The iPod and the Function of Music
By Wallace Wylie
Something strange is happening to the music industry. Modern technology is turning back the clock to the extent that record companies are leaning more toward single song deals as opposed to album deals. Songs are becoming more important than albums and any music that wishes to achieve chart success must be a big pop moment rather than a small piece in a bigger picture. Sound familiar?
When rock and roll first exploded in the mid 50s, the album meant nothing. The focus was on the single and only big name artists like Elvis expected healthy album sales. When jazz entered its most artistic phase in the late 50s it shifted public perceptions and transformed the album into a piece of art. Post-Beatles rock also elevated the album, making it a credible artistic statement and not simply a collection of singles. While writers like Nik Cohn lamented this shift from feverish pop excitement to serious art, most welcomed the change and performers who did not follow suit became obsolete. Pop movements such as disco have always preferred the song over the album, but the idea of the album as the true medium of the artist has dominated public thinking since the mid 60s. Which technology has managed to break the albums’ stronghold? The iPod and digital downloading look like the guilty party.
What the iPod, and by extension digital downloading, has done is move the focus from the artist to the listener. While artists may want to pepper their albums with more difficult tracks the listener now has the option to ignore those tracks and simply download whatever combination of songs they wish. The danger here is that listening to music becomes more about instant gratification than long-term enjoyment. Prospective music buyers often listen to small snippets of songs before choosing to buy and as such the onus is on the song to instantly grab the listeners attention. The switch from vinyl to CD allowed music fans to skip any unwelcome songs without too much trouble, but now they can simply avoid owning them altogether. In a sense, it makes music listening more democratic, but that spells bad news for artists who take the album seriously. One of the cornerstones of modern artistic thought is that art should challenge those who encounter it. Modern music consumption allows the listener to bypass such notions as ‘being challenged’ and go straight for the stuff with instant appeal.
The other way the iPod has changed music listening is by no longer making music a private experience. In the past, music was something you rushed home to listen to, with concerts providing the communal aspect, but the iPod now allows people to listen to music everywhere, be it while jogging, taking the bus, driving, sitting in class, working on a paper at the coffee shop; music listening becomes ubiquitous. True, a Walkman or a portable CD player allowed for many of these same experiences but, unless the listener made himself or herself a mix CD or tape, they remained confined by the artist’s vision in terms of running order. With the iPod the listener has ultimate control and much more music available at his or her fingertips. In this environment, music takes on a more functional aspect. Its purpose mutates from meaningful art that enriches our lives to boredom-relief and quick-fix stimulation; the musical equivalent of the lifestyle magazine in the dentist’s waiting room.
Before anybody thinks this is another ‘the modern world is turning us all into shallow, gadget obsessed sociopaths with the attention span of a goldfish’ essay, I’d like to inject some optimism. While 50s rock and roll was indeed song driven, with a high turnover of artists and a heavy emphasis placed on teen trends and heavy profits, from this situation bloomed modern popular culture. Each change in technology brings out the usual doomsayers who decry the lack of humanity and warmth in machines and harken back to a time like the 60s when technology was less dominant. Take a look at contemporary articles from the 60s, however, and you will find many familiar-sounding essays that paint the picture of a mindless youth obsessed with TV and loud music. Humanity possesses a noble ability to adapt modern technology to meet its creative needs. There will always be those who look for surface-level thrills, and there will always be those who like to dig a little deeper. Many of us will find ourselves doing both. The challenge for modern musicians is how to adapt to this loss of artistic control brought about by the iPod revolution. To those who think that serious music will be dealt a lethal body-blow by the iPod I present the following example.
At the beginning of the 20th Century the two dominant artistic modes were the novel and poetry (other than the visual arts). Novelists and poets were the superstars of the age, and their opinions on public matters carried real weight and influence. With the emergence of popular culture, however, a shift in attitudes occurred. While the novel, beaten and bloody, survived, the relevance of the poem had all but disappeared by the 70s. Why would this be? To be blunt, poetry did not have mass popular appeal. While the pulp novel sold to millions, there was no pulp poetry. Intellectual novelists existed on the fringes, yet they at least retained a much higher cultural relevance than poets did after the 60s. The only reason novelists still have relevance is because the novel retains mass popular appeal, not in spite of it. In other words, unless a particular artistic discipline has massive popular support then it ceases to become culturally relevant. The market has replaced the critic. Difficult, challenging, and downright unlistenable music exists in the shadow of popular music, but take away that shadow and the whole endeavor becomes meaningless. Just as jazz seemed to be scaling untold artistic heights, it suffered cultural death because it was all intellect and no pop appeal.
While the iPod and digital downloading may have transformed the cultural landscape, those who bemoan musics apparent shift away from serious art toward pop pulp should take comfort in the fact that music in general remains relevant. Perhaps this pushes the ‘true artist’ to the sidelines, but that is how it should be. An artist without a fight is a dog without a bark. For the truly independent artist there are many options available, and the cheapness and availability of home recording equipment puts a higher focus on self-containment. The one thing that may truly suffer is collaborative music endeavors. The future may lie with the solitary creator as opposed to the group. The two most important cultural disciplines to emerge in the 20th century were recorded music and cinema. Each has produced stunning works of artistic greatness, but each wrestles daily with notions of commerciality and mass appeal. This struggle is the stuff that provides these disciplines with much of their energy and relevance. To those who wish for the eradication of vulgar, flashy pop, be careful what you wish for. You may lose more than you think.
This article first appeared in Substance