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August 02, 2007

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gareth

Great post Dino. Feels to me - and this is something we kind of based a campaign for Napster on a couple of years ago - that there can be no fixed unit of music from an artistic standpoint. The great albums are complex ie you can't really break it down into its constituent parts whereas some music (especially over the last 30 years) is more snack sized and works best that way. Our mistake has been trying to force-fit a one size fits all economic value to music when, in the end of the day, you never really own music you simply experience it. The music industry has done a brilliant job over 150 years to blur music and its form of distribution when the two are very different. In fact, they've done such a good job that they have made the very sensible membership nature of music subscription services seem the oddity as opposed the the force-fit means of distribution. (It's late so I hope this is somewhat coherent)

Asi

fantastic post Dino.

Natural? there is no such thing as natural in any cultural context.

EVERYTHING is socially constructed my friends - music, and it's economics and the cultural discourse around it - it's all ongoing socially and linguistically constituted process.

And to add my riff to the process, I tend to agree with Gareth - from creative point of view it is impossible to define a single "natural" unit of music as it is all really depend on the genre and artistic expression and comparing Pink Floyd to Carl Craig is a bit like comparing apple and oranges...

A.

Clay Shirky

Dino,

I didn't mean to take on the contention about a "natural" unit of music. The point I was trying to make was that the LP was not a solely or even mainly _aesthetic_ unit of music, either in conception or execution.

The design of the LP tried for a length suited to aesthetic goals (hold much of the classical repertoire), but did so within huge and largely accidental technical constraints.

Furthermore, most albums weren't conceived and executed as albums, but as collections of songs, and even the ones that were (e.g. _Exile on Main Street_) have been torn to bits in the absence of the old constraints.

None of this relates directly to the idea of a natural unit of music, which I'm waiting to write about until I hear from one of my firmer students, who has background as an ethnomusicologist.

Dino

Thanks for stopping by and commenting Clay, I'm humbled :)

I agree totally that there were other reasons (accidental, as you put them) for the creation of the LP format. In a word, greedy record companies and analog technology did a great job of setting the margins.

But even accidental conditions and limitations count. All music exists in a cultural context defined by such conditions and limitations. This follows from the premise that there is no "natural" unit of music, simply because musical expression, and its distribution and consumption, is necessarily contingent on just those kinds of things.

I disagree with your claim that most albums weren't conceived as such. There is a long history of countless bands and artists who defined a "work" in the confines of full-length LP. Whether contemporary audiences rip that work apart (according to changed cultural, technological or social conditions) doesn't make the unit they are extracting (the single) any more "natural".

It's tempting to think of it in that way, especially for a DJ whose tools of the trade are 12" vinyl (single) records, but I think it's a trap. A trap that might open us up to accusations of the kind of "liberation" theory that Carr objects to.

Dino

Gareth- that's a great point about the blurring of music (and creativity) and its distribution. That's at the heart of this in my opinion.

Asi- well said, I should have asked you to write my post. Alarms bells go off when I sense that techno/digital-evangelist stray to far into the "liberation" theory that Carr argues against, simply because it's a huge assumption (and a wrong one) to imply that technology is returning us to some more "natural" state. A better one for economic and political reasons? Maybe. But a more "natural" one, I don't know!

David Weinberger

Excellent discussion. Thanks for taking this up, Dino.

Just to be clear, "Everything Is Miscellaneous" can be taken as an argument against the idea that there are natural units and natural orders. In the passage Nick Carr cites, from very early in the book, I use the phrase with a touch of irony...an irony that isn't obvious until after you've read more of the book. (Yes, mea culpa.)

I don't dispute Carr's history of the LP. I do dispute, however, the idea that albums -- aggregations of songs -- were invented for aesthetic reasons. Sgt. Pepper is considered by many to be one of the first "concept albums," i.e., an album in which the aggregation was meant to work as a whole. Van Dyke Parks "Song Cycle" predates Sgt. Pepper, and we could argue for a long time about which album was the one that was designed as to be more than merely a dozen of the latest songs. But the fact that we distinguish between concept albums and what preceded them makes my point: Albums were generally collections of songs bundled for economic reasons.

Finally, I do not doubt for a moment that creators may add a great deal of value by organizing and arranging their works and asking us to go through them in a particular order. Of course! "Order counts" is another theme of "Everything Is Miscellaneous." But, to say that music has become miscellanized is to say that it now supports _multiple_ simultaneous orders, including those of the creators'. So, if you think it's important to listen to "Exile" in the original order (including inserting a pause between the first and second vinyl records), then please do. But you can also discover other orders. You might even listen to, say, Keith Richard's recommended ordering of "Exile." Or Katie Couric's, if that's what works for you. The miscellanizing of information _adds_ information; it does not subtract it.

Morgan

Dino,
Wondering if you, like other post-subculturalists reared in (and central actors in, too) a 12" culture, were lured towards this theme and into that thought-space of iTunes as a democratized zone of consumption (democracy, of course, being somehow more 'natural') because it's the construct from which you've spun for so many years? Or because, like those same post-subculturalists (many working in marketing's digital domain), the idea of a revolution finally coming to fruition is too tempting to resist (viva la disco, hip hop and rave cultures, right?)

As a lapsed anthropologist of music, my two cents at this point will add little value to already wise points above. Cent one: there is no 'natural' unit of music; in fact, there might not be any across-the-board 'unit' of music at all (think: John Cage vs. Berlioz vs. Innu throat singers vs. blippy techno vs. Kaluli sound). Cent two, when discussing 'popular' music we're talking about popularity not as an indicator of sales numbers/coolness but as the medium through which music, like anything in pop culture, is carried (movie projectors, TV, books, LPs, CDs, digital downloads). While changing mediums do change the cultural equation, I'm not so sure that "the limitations and considerations we've known for decades" have actually "disolved." Maybe they've been slightly tweaked by the machine, something most of us did ourselves back in the 70s and 80s when we used cassettes to rip the best songs of an album that, for some reason, just didn't rock the whole way thru.

P.S.
Comparing Carl Craig to Pink Floyd like apples & oranges is almost as maddening as record stores and media that foist genres onto consumers. I'm sure Carl owns a number of Pink Floyd discs (recorded as albums, not songs) and wouldn't be surprised if Floyd found fraternity with Carl were they to hear him.
-Morgan

And why

Jay Moonah

Great discussion!

Art always has, and always will, be defined by boundaries. Those boundaries could be the limits of the media (the length of music that will fit on a piece of vinyl or a CD for example) or could be more arbitrary (John Cage sitting at a piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Why not 1 second? Why not 10 hours?) As Cage and others knew, working within those boundaries IS the art. Selecting the medium, and thereby in most cases the boundaries, is the beginning of the creative process whether the artist realizes it consciously or not.

Just a little aside, this conversation started me on a search path that lead to this:

http://composersforum.ning.com/group/worldslongestpiece

Although it’s obviously a bit of schtick, I’m personally quite taken with the idea of using a social network like Ning to create something unique like this.

Dino

Thanks for all the great comments. I was itching to respond earlier today, but I spent the day watching dolphins with the twins (it was great).

David-I did read your book, and agree that it does clarify this issue in precisely the way you outline above: miscellanizing (great word!) adds something, it doesn't take something away. That's a key distinction, and arrives at much different conclusion from the claim that three is a natural unit of music, which have now (red)discovered.
As an artist, producer and DJ who has done my fair share of programming and arranging of music, I have my own feelings (a mix, for instance, is far more than just an aggregation of songs, anymore than a poem is an aggregation of sentences), but point taken. We now have additional, or infinite, "orders" which are equally valid (note, I didn't say "natural"!).

Morgan-glad to see you drop by here, excellent. The question you pose hits me where it hurts: as a dyed-in-the-wool post-subculturalist (a term I am hijacking as of today) a lot of the assumptions I had regarding how I would feel once the revolution came to fruition turn out to be challenged. I constantly have a hard time with reconciling fuzzy notions of "democratization" with respect to creativity and culture. It has turned out to be much more complicated than I would have thought years ago!
But you're very right: Carl Craig does own plenty of Pink Floyd ALBUMS, and the remix/recombinant culture is in our blood, and has been in our blood, for a long, long time :)
One small example at what takes place at the intersection of commerce/power/creativity and music: how many conferences did we have to endure with countless debates on why remixers arent't rewarded with publishing dollars?! "Natural" unit of music" How about we start with fixing the obvious first, right?

Jay-it might have been for all of the wrong reasons, but those artificial limitations WERE the start of the creative expression and process for many LPs. Doesn't mean that the work always has to be appreciated like that until the end of time (David's point about more, rather than less, choice), but to discount that (they were JUST economically convenient bundles of TRACKS) is just plain wrong, I think.

D

ranen

Almost every form of information is consumed in smaller units these days. Albums turn to tracks, movies to clips, letters to e-mail and sms, articles to posts... We have less time and less patience.
"Every year is getting shorter..." - ironically a track from "The dark side of the moon" - one of the more holistic LPs... would it still be a masterpiece as separated tracks?

Dino

Interesting Ranen. I wonder when we should be expecting to see shorter songs? That would be something: radio stations playing 1:00 songs.

Morgan

Do we really have less time and less patience as a consequence of our lives and/or schedules (and, as a result, the techs have responded to our changing culture)? Or, as some social scientists hot for the connections between material culture and social structure might suggest, have new techs (as much the product of profit-driven innovation as material responses to shifts in culture) so successfully insinuated themselves into our patterns of consumption and interaction that they have conjured an air of less time and less patience in our lives?

As someone tempted to trade it all in for a life of fishing, raising goats and drinking Pinot Gris on the regular, I wonder....

JASON

Attention idiots;
THE LONG PLAYING LP WAS NOT an invention of record companys too be "greedy". [EVERYONE BLAMES "the labels" as the big bad wolf/daddy.]
ARTISTS used the long playing lp [like the BEATLES with SGT. PEPPER etc.]to create A BEAUTIFUL NEW ARTFORM. Some better at it than others.
It's the cheating/stealing/thiefs-
consumers!!!!! who are the "greedy" ones, and, fuck the Artists.

Charles

A brilliant and thought provoking post Dino. I've had plenty of time to think about it while I've been whizzing about the UK in planes, trains and automobiles. Mostly because I've been listening to some whack electronic minimal stuff that in all truth I don't want to really stop (I've sorted out some ace headphones recently).so I too started thinking about why a piece is 7 minutes rather than say 40. The good stuff hasn't yet exhausted my appetite to come to an end.

I'm not sure what all the implications of this feeling are but I was introduced to this stuff via the web, I've now visited specialist Soho DJ shops trying to track the material down (wannabe DJ chicks look hot checking out vinyl btw) and all I can say is that its taken my not inconsiderable appetite for music to another level. I guess in response to Jason the only people who are losing out on this emancipation of music appreciation are the egregiously paid superstars who used to take up most of my music dollars.

I feel no sympathy for them.

Hope you liked my twitters from the edge at the weekend. The old stuff being spun by DJ Max Quirk was certainly working its magic.

A seminal post my friend. Real food for thought.

Dino

Cute girls checking out vinyl; you haven't been to Phonica by any chance now have you ;)

DJs main task is to put individual tracks together to "tell a story". While one might that think that this means that the track is the natural unit, one of the things that has caused much of this to unravel for me is that there IS something to the narrative, the unfolding from one track to the next that is common to DJ sets and a lot of albums (obviously). It is about extening that appetite for the music beyond 7 minutes that you rightly point to, in my opinion.

To put it another way: if someone was to go back in and edit out the individual parts of a mix to compile their own (and this is David's point) it only adds another possible interpretation. I can see that, that's cool, but it immediately dissolves the meaning that I had created (which may or may not be a good thing, but it's something to note either way).

Oh, and Twitter over the weekend was brilliant, loved it. I was with Terry (my DJ twin brother and he was loving the updates from the club too!).

Dino

Incidentally, I don't entirely disagree with Jason's comments. I've been close enough to the other side of the music business (the side that tries to make money rather than demand everything for free) to see that there is more to the story than record companies=bad, consumers=good.

Rob Mortimer

Are there not three units of music, each as appropriate as any other?

You have your 30 minute tv show (single)
the hour long show (EP)
and the extended film version (LP)

Each has something the other lacks. Many pop groups make rubbish LP's but great singles.

I would argue til the ends of time that an LP can be a unit of music, they can piece together single tracks in a much more involved and rewarding way.

Iain Tait

There's far smarter and more eloquent people commenting on this post than me, so what I'm about to say will probably not add very much. But as someone who's consumed music in large quantities and in various types of unit (natural and quite possibly unnatural) I do have an opinion.

I think the biggest change in music has been context. In the 'olden days' the context for music consumption was far more limited. Vinyl, tape, live performance and radio were essentially the ways we consumed music. The skipability of all of them was massively limited.

Fast forward (no pun intended) to CDs, MP3s, etc. and you end up with much more skippable media types. Especially when you add remote controls and personal devices into the mix. Shuffle options come as standard in most devices.

It's almost as if the lean-back, lean-forward argument that has been applied to screen based entertainment can now be applied to music too. In the past we sat back and consumed TV, now we increasingly lean forward and interact with screen based content. Same with music. I used to hang out with mates and we'd listen to whole albums, now there's always someone 'mucking about' with what's on, whether it's semi-professional mixing or just fiddling with a playlist.

I guess that argues for the fact that tracks are the new, natural unit of music, but for me the discussion about 'natural' formats has to start with the artists' intentions.

If you're an artist who wants to take people on a cosmic voyage, the only way to preserve the integrity of the side of an album (imagine when music used to always have sides!) is to make it one long track. But that doesn't make sense when things are priced per track - 99c for a 30 minute experience is mighty cheap!

At the other end of the spectrum are artists who want their tracks to be mixed (producers create tracks with long intros and outros so djs can use them in this way) or reconstructed (there are lots of tracks which have DJ tools / accapellas that encourage mashups or more elaborate mixes). But again, DJ tools don't make sense to be charged at 99c for a simple beat.

Really interesting post. Nice one.

Charles Frith

How the bloody hell did you know it was Phonica? I'm amazed.

Max Quirk was diggin your tweets to my friend. Trans continental intros while doing a set. Very enjoyable.

Dino

the global dj fraternity has its little secrets. cute girls at phonica playing records is one of them ;)

Dino

excellent iain, appreciate the comments.

it would be hypocritical for a dj/remixer/producer like myself to argue that anything is a natural unit of music after spending 20 years as part of a remix culture that embraced precisely the recombinant nature of all things 2.0 these days.
we can't have it both ways; either there are rules, or there aren't :)
you make a good point about beats, accapellas and other parts for amateur remixers to play with. they're all fragments, and the line does blur in the process of production, and where the line is demarcated between a finished work and work-in-progress. (which is just another way to say that there is no "unit" at all, apart from the artificially created unit demanded by the manufacture and distribution of "product", which is an entirely different matter altogether).

eaon pritchard

stumbled in here but what a great post and response.
coincidentally i was just turning on a couple of people in the office to Terry Riley's 'in-c' which is not only 1 track over both 'sides' but also 1 set of notes.
doesnt get much more 'one natural unit' than that.

dan burgess

aaaah music
we'd be royally fucked without it
singles/tunes/tracks/songs = shorter, memorable, accessible, hummable, danceable, shareable, mixable, disposable, easier to write one

albums/long play/collections = cultural markers, identity defining, involving, sometimes genius, often disappointing, cherished, mythical, rarely consistently good as a whole, harder to make,

it's a tough one, i was a drummer as a kid and played in many bands, tried to make an album, failed. Then DJ'd semi-professionally for 15 years obsessed by tracks and musical storytelling. I love the track and the song, and i appreciate a great album. I think there's probably more great songs than there are albums.

Thing is these days i find it harder to listen to a complete work, often because there's so much amazing stuff at my finger tips from so many different sources and also i'm in control (to iain's skipability point)

context is everything really, i still wack an album on if it's class and it's right for the moment.

singles/units/tracks/chunks allow us to curate, filter and program on our terms which is a good thing but i'd rather see a great band or a DJ perform for an hour and a half than listen to them on the radio for 5mins.

quality at the end of the day always prevails, if it's good, people will buy/listen/experience in greater and longer units. and there will always be the one-off single. i nearly hd one it got to number 76 in the UK charts!
different strokes for different folks.
great post dino.

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