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The Effects Of Digitisation On The Way In Which Music Is Experienced Today

On a cold November afternoon, my girlfriend and I headed over to Love Vinyl in Hoxton, one of the many newly opened vinyl specialist shops that have emerged in London to cater for the new demand for vinyl records. This is my girlfriends first time in the shop, she couldn’t be less interested but makes an effort anyway, she decides she will buy me a record for Christmas if I agree to hurry up and take her home. She casually wonders over to the disco crate and pulls out a copy of Karen Young ‘Hot Shot’ on WestEnd Records (she recognised the artwork from some of my other records), upon taking the record out of the sleeve she noticed it was pink vinyl, how very disco and asked if I would like it.

On arrival home I asked if I could play it, a firm “no” was the response, so, I listened to it on YouTube instead and was satisfied that I had a great new record and to be honest, I forgot about it. Christmas arrives and I’m genuinely surprised when I open the record, I put it to one side to listen to later, here we are in January and I still haven’t listened to it. My girlfriend asked at the weekend if I listened to it much and when I confessed I hadn’t played it, she confronted me with the question, “Well what the hell was the point in me paying fifteen quid for it then!?”.

It was a good question and one which I have given some good thought to, I honestly have lots of records I have never played or haven’t played for years, usually when people ask why I buy them I reply “because they sound better”, they do, but there has to be more to it than that. Simon Reynolds would comment in his book ‘Retromania’ “according to Walter Benjamin, the twentieth century’s great philosopher of collecting, browsing and what we’d know call vintage shopping, ‘the non reading of books’ is a defining characteristic of serious bibliomaniacs; he cites Anatole France, who blithely admitted that he’d barely read one tenth of the books in his library.” (Reynolds 2011 :87)

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The ritual of collecting itself has always been something important to me, the chase of something you don’t have, the excitement of finding a rare gem and the social act of taking them to a friends house, playing them and comparing finds. This may sound like the actions of a teenager and of course it is, but it is still something I do now in my early thirties. Some have argued there’s an emotional attachment to collecting, it allows us to release emotions and feelings we may struggle to release otherwise, as Reynolds commented “Whether it’s sports or music, these external obsessions provide men with a safe outlet for passion – something they can get worked up about emotionally, even shed tears, while avoiding the too-real stuff, sexuality, love, relationships.” (Reynolds 2011: 100)

This, for me, is one of the main drawbacks of the digitisation of music, of course there is the reduced sound quality (which I will address later) but there is also the diminishing of rituals that have a significant emotional attachment for many. Buying a record, reading the sleevenotes, listening intently and placing the physical object into your collection or all lost and replaced by the sterile actions of staring at a screen, clicking a mouse and listening to a sub standard audio file, often through incredible poor speakers. This listening experience, or lack thereof, provides the listener with a completely different affect.

Many people work in office jobs and staring at a screen to purchase music may not seem so much as a pastime but as a chore reflective of their daily grind. Downloading or collecting music from the internet can often become incredibly frustrating, there is an overkill of information, it is a never ending battle which Simon Reynolds refers to as “Franticity”, a frantic pursuit of an endless city of information.

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“Downloading can all too easily open up a kind of abyss, the dimensions of which are in proportion to the emptiness of your life. It quickly becomes a compulsion that distills consumerism down to it’s addictive essence. You’re stockpiling so many albums, live bootlegs and DJ sets that you never have time to unzip files and play them. Like crack follows cocaine, the stage after downloading vast amounts of music you will never listen to it when you start skipping the tiny but irrational interval of waiting while the files enter your computer and start saving the links for later, building up these massive documents stuffed with the intent to download”. (Reynolds 2011:110-111)

This pursuit of information in an easy and convenient manner is one of the main factors that has given rise to digitisation, technology has made it cheaper and cheaper for people to obtain information, often for free on the internet. The advantages of this are obvious, it’s free, simple and quick, but not much thought was given to the impact this ease of access or even “over-access” would have.

One of the main problem of this approach to obtaining music is that it becomes a solo task of sitting at home creating endless lists, the social aspect has gone, it has been reduced to an individual pursuit of binary data. This of course fits nicely in with todays most popular music consumption method, the Ipod. The “I” of course being “me”, an individual, the is my collection and it is a capitalists dream. As Jeremy Gilbert would comment in his essay ‘Why Ipods Suck’, “The already-iconic advertising campaign for the Ipod says it all. Featureless two-dimensional figures dance in isolation from each other: disembodied shadows in worlds of their own.” (Gilbert: 2013)

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The image Gilbert talks of instantly reminds me of one of the worst club nights I ever attended, an Ipod Party in Edinburgh some years ago. The concept was a development of the Silent Disco parties where everybody was given a pair of headphones on entry and listened to the music, taking the headphones off when they wanted to talk. The Ipod Party took it one step further, everybody brought their own Ipod (any MP3 player would be fine) and listened to whatever music they wanted, completely independent of everyone else in the room. Immediately this makes the affect of the music come solely through your ears, gone is the physical impact of the music, the bass is no longer felt on your body and the entire listening experience is in your head. This immediately takes much of the power away from the music, as Gilbert noted “The bass is the most obviously felt part of the musical spectrum, the part that visibly makes matter shake, and the part which brings home the materiality of the space shared by an audience.” (Gilbert: 2013)

It is not just the physical impact of the music of the body but also the shared experience is gone, the best parties are always the ones which have the best vibe or atmosphere, the isn’t solely created by the music, infact many would argue the music isn’t anywhere near as important as the people at the party as they are interacting with each other and sharing a collective experience, “That collectivity just couldn’t be there if the sound was all in your head.” (Gilbert: 2013)

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Although this retreat into musical and physical isolation is evident, it only tells one side of the story. There are many who believe that the online community aspect of Web 2.0 actually helps people connect with one another as it breaks down barriers such as distance and allows people from anywhere in the world to connect with one another, these may not be traditional communities, but they are still infact communities in the sense that it is a group of people sharing ideas and emotions. In his book ‘Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music’ Mark Katz commented “These communities are in some ways radically new, in some ways traditional. Unlike bowling leagues and book clubs, Internet listening communities do not congregate in the same physical space, and members typically never even see or meet one another. Yet members hold common interests and often feel a close connection with one another. In fact, such communities may address needs that no off-line group could meet. Physical distance collapses, so that the geographically isolated can come together; distinctions of age, class, gender and race may fade (though not completely), allowing a freedom of interaction unlikely in any other way.” (Katz 2010 :193)

These groups are formed in many different ways, at first it was file sharing networks via their chatrooms, this then moved onto blogs and more recently social media outlets such as Facebook and YouTube have given rise to communities of people coming together to discuss music. The worlds largest streaming service Spotify has also developed it’s social side with it now being fully integrated into Facebook. Freja Jarmen noted in her 2013 essay ‘Relax, Feel Good, Chill Out’, “The interface of Spotify is designed to actively encourage music sharing in several ways. One panel shows Facebook ‘friends’ and other Spotify users selected by the user who can click on these and view a profile…once connected to Facebook the default setting is that a full feed of information about the user’s listening habits is sent directly to his or her Facebook profile, appearing for his or her contacts to see, ‘Like’ and comment on”. (Jarmen in Thompson Biddle 2013: 200).

Perhaps these online communities are the future the music communities, certainly there are many upsides to them, via Facebook I can send a link to a friend of a song on YouTube that I think they will like, but that still only provides that person with an isolated experience of listening to music. What we need to look at now is the communal listening experience of parties and club nights, the affect listening to music in this way has on us and the difference between listening to analogue recordings and MP3s.

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Apart from the aforementioned social experience of listening to music with other people, the main difference to listening to music in a nightclub or a rave is usually the volume the music is being heard at, this is what Julian Henriques refers to as the ‘Sonic Dominance’. It is the affect that music has on our whole body, sound is air borne and hits our body, bass frequencies are felt, creating an intense listening experience, Henriques describes this in the following way “The sound pervades, or even invades the body, like smell. Sonic dominance is both a near over-load of sound and a super saturation of sound. You’re lost inside it, submerged under it. This volume crashes down on you like an ocean wave, you feel the pressure of the weight of the air like diving deep underwater. There’s no escape, no cut-off, no choice but to be there. Even more than music heard normally at this level, sound allows us to block out rational processes, making the experience imminent, immediate and unmediated.” (Henriques 2003 :451-452)

This submergence into sound is what truely affects the listener, highs and lows are experienced not only inside the head, but also the body, a full sensory overload is experienced. It is not merely the volume that contributes to this but also the quality of the sound itself, the level of sonic detail that is in the recordings used and the equipment that the audio is played back on.

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The differences between analogue and digital recordings is a hugely contested one, although just about any serious audiophile will tell you that vinyl records produce a better sound than digital recordings because they contain more sonic detail. Digital files are binary, a collection of 1’s and 0’s. The problem being there is always a small space between these numbers that a digital recording cannot relay. Binary numbers are fixed points that produce an exact representation of the points they represent, which could lead us to believe this will reproduce the best sound possible, however it is the fixed nature of the points that create the problems, Aden Evans discussed this point in his 2005 book ‘Sound Ideas’, “The digital missed whatever falls between it’s articulations”, he would go on to comment of the digital approach of breaking everything down into numbered sections, “this suggestion effectively treats the actual world as already digital, a world built from parts, irreducible bits and pieces assembled into the familiar objects around us”. (Evans 2005: 69)

It is this missing information in digital files that give analogue recordings on vinyl records the advantage, there is more sonic detail and the music not only sounds, but feels better to the listener, as Jeremy Gilbert commented “not emotionally, but at the level of the tactile sensations that are the means by which we experience sound in the world.” (Gilbert: 2013) This is where the issue of affect really comes into play, it is the way the music makes you feel, not just in your head, but in your body. The physical sensation of the music on your skin and the affect this feeling has on you as a whole. In The Affect Theory Reader, Seigworth and Gregg would describe affect as “a gradient of body capacity – a supple incrementalism of ever-modulating force-relations – that rises and falls not only along various rhythms and modalities of encounter but also through the troughs and sieves of sensation and sensibility. (Seigworth and Gregg 2010: 2)

The increased feeling in the sound is from the extra sonic detail contained within the music, it is hard to break down exactly what is happing without being too scientific, Gilbert describes it in the following way:

“Put very simply, the difference between analogue and digital formats is that analogue information is relayed in continuously varying curves while digital information is broken down and codified into units of information (whose most basic function is to switch electrical currents on and off in particular sequences).” (Gilbert: 2013)

For me, digitisation in music has brought about loss in various forms, mainly loss of sonic detail and loss of social interaction. This is the great failing for me of digital music, it is an information overload, an endless chase of music that doesn’t actually sound that good in the first place. Although it could be argued it is popular due to convenience, but does music really need to be convenient? I would strongly suggest it is worth the effort in the same way that reading a book is worth the effort. Who knows, maybe in the future digital technology will improve and analogue will have no sonic value left, but until then, I’m going to head on out to the record shop as usual.

Alan Dixon

Bibliography
Bull, Michael and Back, Les (eds). The Auditory Culture Reader. Berg Publishers. 2003. p451-452)
Evans, Aden. Sound Ideas. University of Minnesota. 2005. p69
Gilbert, Jeremy. Why Ipods Suck. Available at:http://classicalbumsundays.com/the-point-of-the-needle-why-ipods-suck-by-jeremy-gilbert-university-of-east-london/ Last accessed 14th Januray 2015. Published 2013.
Henriques, Julian. ‘Sonic Dominance and the Reggae Sound System’ in Michael Bull and Les Black (eds) ‘The Auditory Culture Reader’. Berg Publishers. 2003. p451-452.
Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. University of California Press. 2010. p193
Reynolds, Simon. Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past. Faber and Faber 2011. p87, 100, 110-111.
Seigworth, G.J. and Gregg, M. ‘An Inventory of Shimmers’, in M. Gregg and G. J. Seigworth (eds), ‘The Affect Theory Reader’. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2010. p2.
Thompson, Marie and Biddle, Ian (eds). Sound Music Affect. Bloomsbury. 2013. p200

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