A product that would fail you

From I Need that Record (bonus material)

One of the most common critiques/observations about photography is that it interferes with experience. It is commonplace to assert that all photography is elegiac in nature; it is only slightly less commonplace to compare photography with collecting. It seems productive to examine the relationship of shithoarding (Mike Watt’s colorful description of collecting), time travel, and experience.

Watt’s observes that young people don’t think about the future (and the certain loss of the past) much, favoring instead to dwell on experience and social interaction is well placed. But when it comes to music, we all are not blessed with having tons of live venues just outside our doors. Most of us, historically, have had to rely on records (or CDs, or MP3s depending on your vintage). In that way, the modern experience of music is also elegiac. As a kid, I was just becoming aware of the majesty of Jimi Hendrix’s music when he died. He was long dead by the time I had collected all of his records. It’s not always that extreme, but I think more people discover bands after they don’t exist anymore than discover them in their prime. Does that make these musical experiences elegiac or otherwise inferior to the sense of discovery of new art? Is music appreciation always tied to nostalgia, to shithoarding, to shadow worlds imitating more primal experiences?

From this perspective, recordings (visual, verbal or textual, and musical) are always products that fail. They aren’t originary experiences; they are commodifications of experiences: products meant to be consumed and thrown away or perhaps hoarded. MP3s certainly seem disposable. They are infinitely replicable, and therefore not precious. The same is true of CDs (as a storage medium rather than objects). Vinyl still has that mystique as collectable objects, but it’s connected to the imperfect (read physical) nature of their production and distribution. Paper fades, but it also holds a sort of physicality of touch that more pure repositories of data don’t have. The physical, like life, is riddled with imperfection.

What is missing in this theoretical cul-de-sac is the idea of recordings as social artifacts. As social artifacts, recordings attain a degree of perfection beyond the data they contain. A record doesn’t just simply have value as a commodity, it has exhibition value. It’s interesting to me that Chuck Close from the beginning sought museum sales far more than collector sales for his laborious works. In fact, the lovely self portrait of his that I admired in Minneapolis originally sold for a paltry $1500 or so, just so more people would see it. No one seems concerned about limiting their art experiences to “live painting” rather than dead ones. 

Regardless of replications, I would argue that sincere confrontations with recordings are atemporal rather than elegiac. It’s a matter of how the recording is performed in a social context. Paintings are grouped and regrouped incessantly; so are record albums. Photographs are the most disposable of all though— without an elegiac function, most photographs have difficulty maintaining sustained interest. That is, unless you are a working photographer trying to hone your craft, or an educator or historian attempting to illustrate or simply understand another place and time. The time machine factor always lurks; but we always experience recordings now rather than then. Yes, they have a documentary (or record) value that can be commodified, but the experience of records is social and atemporal.

An interesting take on these matters was recently published (in a buyer’s guide, imagine that!) by Robert Harley of the Absolute Sound:

My friend Mike was at a hi-fi show with the manufacturer of an expensive turntable when a showgoer asked the manufacturer how much the turntable cost. When he was told that it was $75,000, the showgoer replied in shock, “That’s a lot of money for a turntable.” Mike instantly shot back, “Yes, but it’s cheap for a time machine.”

My friend’s view, in addition to being a brilliant witticism, is dead-on perfect; audio components are not things to be possessed, but facilitators for connecting you with music. A turntable doesn’t spin records, it transports you across time and space to those magical moments when extraordinary music-making occurred. It lets us in on the exuberance, tenderness, joy, and despair that can be felt by human beings.

I disagree that the time machine metaphor is “dead-on,” simply because most modern recordings are synthetic; rather than being any sort of event that can be recaptured, they are imaginative products that cannot be located precisely in time. This nostalgic and wistful review of a Mazzy Star album is a case in point. But Harley also explores music as shithoarding vs. social activity:

I see high-end audio from my friend Mike’s perspective. Quality audio equipment isn’t about consumption and materialism, but about experiencing and enjoying one of life’s fundamental pleasures. Sitting at home listening to music (and sharing it with others) is as much a return to simplicity, basic ideals, and valuing experience over possessions as I can imagine. A high quality audio system isn’t a shrine to technology or wealth, but a vehicle for exploring the world of music.

With that different view of high-end audio, the contemporary trend toward experience over possessions, of nourishing our core needs rather than encouraging mindless consumption, should embrace what high-end audio brings to the table— hearing your favorite music wonderfully reproduced night after night. Whether a turntable (of any price) is a thing on your equipment rack or a time machine isn’t determined by the turntable (the object) or it’s owner (the subject), but rather by the relationship between the two. The message from our community needs to be more about time machines and less about gear.

The peroration is decidedly odd, given this is from the 2011 High End Audio Buyers Guide which is filled with stratospherically priced hardware. There are several articles claiming a “democratization” of experience (by low-cost home theater, no less) but little evidence to support the claim that good sound can be had on the cheap. A “bargain” in here has many zeros behind it, save a few token items which are consistently trotted out (including my favorite speakers, the Magnepans). Where is the content that isn’t about “consumption and materialism”? The only article that qualifies is the recommended recordings list.

I fail to see any contemporary trend for “experience over possessions” at work right now. People simply have less money to hoard possessions, or to spend on experiences for that matter. Music rates highly on my list of simple pleasures, and I enjoy good gear— not as a time machine but rather as a sort of “study aid” to the human experience.

Music’s products have seldom failed me; neither have photographs. Both reward sustained attention.