Friday, March 11, 2005

K-Tel, by Macintosh

My iPod is now fifteen months old. It’s showing its age – that is to say, the case is covered with scratches, there’s some kind of funky drip on the LCD display that no amount of polishing will remove, and I think I’ve cracked one of the earpod speakers playing the fourth movement of the Shostakovich Fifth full blast – but it still works flawlessly. No more than one expects from a Macintosh product. I’m not quite sure how it’s changed my listening habits (aside from the fact that I clearly listen to much more music), but anecdotal evidence from friends suggests to me that this little white box is, in the best MacLuhanite sense, altering sensoria all over the planet.

The iPod may turn out to be a case study in how technologies of artistic reproduction condition production and reception. The history of “popular” recorded music is a series of such case studies: the three-ish minutes available on a 78 force musicians to condense their theoretically interminable blues songs and ballads; in the 1950s and 1960s the unit of artistic production is the 45, on which the musician showcases at most two songs (and there’s considerable record company pressure to make sure that the B-side is, if not actually trash, at least weaker than the A-side). It takes a number of years for the LP to become something other than forty minutes of hit singles interspersed with trash, but when musicians with enough clout to control their own output figure out that they can sequence those two twenty-minute sides to aesthetic effect, then you get the forty-five-minute musicwork – Sergeant Pepper being one of the first and most effective instances (and anything by Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer the self-indulgent nadir). The CD holds half again as much music as the LP (this may be urban legend, but I understand that the disk’s capacity – which could have been far larger – was determined by the amount of time consumed by an average performance of Beethoven’s Ninth), but it takes the better part of a decade for recording artists to start thinking in terms of those seventy minutes rather than the forty-five of an LP.

And it’s all rendered moot by the iPod, on which the unit of music measurement – welcome back to the Fifties – is quite explicitly the “song.” Whether that track is one of the sides of Miles’s Pangaea (twenty-odd minutes apiece), a movement of a Berg string quartet, or the latest Britney Spears hit, the iPod calls it a song. The iPod organizes mainly by song; iTunes sells music by the song, and most internet downloading takes place on a song-by-song basis; perhaps most frustratingly, the iPod’s encoding inserts a miniscule break between tracks – “songs” – even when the CD you’ve ripped onto your computer plays continuously: this plays havoc with concert recordings, where there’s always a little blip of silence in the middle of the applause between tracks, and it’s even worse on continuously played “classical” compositions, where the shift from one movement to another – often a composer’s canniest moment – is marred by that little microsecond break.

But what I’m hearing from my friends is that the iPod is doing more than that: after all, most of the people wandering around with those little white earplugs and that autistic gaze (myself of course included) aren’t listening to Schnittke or Berg; instead, they’re listening to various self-selected “playlists” composed not of symphonies or albums but of single songs by various artists. Economically, it makes perfect sense. We’ve all had the experience of buying an entire album for the one good song (my most recent embarassment was Tool’s Lateralus, which I bought for “Schism,” and decided that I could abide only about five minutes of the rest of it). Get the damn thing from iTunes for a mere 99¢, and save the other fifteen dollars for fifteen other songs by whomever. For better or worse, iPod users are turning into song-shufflers, chained to a tiny jukebox. (I’m told some of the newer budget models only work in shuffle mode; is this true?) It’s only a matter of time until this model of listening filters back and affects the production end of things. It won’t make any difference to Britney, whose unit of production has always been the single (or the video), but I can’t help worrying that a song-based economy of reception will work to curtail artists’ desires for a larger canvas. The LP gave us Sergeant Pepper; the CD gave us OK Computer. What will the iPod give us, apart from the up-to-date version of the K-Tel Best of 1978 package?


dg said...

I am so glad that you blogged these thoughts--I remember you musing over this during the Postmodsern seminar, and I came home to ever so inarticulately reiterate it to Scott. Now at least he will have the chance to know what you actually said sans my interpretive liberties. You should write something up to submit to Spin. Seriously.

pamela said...

I think even the future of the iPod is already evolving. Check out where you can sign up for Podcasts...