I was listening to the Complete Funhouse Sessions this morning, not-so-suddenly during take 28 of “Loose” a huge lightbulb went off. I don’t think it’s a matter of technology making us incapable of sustained attention, it’s more a matter of a decline in the popular understanding of the rewards of attention. Attention to detail matters. The Stooges relentless drive to getting all the elements/feelings of the song exactly right was incredible on that album. Each version has subtle and not so subtle differences, and somewhere around take 22 the engineer starts joking about releasing an entire album of versions of that song. The sense that the song was worth the effort never fades, for the band at least, and on take 28 real magic happens. Some might think that such relentless drive for perfection might be unhealthy. I think it’s an example of the rewards of attention.
Is digital the cause of music’s doldrums, or has it been the insatiable drive for technical perfection that has sapped music’s spirit?1 No one can say for sure, but it’s a fact that music’s function has morphed so slowly from foreground to background listening that most people haven’t noticed it happening. One thing is certain: Recorded music doesn’t engage listeners the way it did in the analog days. Music now serves as a backdrop as people talk, read, drive, work, exercise, etc. Foreground listening is what audiophiles do— but other than us, very few people really listen to music anymore, even while attending live concerts. If recorded music isn’t worth your undivided attention, it’s not worth paying for.
Steve Guttenberg, “As We See It” Stereophile May 2011
Insatiable drive is what makes Funhouse an incredibly spiritual album, in my estimation. I think Guttenberg gets it wrong when he claims that only audiophiles pay attention to music. Ahem, musicians do too. And they keep making music. We kicked off our trip to Atlanta a few weeks ago by standing in a crowded club in Ithaca, NY to watch the Mountain Goats perform. Yes, it was noisy and sometimes impossible to hear the comments between songs. But that’s a perennial problem— concerts sometimes foreground the social nature of the gathering rather than music. Just add alcohol, and people even try to invalidate the laws of physics— a woman with a full drink tried to plow past me directly into our leaning-table, spilling it over our coats (and my new Mountain Goats LP purchased at the merch stand). Does this mean music is dead? Far from it. A good portion of the crowd was downright passionate about their favorites as the came vibrating into the room.
I’m not claiming that digital has or will destroy music— just what’s left of the record business. Musicians will continue to play music, and concerts won’t disappear, but income from recorded music will continue to decline. Obviously we can’t turn back the clock and return to the analog era. I’m just not sure what it would take to get people listening again.
After we got back from Atlanta, record store day rolled around. I usually don’t pay much attention, but there were a couple of releases I was interested in. Rain was forecast that afternoon, so we went to the farmer’s market early and ran out of things to waste time on and ended up on the doorstep of Sound Garden records a half-hour before they opened. The line was at least 40 feet long, and before they opened it probably reached 100 feet. Why were all these people standing in drizzle I wondered. Concert tickets? CD’s? When the doors opened I got my answer. The LP section of the store soon turned into a mosh-pit with people clutching at rare limited edition singles and LPs. Manufactured scarcity still works, apparently. No one really talked about which of the myriad special releases they were there for. It wasn’t any sort of unified phenomena, really. Just the coalescence of a wide variety of niche markets, I suspect. Krista and I split up and worked our way down both sides of the river of people, collecting more than a few LPs. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the Low release I was looking for. We had to contact a friend in Minneapolis who scored it for us there.
There’s still a lot of passion out there both for and in music, I suspect. It’s just in a different form now. Curiously, old school analog technology is falling into the hands of the niche musicians/collectors. I notice that the digital downloads that come with vinyl are generally handled by only a couple of jobbers/pressing plants. Nice. Distribution without the record company hype (though they are of course building up mailing lists every time you raise your freak flag high). Seems to me that “income from recorded music,” though it is no longer in the hands of the platinum selling boy bands, is alive and well for more than a few folks. Major labels can now officially suck it.
Listening to a BBC Front Row podcast the other day, Elvis Costello commented about his album National Ransom that he didn’t care how people wanted to hear it, just as long as they did. He continues to make the vinyl version available, complete with libretto, for those who like to sit and listen and hold a record album in hand. I think that’s how I tend to divide it up. There are things that I listen to in the form of digital files that I have little or no investment in. But if I like something, I tend to have it in multiple forms so that I can appreciate it more. In that regard, I think we’ll never really surrender the beauty and comfort possible in physical objects.
People are still listening, I suspect. It’s just that the media/record companies just haven’t been paying attention to how they listen, and how they get to the place where they really want to listen. Which brings me back to Iggy.2
In the early days of rock (particularly with the Who et.al.) music got louder and louder in an attempt to force people to listen. The Stooges represent a sort of peak in the technological sound, I think— but there’s was the blue colar technology of the manufacturing plant with crashing metal machines, a far cry from what “industrial” eventually came to signify in music. The band that I’m leaving tomorrow to see at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Low, takes a decidedly different approach. Apocryphally, they are famous for turning down to force the audience to listen more closely. Different strategies, but the same ends in mind I think. It’s hard to communicate effectively with people who aren’t paying any attention.
1 In fairness to Guttenberg, I’m sure his comment is a more direct gesture at the rise of Pro Tools and the slicing and dicing of performances to gain technical perfection at the expense of soul.
2 Nice to see that Iggy can even make American Idol seem cool.