Downloading democracy

Tara Brabazon takes a listophile’s delight in a celebration of musical progress

April 17, 2008

Although my day job is as an academic, at night (and early morning) I am a closet bibliophile and pop cultural collector. During my 6.30am cycling class, I invent lists of pop trivia:

  • Best use of hair-straightening products on a news broadcast
  • Best use of running mascara in a soap opera
  • Best use of Ikea furniture in a talk show
  • Best use of a Wham song in a retro police drama.

No one else is needed to play this game. This obsession with the best locks, mascara runs and flat packs is matched by an even more piquant “worst” list:

  • Worst tie in a news broadcast
  • Worst boots in popular music
  • Worst celebrity use of hair extensions
  • Worst attempt by baby-boomer rock critic to appear “down” with the kids.

These lists categorise and judge the culture around us. It is ruthless, but with X Factor judges becoming the arbiters of quality and innovation, it is a defensive action from the desperate to remind those satisfied with the mediocre and banal that great singers use a songbook beyond the greatest hits of Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. There are other genres beyond the tongue-in-the ear ballad, which has always been more of a sonic contraception than a soundtrack for seduction. The lyric “eyeiiiee wil alwaaaaas laaaaav youuuuuuuooouuu” made me want to call divorce lawyers. And I wasn’t married at the time.

While television is close to unwatchable at the moment – if I see another diet story masquerading as investigative journalism then I will spoon a tub of (low fat) yoghurt into the ear of a breakfast presenter – we do live in a rich, changeable and fascinating time for music. MP3 files and the platforms built for their use have reconnected listeners with a rich musical past and the potential for innovative remixing opportunities in the future.

In retrospect, the compact disc was a ridiculous way to access music. It held the digitising potential of convergence and compression. But record companies continued to apply vinyl – analogue – standards of length, structure and genre to the new musical platform. The changes from vinyl to compact disc were so rapid during the mid 1980s that we rarely considered what happened to our musical database, taste and literacies through that accelerated sonic transformation.

Record companies focused on album-based artists such as Dire Straits, U2 and – the best haircut of the 20th century – Michael Bolton. Through the poor sales of white elephant platforms like the CD single and cassingle (remember those?), it seemed that adults were buying safe and packaged music for its clean and crisp resonance, rather than its radical and disturbing reverberation. I have memories of men satiated in sonic bliss while ensconced in a beanbag, headphones and Dire Straits’ Alchemy. That bass line from Private Investigations shattered glass. But this fetish for the pure, perfect and loud severed the relationship between youth and music. Adults took over the charts. Men in bad shoes took over the business of music.

The dissociation of youth and music, hearing and danger, would last less than 20 years. The permeation of the world wide web through leisure and work was enhanced by the compression algorithm within the MP3 encoding format. New modes of music recording, remixing, listening, copying and retailing emerged. Through this remarkable and rapid transformation, the single returned but without its vinyl platter. If we review the past 50 years of popular music history, we see the survival of the single – through iTunes and ring tones – and the decline of the album, with a 20-year blip through the compact disc.

There is now a fascinating rejuvenation in the chart books that dominated my youth. Instead of the Billboard or NME listings, I now have The Downloader’s Music Source Book. A physical delight, it is a brick of a book. Included is a list of most of the notable performers from the US and the UK in the past 40 years. No chart places are listed. The only relevant data in the iTunes age are the performer, song title and date of initial release. No album of origin is required. The single is all that remains in digitised music history.

How the compiler Dave McAleer actually selected songs is a mystery. But that adds even more spice to the book. To view someone else’s arbitrary selection of popular music is both bizarre and obsessive. He describes his aim as “to act as a reminder to you of all those fantastic hits of the last 40 years that you may have temporarily forgotten about but would like to add to the growing collection of downloads on your digital music player or PC”. The lists by both performer and song title have an addictive quality, and there are some profound oddities. Bob Dylan has 17 listed songs. Duran Duran have 29. Helen Shapiro has three hits listed, which for the hyperlisters like me does not include Walking Back to Happiness. The Smiths have more listings than Smokie (thankfully), and Will Smith is kept to less than half a page.

My copy of this brick book is dog-eared and Post-it-noted. The spine is bent from multiple readings and flickings. Through all the oddities, entering McAleer’s downloaded history of popular music has honesty to it. Although acknowledging the breadth of our musical past, there is an emphasis on the past 20 years, rather than the 1960s and 1970s. Orbital has a longer listing than Orbison. There is also an absolute domination of British and American music. The former British Empire does not exist musically. Even wider European music is under-represented. I was relieved to find Kraftwerk in the listing. Any music list book without Autobahn included in the most important pop of all time must be physically removed from the house.

There is also a blithe – but oddly comforting – denial of intrinsic musical quality. For example, the Smurfs have five songs listed. Fats Domino has one. I know this because after seeing Spike Lee’s documentary on Hurricane Katrina, and remembering that the legendary Domino had been airlifted out of the water-logged city, I wanted to check if Walking to New Orleans was mentioned in my book. It wasn’t. Only Red Sails in the Sunset was included in the downloading party. What about Blueberry Hill?

In truth, there is great joy in flicking through the sonic history of this downloading “source”. The arbitrary nature of the selections only adds humour and fascination. But there are serious and fascinating consequences of books such as this. We learn how music moves through time and what will survive in this downloaded, digital age.

While the iPod or any other MP3 player engrosses the listener in the endless replaying of musical favourites, it is also clear that the longer history of the single, so integral to the history of youth and social movements in the 1950s and 1960s and the punk “moment”, has been returned to us. Music – once more – has become short, snappy and hyper-personal. The potential for a two-minute triumph of a track, like The Chiffons’ He’s So Fine, Johnny Cash’s Five Feet High and Rising and Buddy Holly’s Rave On is matched by The Wombats’ Tales of Girls, Boys and Marsupials, Kate Nash’s Play and Digitalism’s Jupiter Approach. Now that the judicial proceedings against illegal downloaders have subsided, it is clear that not only will the best parts of our musical collections survive in the new format – with filler tracks and prescriptive linear album presentations lost – but experimentation with unknown and unfamiliar music and formats is now possible through guides such as this Source Book. The long 1970s progressive rock keyboard solo has finally ended.

The challenge for those of use who love music outside of the transatlantic song pool is to ensure that we support artists in this new environment. We must create a context where they can brand, digitise, market and sell their music through the online shops like www.mp3.com, www.wippit.com, www.amplifier.co.nz and indiestore.7digital.com, along with the sites from major record companies and Apple. MySpace is great for “exposure” but less useful in assisting new musicians in making a living. Instead of older creative arts funding models subsidising the albums and tours of the few, we need to understand the new commercial future of the single and the remix beyond arbitrary notions of “quality” that are frequently nostalgic for a 1960s that never happened. Creative industries initiatives in city imaging, branding and copyright may help new performers support themselves and their music in this unpredictable future.

These are exciting times for a new community of musicians, remixers, home recorders, software designers, samplers and engineers. Music is entering listeners’ lives in a rapid, direct and intimate way. List books such as those by Dave McAleer are racing after these changes. This is a creative and corporate process. Our task is to ensure that democracy – for musicians, songwriters and producers – remains in the download.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies at the University of Brighton.

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