three weeks before it was available on all the other major streaming platforms. If refusing to charge for this specific album is an act, so is putting your album on a platform that charges for subscriptions. Digital real estate is not so different from physical real estate. After it is colonized by artists, capital follows, as do legal strictures that favor the capital. What is unregulated and freewheeling becomes regulated and exploited. The digital siphon might end up being the end of net neutrality, or more of the same: Google buying YouTube, and the like, until there are no “free” corners. So Chance is a victory that only would have been a victory in, say, 2005. There was a point when the internet was unruly and instructive, unsupervised and fertile. As a teaching tool, the power is still mostly intact. As a creative platform, things have narrowed.
SoundCloud, the streaming platform that made its mark by hosting DJ mixes, has gone through a peculiar form of immaterial purging. After accepting investment money from Sony, SoundCloud started expunging copyrighted material. Even though no commerce was being conducted, hundreds of mixes were summarily pulled. To test its content detection, recently I laid the Westworld theme on top of Bowie’s “Warszawa” and tried to upload the result. Both times, SoundCloud detected Bowie’s track — though not Westworld — and instantly removed the blend from my profile. Minor stuff, obviously; a few of my friends were prevented from hearing a demonstration of how similar the two pieces of music are. This is also a pointless flexing of muscle on SoundCloud’s behalf, especially for a company facing a cash shortfall and user loyalty issues.
I listen to something on SoundCloud nearly every day, because it’s a free streaming service designed for unsigned artists, or signed artists who want to share their work there. But that’s not a business model, apparently. Until last week, I had absolutely no idea that SoundCloud had introduced a subscription on-demand streaming tier that lets you mix the abundant free material with commercial releases. Useful, I guess, if you find switching between Spotify and SoundCloud on your phone to be a lot of effort.
So rather than immateriality as a model, we may have entered digital music’s phase of what Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity.” The utopian phase has already passed; now we are in a mode of turbulence that sees a series of patches, one after the other, trying to hold together some kind of narrative that never quite coheres. As Bauman wrote in 2012, “We don’t have a clear image of a ‘destination’ towards which we seem to be moving….Instead, we react to the latest trouble, experimenting, groping in the dark.” There are a few true holdouts for independent music, like Bandcamp, which can power careers as long as we hang on to net neutrality. But the real estate that streaming platforms occupy is already out of reach for many independent labels, many of which still don’t accept Spotify’s royalty structure.
Coloring Book winning a Grammy would be a triumph for the same reason it placed so high in Pazz & Jop: simply because it’s an exceptional record. It wouldn’t say much about the nature of the immaterial, which is subject to some pretty material relations. On earth, the big dogs are still the ones getting those heavy gramophone paperweights.
Don’t miss the rest of the 2017 Pazz & Jop, Village Voice Music Critics Poll coverage:
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