Music as a craft, as a cottage industry? This may well be the future for many of us in the profession. In my own career, which started in the late 1980s, the type of music I play has gone from subculture to the “alternative” wing of the mainstream and now back, it seems, to subculture. Spotify is built for an economy of scale: it needs and wants to occupy all of everyone’s listening time. My music and the milieu it is part of was never intended for that environment – I would worry about anyone who listened to nothing else! Are we, as Brian Wilson sang, just not made for these times?
Bandcamp’s counterexample suggests that the problem I and many musicians in my situation face isn’t about the digital age per se. It is possible to build a different kind of environment for music online, one that subcultures can recognize as their own and maybe even use to thrive. Or heal, at least, while we dream up new ways to connect with one another in the 21st century.
A six-part podcast exploring the nature of listening in our digital world, produced for Showcase from Radiotopia. Written and hosted by musician Damon Krukowski (Galaxie 500, Damon & Naomi). Produced by Damon Krukowski, Max Larkin and Ian Coss. Sound design by Ian Coss. Executive producer Julie Shapiro. The complete transcript available as an illustrated book from MIT Press (ISBN: 9780262039642).
Ways of Hearing Episode 1: TIME
Digital audio – in music recording, and in radio and television broadcast – employs a different sense of time than we use in our offline life, time that is more regular and yet less communal. Guests include: Ali Shaheed Muhammed of A Tribe Called Quest; and Joe Castiglione, the radio voice of the Boston Red Sox.
In the first episode, Krukowski breaks down the difference between real and machine time. Playing in real time brings into play things like tempo robuto, where the music speeds up during the chorus. This human element associated with rhythm is something that Vinnie Colaiuta in his conversation with Douglas Rushkoff on the Team Human podcast. Whereas machine time locks us in. This is something Bob Boilen unpacks in his interview with King Princess, who uses a click track when playing live as this allows for the inclusion of samples into the mix. In regards to latency, it is interesting to consider all this in regards to way Jacob Collier taught his brain to compensate the latency.
Ways of Hearing Episode 2: SPACE
In Tokyo, people on crowded trains pretend they’re asleep, to avoid eye contact. But in modern-day New York, count the headphones: it’s like we’re avoiding ear contact. In this episode, Damon examines how digital technology is privatizing public space. Guests include writer/activist Jeremiah Moss, and historian Emily Thompson.
In this episode, Krukowski goes back to CBGB and Radio City Music Hall to consider the changes to performance and space. He explores the impact technology has had on focusing the sound, from acoustic design to headphones. Emily Thompson makes the interesting comment that, “sound wants to mix.” This makes me wonder how, like space, sound is a concept within an assemblage with a purpose? This also seems to touch on David Byrne’s discussion the relationship between space and music.
Ways of Hearing Episode 3: LOVE
You don’t have to be the son of a jazz singer to recognize the voice of a loved one as music, made up of sounds so basic to our understanding that they precede language. And yet our digital devices strip much of that away, trading intimacy for efficiency. But what is the essential part of our voices, and what isn’t? Guests include: jazz singer (and Damon’s mom) Nancy Harrow, Roman Mars of 99% Invisible, and musicologist Gary Tomlinson.
In this episode, Krukowski explores the changes in technology and how moving things to a digital signal strips some out some aspects of the voice for the sake of compression. This includes a discussion of how talking on a smartphone is different to talking on an old analogue phone. In the current context, this makes me wonder about virtual connecting and what is lost in the intimacy of the voice through the use of digital platforms.
Ways of Hearing Episode 4: MONEY
In the 20th century, music seemed like an object — bought and sold like any other product. But digital technology has dematerialized music, separating it from money and revealing its real terms of exchange. Guests include: artist and writer Jace Clayton (aka DJ Rupture), Victoria Ruiz and Joey DeFrancesco of the Providence punk band Downtown Boys.
In this episode, Krukowski talks about the role played by technology in regards to the music as an object. Joey DeFrancesco argues that so much of the industry tries to hide the labour associated with creation of music. This is a point that has really come to the fore with the coronavirus, where many individuals have been left high and dry.
Ways of Hearing Episode 5: POWER
When you go into a bookstore, or record store, or library, you enter another world that you have to learn to navigate. You adapt to it. But today’s digital corporations have created a musical universe that adapts, predictably, to you. Guests include: Jimmy Johnson, owner/founder of music distributor Forced Exposure; Paul Lamere, director of developer platform for Spotify; and Elaine Katzenberger, executive director of City Lights Books.
In this episode, Krukowski explores the one-way exchange associated with platform capitalism and music recommendation algorithms. Where in the past you may have gone to a niche record store knowing that they had done some of the heavy lifting for you, in today’s world everything is funnelled through a handful of platforms. The problem with this is that there is no meaningful alternatives.
Ways of Hearing Episode 6: NOISE
Ways Of Hearing has looked at how digital technology has changed our world: our sense of time, of space, of intimacy and exchange. In the final episode, Damon lays out an essential choice: between a world enriched by noise, and a world that strives toward signal only. Guests include: Dr. Alicia Quesnel of Harvard Medical School and Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary, and audio engineers/musicians Steve Albini and Bob Weston (Electrical Audio, Shellac).
Signal is that part we are trying to listen to, whereas everything else is noise. Volume alone can not help us find the signal in the noise. With digital recording, everything becomes noise making creation of a Phil Spector wall of sound difficult. Dallas Taylor discusses some of the complexities associated with changes in volume and mastering on the Switched on Pop podcast. With all this said, I wonder if such transformations become another part to play with? For example, on 7G, A.G. Cook provides a ‘live recording’ of Superstar that at some point no longer feels live and intimate. However, this experience is broken when the digital effects seemingly take over.