This month: alienated from her computer, baffled by download culture, Amanda Brown laments the rise of the faceless uploader and the attendant decline of the DIY underground.
I have no bond with my computer. Aesthetically, it’s not attractive to me. In fact, in many ways it embodies everything I can’t stand – logo-branded, sleek and streamlined, connected to ugly wires that then connect to other ugly desktop space-fillers like my scanner, my printer, my external hard drive. I don’t enjoy sitting at my computer, I don’t like looking into the screen and, above all, I find no pleasure in listening to music on it. The sound feels clinical, disconnected from that integral, ineffable warmth that’s such a crucial aspect of music-as-art. Some days, drowning in download links and embedded audio players and Bandcamp pages, it seems like it’s just computers that make all the music, without a human being anywhere in the chain of creation. Lately The Wire has been running a debate on the subtle/not-so-subtle effects of digital downloading and file sharing on our fragile musical subcultures. But what if – meaty discourse aside – a person takes an anti-downloading stance not due to the ethics of cultural piracy but because listening to music on a computer results in a diminished aesthetic experience?
Call me a Luddite, but for me, music is very much about feeling and sensuality, and any device that cheats me out of that sensation I develop an antipathy towards. Even the most beautiful songs in the world seem drained of their power and sweat when they’re run through the digital sieve of the computer. Can I be alone in feeling this? What does a Led Zeppelin fan feel when they jam a compressed MP3 of “Kashmir” on their laptop? Is that even the same song as they’ve come to love it? The internet may be a “great, dull leveller” (as David Keenan put it in The Wire 329), but it’s the computer that actually processes all this dull, levelled culture. Records and tapes have their limitations too, I realise. Capturing something as ethereal and shifting and visceral as music is tricky. Humans have been striving at the task since the dawn of technology, and there will never be a definitive solution. But, scratchiness and warble considered, there’s something about vinyl and cassettes that’s able to harness the raw, flawed human magic at the core of all amazing music. And it’s not something that benefits from a digital translation. My old computer made everything sound tinny and weak, and my new computer (even complete with hi-def iMac Soundsticks) is skewed the other way, emitting such Technicolor perfection it’s actually distracting.
Download culture baffles me. When the iTunes Beatles campaign first hit – advertising the news that the Fab Four’s back catalogue would, at long last, be available digitally – I would drive on Los Angeles’s freeways, staring up at the massive billboards (the only text: “Now On iTunes”), wondering who on earth might be rushing home to their computer to finally get that legal download of “Hey Jude”. What Beatles fan wouldn’t already own that song on at least a couple of formats? That’s when I realised that the ‘green’ philosophy we were all supposed to be rallying around had rendered a strange side effect: now, instead of physical collectors, we had become digital hoarders. These days, the homes of music freaks aren’t overflowing with piles of CDs or stacks of vinyl but bulging iTunes libraries stuffed with tracks whose cumulative ‘value’ is measured in total playing time (days and days’ worth, even months). The cyber-waste is astounding. And because it’s so fast and simple to acquire (just a keystroke away), it’s easy to not think about too deeply. Physical objects engage our reality; you have to pick them up and manipulate them if you want to utilise their function (or get them out of your personal space). Digital files are a much more insidious form of clutter. The climate of indiscriminate cultural channel-surfing seems to be having an effect on our collective attention spans, too. Albums are ditched in favour of one or two key tracks; we even fast-forward through YouTube clips. When music has been reduced to the status of junk mail, and groups’ entire discographies are skimmed and dismissed in half an hour, what depth of understanding or appreciation for these creations can we have? How do we remember what we’ve eaten if it’s been swallowed, not chewed?
Another sphinx-like riddle I’ll never fathom is that of the music fan who purchases a new record or tape, then – before anything else – rips the music straight to their computer and uploads it to an anonymous file sharing site. What does this person stand to gain? If you pay for your own copy of a record, what compels you to give it away to the world so immediately? In the early days of our label Not Not Fun I used to loathe this faceless uploader. But now the muted hostility and amoral indifference of BitTorrent scavengers is second nature to me (and anyone else in the ‘music industry’). Finally I realised what my problem was: I was still treating the computer as a tool to be used, rather than an extension of my body. For most people, using the internet is a more casual activity than having a conversation; post-Twitter, it’s actually more like breathing. When the internet and computer culture become such a deeply entrenched part of daily life, then obviously part of this new music-liking paradigm is to share it with strangers on message boards, ‘like’ it on Facebook, Tweet about it and whatever else. It’s the modern day equivalent of poring over the sleeve art and lyric sheet while the record or tape spins – a process of deepening one’s own personalised cultural experience.
As Chris Cutler pointed out (Collateral Damage, The Wire 328), one of the consequences of this cyber-sharing is that musicians and labels that rely on record sales to fund their creativity are squeezed into a corner – they either have to get a second job, or they have to ‘make it’ in the traditional pop/commercial success sense. And, given that nobody likes day jobs, making it is the choice du jour, which has given rise to a curious phenomenon. Once the underground was a haven for society’s outsiders, a counterculture with an alternative cottage industry economy that was finite and marginal but still sufficient to sustain downsized lifestyles. As long as the money kept circulating between creators and appreciators in a self-sustaining feedback loop all was well. Now that the prospect of making even a base level living from producing and releasing subcultural music is disappearing in the shadow of our plugged-in planet, I’ve become aware of a thinly concealed desperation to escape our underground community. I blame the musical blogosphere for infecting fringe circles and outsider scenes with this attitude. What’s worse is that the effects of this negative pollination aren’t just economic, but cultural and intellectual, in that it threatens the vitality of the underground as a free forum for diverse activities and ideas not swayed by the mores of mass culture.
You can see the results in online music criticism, which has had to shrink itself down to text-like nuggets just to stay afloat (and relevant) in the flood of so much overnight new content. It’s such a maze navigating sites like Pitchfork, where every genre and group name is hyperlinked and flanked by animated gifs and pop-ups until it feels like you’re being sucked down an advertising wormhole. And when you finally get to the capsule review or tabloid-like Q&A, more often than not the facts are wrong, generic terms (‘psychedelic’, ‘Hypnagogic’, etc) are misapplied or over-used, and the writer’s agenda is so transparent (it’s poppy, they love it; it’s murky, they’re not feeling it), one wonders why there isn’t a more utilitarian route to get your Kanye tour gossip.