The most ephemeral of art forms even before its Internet proliferation, music has now transcended virtually all physical constraints. It's a mixed blessing: Digital distribution promises recording artists more listeners, but fewer are inclined to pay. That, in turn, has led to an increased dependence on live performance and ancillary merchandising — from Hannah Montana guitar clocks to GG Allin bobbleheads.
In fact, this year's brightest music news, from a commodity perspective, is that Best Buy is expected to carry vinyl LPs, which nearly doubled in sales last year and cannot, as yet, be downloaded.
One of the strangest developments in this shifting market comes from Danger Mouse, an artist best known for his work with Gorillaz and Gnarls Barkley. Word went round last week that Dark Night of the Soul, his collaboration with psych-rock band Sparklehorse and avant-garde director David Lynch, was being squelched by EMI.
Personally, I always felt an album from Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse was inevitable, if only because of their names. But the fact that the latter is signed to EMI — the label that five years ago threw a fit over Danger Mouse's Gray Album (which mashed up Beatles and Jay-Z tracks) — guaranteed trouble.
Danger Mouse's response was pretty ingenious: Beginning June 15, Dark Night of the Soul will ship in the form of a completely blank CD-R with a hefty $50 price tag. The main draw here, apart from a clear fuck-you to EMI, is that the limited-edition release will include a 104-page book of Lynch's photographs.
The CD-R itself is, in a sense, the ghost in the merchandising machine. Consumers will ostensibly use it to download the album, which is readily available online, for themselves. Its inclusion is largely symbolic, since it has nearly as little intrinsic market value as the tracks it will contain.
What's more important here is the idea of wedding a commercially devalued medium to one that's less transitory. And, in that respect, Dark Night of the Soul may be the tip of an iceberg.
Last Thursday, recording industry magazine Billboard reported that Watchmen author Alan Moore and Faith No More/Mr. Bungle vocalist Mike Patton are working on a cross-media collaboration of their own. (Of course, that was last week; there are now reports that Patton has only been approached for the project, although Justin Broadrick of Godflesh and Fog founder Andrew Broder are both on board.)
How did we get here?
Since there are many folks out there who have never actually paid for music, let alone purchased it in a physical form, let's take a quick moment to describe what that might feel like.
As a kid, my primary means of discovering new music was through (a) friends' recommendations, (b) college radio stations that had yet to become Garrison Keillor-spewing public radio affiliates, and (c) a local supermarket that offered long-forgotten albums at deeply discounted prices.
The thrill of judging records almost solely by their covers introduced me to artists like punk godfather Iggy Pop and German electronicists Can, whose albums slid down the checkout conveyor belt alongside other staples like milk and Pop-Tarts. I would later discover that there were entire stores devoted solely to records.
But perhaps not for long. The music industry failed to anticipate that the compact disc would be the gateway drug to its own demise. While some consumers preferred the sound of vinyl, most were quick to embrace the new medium by paying higher prices and even buying their old albums all over again.
Among musicians and audiofiles, the debate over digital fidelity versus analog warmth goes on. I once posed the question to avant-rock musician Frank Zappa, who wistfully responded, "What the fuck is warmth?" He went on to explain that "pseudo-warmth" can be achieved in the studio "by using a broad-band equalizer and boosting things around 300 cycles. You roll off the top end a little bit, and things start to sound, you know, warm! — if that's the kind of sound that you like. I don't particularly care for that sound."
Selling the sizzle
As I write this, I'm listening to Dark Night of the Soul, which includes guest vocals from the Flaming Lips, Grandaddy, the Strokes, Suzanne Vega and, yes, Iggy Pop. I'm listening on a Web site run by Dave Allen, who co-founded the British post-punk band Gang of Four and insists that album-length works have "no digital future." And I'm listening at a fidelity that would make Frank Zappa roll over in his grave.
Stanford professor Jonathan Berger has conducted studies that show students actually prefer the so-called sizzle of MP3s. In a recent radio interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., he pointed out that his own generation was once fooled into believing that cassettes were every bit as good as being there for an actual performance.
So it makes sense that artists like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails should give away their music, assuming past royalties and live performances can keep them afloat. And for the vanguard of musicians exploring new ways to reattach their digital strains to a physical host, the future looks, well, hazy. I really like the new Danger Mouse album, but I'm not enough of a collector these days to want to buy the special edition. Of course, if it came with a bobblehead ...