There's a great debate/exchange that I've been following on a few different weblogs over the last few weeks over the idea of the "natural" unit of music. It was set off a while back when Nicholas Carr questioned David Weinberger's point of view (in the excellent Everything is Miscellaneous) that the "natural" unit of music is the single (a la iTunes).
In Weinberger's view, the LP was a product of physical and economic (or, greedy) considerations, as record companies wanted to maximize profits by cramming in as much music (much of it filler) to most efficiently use minimal physical shelf space. As you can imagine, digital distribution and the long tail have rendered these kinds of physical considerations meaningless, and have returned as to the "natural" unit of music: the single. In Weinberger's words:
For decades we've been buying albums. We thought it was for artistic reasons, but it was really because the economics of the physical world required it: Bundling songs into long-playing albums lowered the production, marketing, and distribution costs because there were fewer records to make, ship, shelve, categorize, alphabetize, and inventory. As soon as music went digital, we learned that the natural unit of music is the track. Thus was iTunes born, a miscellaneous pile of 3.5 million songs from a thousand record labels. Anyone can offer music there without first having to get the permission of a record executive. It's very, very tempting to buy this argument, especially for a dyed-in-the-wool DJ with a massive collection of 12" single records, but I digress.
Carr, on the other hand, disagrees, citing evidence that the LP was, in fact, as "natural" unit of music as anything else. In Carr's words:
Listening to Exile, or to any number of other long-playing bundles - The Velvet Underground & Nico, Revolver, Astral Weeks, Every Picture Tells a Story, Mott, Blood on the Tracks, Station to Station, London Calling, Get Happy!, Murmur, Tim (the list, thankfully, goes on and on) - I could almost convince myself that the 20-minute-or-so side of an LP is not just some ungainly byproduct of the economics of the physical world but rather the "natural unit of music." As "natural" a unit, anyway, as the individual track.
Boy, oh boy, does it get better than this? To me this debate can set off hours of discussion about everything I ever write about here, and everything I ever read about on other weblogs. To what extent are the changes we're going through returning us to a "natural" state of culture? What on earth is culture when the limitations and considerations we've known for decades dissolve? What will it look like? They may be talking (or arguing) about music, but these questions are, to me, at the heart of how culture is formed.
Further insight into the debate has been provided by Clay Shirky, who defends Weinberger by demonstrating, via iTunes sales stats of singles taken from Exile on Main Street that show that, given the opportunity, people buy the tracks they like, and don't care much for the album. (This is the very album that Carr cites as a quintessential example of the triumph of the LP as a superior and "natural" unit of music)
what Carr dislikes, I think, is evidence that the freedoms of the album were only as valuable as they were in the context of the constraints. If Exile on Main Street was as good an idea as he thinks it was, it would survive the removal of those constraints.
And it hasn’t.
Shirky is brilliant, and there is a lot I agree with here. But I can't shake the feeling that there is something to the claim that the LP (with all its constraints) facilitated creative expression of a kind that wouldn't have existed (as an unfolding story, the sum-greater-than-its-parts sort of thing), and for that reason it qualifies as a "natural" unit of music.
Taken a step further, I'd argue that in addition to physical, economic and creative margins and restrictions, there are also other variables that enter the picture (such as genre of music). Entire genres and sub-genres of music (disco, electro, hip-hop, house, techno, drum 'n bass, soul-jazz, broken beat and more) have existed as singles-based music-forms for over three decades, well before the advent of iTunes. In this world, the single is and always will be the "natural" unit.
In my opinion, it's impossible to define a "natural" unit of music, because the production and appreciation of music (and everything else) is always culturally framed. If that's what Weinberger or Shirky are aiming to do, we have to be really careful. Carr calls this the "myth of liberation": the web is liberating us from the "bad" and returning us to the "good".
Can you see how this is paralleled in other forms of creative expression and production? Relying on a definition of a "natural" unit discounts the cultural conditions and limitations that contribute to the formation of a context in which meaning is imparted. Even more, it completely overlooks that something called culture has had some role in how art and creative expression has worked.
And this is where the irony lies, I find myself arriving at a conclusion in which I defend Carr on the grounds of a pragmatic view of how creative expression is intertwined in a cultural time and place, and arguing against the view that Web 2.0 and disaggregation are returning us to a "natural" order. In agreeing that there is a lot to be thankful about for the world we're slowly leaving behind, I still find myself finding it hard to buy that where we are headed isn't just better, but it's also more "natural".
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.