Owning records seems kind of redundant these days. Don’t get me wrong, I still collect albums and I prefer owning a record as opposed to just downloading it. I want to tell myself that the reasons for this extend beyond simple materialism. Yes, I enjoy my collection and I appreciate my records beyond their essential functionality. Yet it is totally reasonable to suggest that collecting music is less compelling now given the rise of digital file sharing. This, however, is hardly the first ‘beginning of the end’ scenario for the consumption of music. In his overwhelming disapproval of the culture industry, Theodor Adorno suggested that the standardization of cultural artifacts as exchangeable goods places all cultural commodities under the same umbrella. Within the principles of capitalism, the primary factor separating goods from one another is their exchange value. For Adorno, commodifying objects within the culture industry prevents artifacts from maintaining their artistic ‘aura’ and therefore, their worth derives from their exchange value within the capitalist marketplace.
Looking back, the success of the LP record in the latter half of the century proved that music fans were okay with paying for music and asserting some sort of ownership over their records. Music fans have been able to overcome this apparent loss of ‘aura’ or simply do not subscribe to Adorno’s beliefs. The tangible qualities of the record itself do not undermine aura, they reinforce the notion of music as cultural artifact. Think of The Velvet Underground & Nico, in which the banana on the album’s cover can be physically peeled and removed from the cover entirely. Or America Eats its Young by Funkadelic, which actually folds out into a giant American one-dollar bill. These records draw attention towards properties external to the music and force user engagement with elements outside the music itself. They want to establish the notion of the vinyl record as an experience of multiple senses. The digitization of music has not made the album obsolete, but it has challenged its elements as a both a physical and audible experience.
Digital music reflects an experience of a lack of physicality and transplanted sense of ownership. Undoubtedly, these characteristics thrive in our massively space-biased, postmodern world. Digital forms seek to liberate the listener from the confines of the album and open up new possibilities of customization.
We are the creators of our own playlists.
There need be nothing tangible, because here in the palm of my hand I own everything. It is not the album one must purchase in order to hear music; it is the playback device, the digital mediator. Adorno feared that the culture industry would equate all commodities according to their exchange value. He believed that capitalism’s all encompassing nature would prevent the production of meaning outside the realm of capitalism. While capitalism thrives on the ability to commodify goods, the Internet thrives on its inherent lack of value. When Smashing Pumpkins (Machina II), Wilco (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) and Radiohead (In Rainbows) began releasing albums for free online, their point was not that music ought to be free from the constraints of exchange, it was that music was essentially valueless. While Adorno believed that culture could not exist outside of capitalism, these bands suggest that nothing exists outside of the Internet.
So if nothing exists outside of the Internet, the next logical step for the record format is to embrace this apparent lack of thingishness and move towards something that thrives on virtual perception and intangibility. For the album format to sustain itself, it must transcend physicality and suggest that the physical album is redundant rather than obsolete. The digital copy will no longer lack aura, it will create a new digital aura.
With an album like Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective, there exist a few elements that suggest we are moving in this direction. The cover of Merriweather is pretty mesmerizing, but only on the computer screen. In its physically packaged form the cover is massively underwhelming as it attempts to recreate the virtual experience. Here we have an example of the album’s virtual experience providing a superior experience to that of the physical album. It seems as though prior to such an album, the digital version always attempted to replicate the physical experience, even when iTunes began to allow users to include cover art with their digital albums. Here, the digital world is acknowledging the physicality of records, but providing only a sub par representation of this physicality (the cover of the Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up looks much better in vinyl sleeve than its puny pixilated version on my iPod). With Merriweather, this gets spun around, placing the virtual representation in the optimal position of consumption.
Merriweather presents the listener with the opportunity for a fully mediated experience. More so than In Rainbows or Yankee Hotel, Merriweather strives to capture aura by emphasizing its appeal in the digital world. Their use of the Internet was to liberate music from the constraints of physical commodities and exchange value. Merriweather strives to place itself under the umbrella of all digital experiences. In a way, Merriweather adopts Adorno’s belief but with a more optimistic spin. Yes, everything on the Internet is valueless, but sometimes it can also be beautiful.