On Music

By coincidence, my to-read stack has a trio of takes on the history and future of the music industry/business/world. The perfect backdrop to the coming storm on (among other things) Digital Britain, three strikes, graduated responses and the like (see more from Technollama, Pangloss and Lord Peter of Mandelson, though apparently the software people want in on the fight).

Anyway, the tremendous three are:

Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever (purchased)

From our CD collections to iPods bursting with MP3s to the hallowed vinyl of DJs, recordings are the most common way we experience music. Yet their ubiquity has deafened us to how our understanding of music is shaped by the processes that create them. “Perfecting Sound Forever” tells the story of recorded music from Thomas Edison’s claim, in 1915, that he could perfectly capture the sound of a live performance, to the digital tools used today which create the illusion of performances that never were. Along the way, Greg Milner introduces the innovators, musicians, and producers – from Les Paul to Phil Spector to Neil Young – who have affected the way we hear our favorite songs and describes the major achievements, breakthroughs and failures in sound technology. Exploring the balance that recordings strike between the real and the represented, Greg Milner asks the questions which have divided sound recorders for the past century: should a recording document reality as faithfully as possible, or should it improve upon or somehow transcend the music it records? What does the perfect record sound like? The answers he uncovers will change the way we think about music.

Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (library copy)

“There are no definitive histories,” writes Elijah Wald, in this provocative reassessment of American popular music, “because the past keeps looking different as the present changes.” Earlier musical styles sound different to us today because we hear them through the musical filter of other styles that came after them, all the way through funk and hiphop. As its blasphemous title suggests, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll rejects the conventional pieties of mainstream jazz and rock history. Rather than concentrating on those traditionally favored styles, the book traces the evolution of popular music through developing tastes, trends and technologies–including the role of records, radio, jukeboxes and television –to give a fuller, more balanced account of the broad variety of music that captivated listeners over the course of the twentieth century.

Eric Harvey, The Social History of the MP3 (on the interweb at pitchfork.com, and found via the Institute for the Future of the Book)

The cassette “crisis” seems quaint when compared to the rise of the mp3. The first widespread music delivery technology to emanate from outside industry control, mp3s, flowing through peer-to-peer networks and other pathways hidden in plain sight, have performed the radical task of separating music from the music industry for the first time in a century. They have facilitated the rise of an enormous pirate infrastructure; ideologically separate from the established one, but feeding off its products, multiplying and distributing them freely, without following the century-old rules of capitalist exchange. Capitalism hasn’t gone away, of course, but mp3s have severely threatened its habits and rituals within music culture. There is nothing inherent or natural about paying for music, and the circulation of mp3s > through unsanctioned networks reaffirms music as a social process driven by passion, not market logic or copyright. Yet at the same time the Internet largely freed music from its packaged-good status and opened a realm of free-exchange, it also rendered those exciting new rituals very trackable. In the same way that Facebook visually represents “having friends,” the mp3s coursing through file-sharing networks quantify the online social life of music by charting its path. The social routines that take place around online music are visible data– which makes them much more susceptible to intellectual property statutes than was the case with cassettes or CDs.

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