The Null Device

2014/7/28

They call me Wayne Kerr, and if there's one thing I hate… it's records that are available only on LP with a download code; with no CD, and no option to buy just the download.

On one hand, this is an improvement on the previous state of affairs: records being available only on vinyl, with no downloads or digital copies whatsoever, so if you were the kind of weirdo computer-nerd to whom the words “download” and “MP3” meant something, your options would be to rig up one of those USB turntables, play your newly-bought record through them, recording to a WAV file, trim it to the separate tracks and do your best to EQ out the inherent suckiness of vinyl so you'd have something approximating what a hypothetical digital copy would sound like. Or if you don't have a USB turntable or reasonable Audacity skills, you would illegally pirate the digital copy from someone who does. At least with download codes, there is an audio file which hasn't been through the vinyl-transfer wringer. On the other hand, though, you can't have it without also accepting the slab of vinyl it comes with, because Authenticity.

The existence of the download code mockingly acknowledges the shift in ways of listening to music, the fact that not everybody owns a turntable or is willing to partake in the vinyl ceremony (taking the record gingerly out of its anti-static sleeve, placing it reverently in the middle of the vinyl shrine, sitting down cross-legged exactly between the two speakers and, for the 22 minute duration of a side, reverently contemplating the gatefold artwork with a joint in one hand, as one's forebears did in the prelapsarian Sixeventies, when love was free, weed was good and rock was the real thing), and that, with the rise of digital audio and portable sound players, the vinyl record has metamorphosed from the humble, utilitarian carrier of most convenience it was in the age of the teenager's Dansette into a fetish object; one part collectible trophy, one part quasi-religious totem of Authenticity. The denial of downloads on their own affirms the primacy of the cult of vinyl: you will take the vinyl record, it dictates, and you will regard it with quasi-religious reverence, as it is a sacred relic, a splinter of the True Cross, in which is embodied Authenticity.

The cult of vinyl-as-ark-of-Authenticity is a sort of conservative (with a small 'c') reaction to, and attempted brake on, the hurtling pace of technological and social change, which, in less than a lifetime, has rendered ways of engaging with music obsolete. The way people consume music has changed as the amount of music has increased and the price has plummeted; consequently, one has considerably more music at one's disposal than one's parents (or even one's younger self) would have, saving up for a few months to get the new LP by their favourite band and then listening the hell out of it. (A few years ago, Jarvis Cocker said that music has become something like a scented candle; something consumed casually in the background, without one's full rapt attention. Of course, Cocker's reaction to this phenomenon is coloured by the contrast with his own formative experiences in the early 1980s, which in terms of the culture of music consumption, were an extension of the Sixeventies.) Meanwhile, with the world's rising population (there are roughly twice as many people alive today as in 1970) and urban gentrification, the size of the typical residence (i.e., one affordable to one of ordinary means) has shrunk; as such, a nontrivial collection of music in physical format is increasingly becoming a luxury only wealthy eccentrics and rural hermits can afford; and this goes doubly so for space-inefficient formats such as vinyl records. The upshot is that each piece of recorded music in one's collection can expect both less attention and less physical space than might have once been the case. Which is why digital files come in handy. But, of course, that wouldn't be Authentic; when you listen to an MP3, you're not really listening to the recording and having the authentic experience of the music; you're a ghost, alienated from your own music-listening life, listening to a ghost of the music, having a ghost experience that doesn't really exist, not in the way that your dad's experience of the Stone Roses did. Or so the narrative of the vinyl mandate goes. Which is why we are stuck buying a slab of vinyl, opening the package, pulling out the card with the download code, and then putting the actual slab of vinyl in the gap behind the IKEA BILLY bookcase with all the other votive icons of Authenticity, its grooves doomed to never be touched by a gramophone needle. Time goes on and the mass of reluctantly adopted household gods grows.

The vinyl mandate is the product of a Baby Boomer elite (and, to a lesser extent, the Generation X that followed it and absorbed some of its superstitions and prejudices), having aged into seniority and cultural power, staring into the abyss of its own mortality, feeling the chill of rapid change having made its own formative experiences obsolete, recoiling before the sublime terror of one's insignificance in the face of the march of time and desperately clutching for the conditions of its own long-gone youth and virility; since these involved listening to rock'n'roll from vinyl records, it is decreed that the way that they consumed music (record player, reverent contemplation, possible recreational substance use; definitely not with a pair of white earbuds at one's desk or in the gym, and absolutely not sacrilegiously shuffled with the rest of one's collection of music) is the one true, Authentic way of truly connecting and engaging with the music. Granted, many of the artists and label owners who enforce this mandate are too young to have invested in this myth first-hand; perhaps they are motivated by a Couplandian displaced nostalgia for the golden age of authenticity they weren't born in, or perhaps such is the power of cultural transmission that values get propagated beyond the rationale from which they sprang. In any case, the myth persists for now, and we're stuck with piles of vinyl records which will never be played, all for want of a download code.

As for physical artefacts: could they not be something more practical? Personally, if I'm at a merch stand, I'd rather buy a band T-shirt or button badge with a download code affixed to it than a vinyl record with one.

authenticity culture music rants vinyl wayne kerr 0

2014/7/26

Who is John Galt?, a rant-cum-manifesto for the disruptive-innovation alpha-bros of the Bay Area tech scene's bacon-wrapped economy:

I'm gentrifying the neighborhood. I'm adding special bus service for my employees. I've figured out a way for white people to make money from taxi cabs again. I'm replacing your favorite restaurant with a reptile park. I'm driving Filipino fusion food trucks on your kid's basketball court. I got next and I'm taking all the vowels out of this shithole.
It's time we divide this state into eleven smaller states with Galt's Gulch consisting of this city and the various gate communities to the north. If you don't like it you can just move to one of the other states like Hoboland and whatever we call the desert where we force all the cholos to drive their low riders.
The last part is a reference to the recent proposal to split California into six states, allowing them to race each other to the bottom on tax rates, deregulation and labour costs. (Or, “take all the poor people who used to live in this cool 'hood before we gentrified it, declare them to be Not Our Problem and let them fend for themselves”.)

Meanwhile, a piece by Mark Ames (formerly of The Exile) on the US Libertarian Right's courting of the Bay Area techno-elite at a libertarian-themed conference named Reboot, yet somehow inexplicably booking a theocratic hatemonger to give the keynote, and the sometimes uneasy fit this highlights between Californian-style libertarianism (think along the lines of Robert Anton Wilson's Guns And Dope Party—a bit wild-eyed for the average North London Guardianista, let alone the highly regulated yet highly contented citizens of Jante-law Scandinavia, but moderately cuddly, in a Californian hot-tub kind of way—and you won't be far off) and the older and more unsavoury US Libertarianism that grew out of a reaction to Roosevelt's New Deal and, along the way, took in local strains of fascism and white-supremacism:

And then there’s the uglier, darker side of the Kochs’ libertarianism on display in Reason’s archives: the fringe-right racism and fascism that the movement has tried to downplay in recent years to appeal to progressives and non-loonie techies. Throughout its first two decades, in the 1970s and 1980s, Reason supported apartheid South Africa, and attacked anti-apartheid protesters and sanctions right up to Nelson Mandela’s release, when they finally dropped it.
The two libertarianisms — the hick fascism version owned by the Koch brothers, essentially rebranding Joe McCarthy with a pot leaf and a ponytail; and Silicon Valley’s emerging brand of optimistic, half-understood libertarianism, part hippie cybernetics, part hot-tub-Hayek — should have met and merged right there in the Bay Area. And yet — they really were different, fundamentally different. The libertarianism of the Kochs is a direct descendant of the Big Business reaction against FDR’s New Deal, when the DuPont oligarchy created the American Liberty League to undo new laws establishing Social Security and labor union rights. Their heroes are the America Firsters led by Charles Lindbergh. And they haven’t stopped fighting that fight to dismantle the New Deal and everything that followed, even though most Americans have only a dim understanding of what that political war was about, and how its redistribution of political power still shapes our politics today. For the Kochs and their die-hard brand of libertarianism, that war with FDR and the New Deal is fresh and raw, and still far from resolved.
Finally, here is a quite decent biographical comic about Ayn Rand, which manages to be somewhat sympathetic whilst not hiding that she was a generally awful human being across the board. (And isn't that her appeal? Not that she was a decent person, but that she gave assholes permission, with the diploma-mill authority of the language of philosophy, to be assholes and regard themselves not only as decent human beings but superior to the losers around them.)

ayn rand california gentrification libertarianism rightwingers san francisco usa 0

2014/7/25

Prompted by a 1980s-themed end-of-term disco at her son's school, actual 1980s musician Tracey Thorn (of Everything But The Girl) has written a piece on how decades develop official versions, which often bear little resemblance to the experience of those who lived them. (And, being in the New Statesman, the subtext is that the official versions are a hegemonic discourse of the winners; the 80s are essentially shoulder-padded Thatcherism and Duran Duran, with not a Red Wedge badge to be seen; the 70s Abba, flares and disco, and the 1990s will inevitably be summed up as football-terrace Britpop and Tony Blair's reptilian smile):

Who decides these things? Is it simply that history is written by the victors, so that those who seemingly “won” a decade get to determine what it was like, what it meant? The airbrushing of entire eras has become almost Stalinist in its refusal to allow for complexities, alternatives, or the possibility that various things were happening at any one time. It’s apparently too difficult to understand that there was more than one point of view, one style of fashion, one type of record. Instead we simplify, and homogenise, and boil everything down to a few bullet points. Films and TV dramas are often guilty of this, representing the Sixties, for instance, in a house filled with Verner Panton chairs and Lucienne Day curtains. I grew up in the Sixties and, like most houses, ours was full of dark wooden furniture from the past sitting comfortably next to a recently bought, and therefore period-appropriate, coffee table.
My friend the writer Dave Haslam wrote a whole book (Not Abba) objecting to what he calls the “Abbafication of the Seventies”, in which he quite correctly points out how depressing and demeaning it is to have reduced that decade to a kind of fancy-dress parade of wigs and flares, platforms and glitter, averting our eyes from the vivid realities of “IRA bombs, PLO hijackings, overt racism, football hooliganism, Linda Lovelace, Mean Streets and Apocalypse Now . . .” Similarly I can see how the story of the Nineties is gradually shrinking and contracting, until pretty soon all that’ll be left will be Britpop, and a party that once happened at 10 Downing Street; everything else just a blur, or omitted completely.

1980s culture everything but the girl history tracey thorn 0

2014/7/20

A report in The Verge from a conference in Las Vegas about the business side of electronic dance music (EDM). EDM is not to be confused with the electronic dance music that older readers will remember; the 303-heavy acid-house played in underground clubs in Chicago and New York in the 1980s, the rave-techno that crusties dropped E to in illegal (and definitely undermonetised) raves during the Second Summer of Love, or even the glossier house/trance that superclubs played in the 1990s and 00s, but is a new phenomenon, as different as rock'n'roll was from jump blues. Having moved to Las Vegas, cut its name down, Diddy-fashion, to three VIP-worthy letters, and replaced the loved-up Goa-beach hippyisms with some high-octane all-American shock-and-awe, EDM has had an extreme makeover, and in doing so, not so much sold out as absorbed the whole concept of commercialism and monetisation and become one with it. The fans, apparently, couldn't be happier with it (or so the boosters of the brand synergies say, of course); on some level, being part of a super-hot marketing demographic is this generation's equivalent of the distinctly shabbier solidarity of being a Mod or a punk or whatever your grandparents did because there was nobody around to sell them energy drinks or LED jewellery.

Not surprisingly, people who love electronic music also love electronics. They have "a high propensity to purchase high-tech devices versus other genres, making them ideal for partnerships in the mobile and tech space," Simonian said. They’re more likely than other music listeners to purchase songs after hearing them in an ad. They’re also 50 percent more likely to buy energy drinks and 18 percent less likely to buy diet soda — presumably because they spend too much time dancing to worry about calories, Simonian joked. They spend more of their music money on live events, and they’re trendsetters — EDM listeners are generally regarded as "key influencers" among their peers.
Festivals also offer fertile ground for millennials, a generation entirely unfamiliar with the concept of selling out, to engage in "brand immersion." Swedish House Mafia pioneered the trend when they partnered with Absolut in 2012, releasing a single called "Greyhound" — named after the popular combination of vodka and grapefruit juice — that featured the trio behind a roboticized race dog on its cover. The move successfully cast the cocktail as an EDM staple, and the band incorporated the digital dog into its visuals for an Absolut-sponsored tour. Simonian says Nielsen’s research has revealed that electronic music fans "want brands to sponsor artists." If this concept sounds like "selling out" to you, your problem might be that you were born before 1990, or that you were raised on some form of punk rock ethos that requires strict division between creativity and capital (I’m guilty of both). Selling out is an alien concept in the EDM market — when Simonian says that fans want brands to sponsor artists, it might just mean that fans are happy to see their favorite producers making a decent wage to create amazing music.
So when I hear Skrillex in a Best Buy commercial, hear Calvin Harris teaming up with Rihanna, or a mediocre deadmau5 rip-off while I’m browsing through the underwear section of Target, I can only smile contentedly: finally, the sound I wanted to hear everywhere when I was growing up is actually everywhere. EDM has become the first "voice of a generation" that openly accepts a partner all other types of music bristled at: unabashed capitalism.
Well, there was such a thing as “commercial dance” in the 1990s, but the word “commercial” in that case cast it as a lesser form of dance music; something churned out by hacks in Germany and the Benelux countries to sell to mobile-phone ringtone companies, undiscerning preteens and those too hammered on flavoured vodka to know the difference. In this case, though, the big, well-hyped megastar DJs are the hypercommercial players, and the pervasive commerciality of EDM goes unremarked; the phrase “commercial EDM” would, indeed, sound awkward and ungainly, like “water fish” or something.

authenticity commercialism culture edm music 0

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