One Christmas, my brother and I compiled a mix CD from his vinyl record collection. It’s filled with records we had growing up. We hooked his turntable and receiver up to a laptop and recorded each song as it played, being careful to include all the space between songs, so the final CD would never leave you alone in cold silence. We sat on the floor, looking through stacks of LPs while putting the mix together. We read the liner notes, examined the record covers, and listened intently, and it felt like we were tapping into a cultural tradition that was lost long ago. It was a listening style that is way outside of today’s digital music experience.
As packaging has shrunk over the years, digital music has gradually degraded the visceral connection with artists. Brian Eno often talks about the importance of identifying the inside and outside of art—of asking yourself, “Where is the frame?” With packaged music, the frame is everything but the music. The frame brings the artist closer to the listener. The Velvet Underground is universally associated with Andy Warhol’s banana print from the LP cover. Michael Jackson brings himself closer to us with his fold-out portrait on “Thriller.” But we have taken so many steps backward since the arrival of digital music. With CDs, the frame was reduced by 75% and placed in a plastic cell.
Now the iPod is our frame for listening to digital music. A slab of white plastic and chrome, sterilized and dissociated from its creator. White like the walls of an art museum; there is no cultural context. Instead there are three lines of text: song title, artist, and album title. This is not a rich experience, this is a radio request line. With the latest digital music technology, the life-sized headshot of Marvin Gaye on my “What’s Going On” LP is represented as a 200x200 pixel scan of a CD cover. It’s a fuzzy JPEG that I can squint at—just enough information to recall the splendor of the actual foot-square album cover. But there is nothing to open up, nothing to read, and no interaction. There is no deeper discovery, and certainly nothing physically collectible. MP3s may have the advantage of simplicity and atomization, but they alone deliver so much less metadata than even CDs did. There’s a thick curtain between me and the performer.
How can the experience be rescued? Does anyone care about the visual aesthetic of music anymore, or is it all really just MySpace and mp3s?