Musicking Phormats: The distribution of music in a new media landscape

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How does music distribution affect the listener and how can we discuss this relationship in a new media landscape? Digitalisation has changed our relationship with media and my theory of phormats is an attempt to create a new theoretical framework around which these discussions can be focused on the nature of the medium and the impact on the listener.

Keywords: digital, corporeal, physical, phormats, musicking, phormatisation, internet, digitalisation, distribution

“For several hundred years Western music has been based on composition and performance. Most attention has been focused on the conception and generation of sound and very little on its propagation. Written notes are two-dimensional symbols of a three dimensional phenomenon. No matter how complex a system of notation of how real the illusion of depth, written music is trapped on a flat plane. Even musics from oral traditions are rooted in performance rotes and instrumental topologies or rely on texts, stories or social hierarchies. We have been so concerned with language that we have forgotten how sound flows through space and occupies it”

– Alvin Lucier

In this essay, I will discuss the effects of technology has changed the way in which music is defined and distributed. Not only will I look at the political economy of the distribution of music, but I will look at how these forms of distributions affect how we perceive music in a corporeal sense. My framework for this analysis will be based on three broad categorisations/formats of music; physical, digital and corporeal. These categorisations , I will argue, are fundamental to understanding how music is distributed at this point in time. These categories are not arbitrary either, but mark clear distinctions in the consumption of music from the fetishisation of music-as-objects to music-as-access.  I will break down these formats through the analysis of individual songs and describe the reception of these songs in their respective distributions formats.

My approach is also based on the electronic music scene, so many aspects will be specifically located here, though not exclusively so. Electronic music is fertile for discourse related to music distribution for three reasons. Firstly, it is a scene and type of music that I have a great personal investment in so my location within in serves as a useful vantage point for observing these technological changes in distribution. Secondly, electronic music tends to be the music at the cutting edge of musical advancements. By this I do not mean that electronic music is ahead of any other form of music artistically, but that the overlap between musical technicians and musical producers is a finer line than in other genres or forms. Much of the foundations of electronic music was made by those musicians who were also engineers, technicians or designers in their field. Electronic music has always had technical innovation at the forefront of composition, as it has in terms of distribution. The closeness of electronic music and modern forms of distribution makes this analysis much clearer. Finally, electronic music, though ephemeral in form, has concrete social settings and rituals that surround it, especially when it comes to the consumption of music. Again, these forms are not exclusive to electronic music, but they are made more explicit.

The foundations of this essay are based in the relation between the formats in which we consume music; the physical, the digital and the carporeal. Before I tease out the relations between these formats of distributions and what they mean in of themselves, let me first explain what I mean by these categorisations in the first place.

I argue that we live in world that is formed and shaped in part by music. It is used as an auditory paint used to fill space for different purposes. Rather than discuss what the music means and how its is used, I will concentrate on how it is heard and felt, in particular the different ways in which music is transferred to us. In this sense I am taking this word distribution to the most literal level, but in essence that is the technological impact of an interconnected world. Rather than music being distributed through commercial layers, modern music distribution takes a much more direct appearance. The increasing digitality of music forces a rethink about the nature of music in its particular forms. In this re-think, I believe that one must acknowledge that the distribution of music has moved past its format and on to its phormat, the way that music can be described freeing it from the constraints of material form. In this way, I am defining music on its acoustic reception rather than its acoustic production in order to uncover the relationships between methods of acoustic distribution and musical understanding.

Phormats and formats

The distribution of music evokes the image of the record shop and the exchange of music in the form of scores, vinyl, CD or tape. Culturally speaking, this is the focal point of music, its shop front, even though now online music sales have surpassed retail music sales. The record shop embodies the tension between corporate consumption and individual taste, commercial construction and personal formation. But this is not the form of distribution I am referring to. The type of distribution that I am discussing is in its most literal form, how the sound of music is produced by technology to be received by our ears and bodies. In particular focusing on the form of this music, disregarding its material or immateriality and focusing on how music is listened to and how it is felt. To describe I will use the word “phormat”, retaining the functional use of the word format to describe different ways of distribution through sound yet using the prefix “ph-” to denote the flexibility of said forms.

I separate phormats into three distinct categories; the physical, the digital and the corporeal. The physical format is self evident, being the only phormat to be materially realised, be it through shellac, polyvinyl or written notation. The one defining feature of physical phormats is the tangibility of the music as an object, which stimulates a more concrete relationship between the individual and the music. Issues of ownership and personal/financial investment play a role in this form of music distribution. The digital format, however, is not materially realised and exists in a state of intangibility. Here, the music exists as a thought rather than an object, which leads to digital music being liquid. It can be copied and distributed, near infinitesimally, outside the constraints of Cartesian notion of space and time, the defining feature of which means that digital music blurs the line between strict musical composition, production and distribution. The corporeal phormat, on the other hand, can be described as a conceptual synthesis of the two. It is as ephemeral as digital music, as it it does not exist until it is listened to or felt. It is also as material as physical phormats of music, offering similar subjective experiences as well as deeply social and ritualistic experiences. Corporeal phorms of music have the same tangibility as physical phorms, but the relationship is tied down by the constraints of space and time. This has the effect of making corporeal phorms of music exist only in memory, its recording immediately rectifying the phorm to an echo or shadow.

Examples of these different phormats are necessary to understand them, but by describing these phormats through real examples, one can observe how the form and content of music has been changed by new distributional technologies. These impacts can be seen on an individual plane, a social plane and an economic plane.

Phormats and the individual

The way that music is distributed is now a much more individualized affair than it was before the advent of the gramophone and similar technologies. This process occurred in three stages. The first was the reification of music into a material object. This changed the relationship between the listener and the music, indeed now the listener became an ‘owner’ of music. The second stage was the isolationism of the listener, with new technologies offering music free from the anchor of stereo systems. The idea of solitary listening of music was so culturally revolutionary at the time that the makers of the first isolationist music device, the Walkman, designed the product with two headphone jacks rather than one. As music players have progressed, individual consumption is the normalised way in which music is now listened to. The third stage is the disconnection between the sound of the music and the music as a self contained idea. This is seen the way that the digital compression of music “reproduce an experience that never existed” (Milner, p.223). The vast area of metadata is also part of this disconnection, especially with websites such as Pandora, Last.Fm and Hypemachine that use musical tracks as signposts, or even semiological signs of the music taste of the user. In this way, music is lifted out and replaced by algorithms that move the focus away from the music to the end user. Notice also how in each of these stages, we have moved from listeners of music, to owners of music, and ultimately, to users of music.

The first stage in the process of individualised music connects to the distribution of music by making it appear in discrete objects, therefore cutting it off from the limitations of place that music had so far experienced up until the late 19th century. These limitations existed because music was performed in live settings; to hear the music you had to be there, you had to see it. Class, culture and access were stratified by the inaccessibility of music trapped in its corporeal form, in our case the corporeal phorm being the live band in the 19th century salon (Day, p.203). The distribution of music in concrete objects rather than a fleeting event made music more personal and introspective. Day even notes that

“A writer who disliked intensely the social decorum of the concert hall- the absurd spectacle of a violinist trussed up in a boiled shirt with sweat pouring off him- felt herself liberated when she could enjoy herself practically anywhere, when she could associate the music with movement and with the colours and textures of landscape.”

In this way then, the concreteness of physical phorms of music allow an interpretative freedom in the way music is listened to, in some ways a precursor to Barthes’ “death of the author” ( 1977,p.148). The self reflexivity that the physical phorm of music opens up the subjective nature of the individual by allowing a space for critical opposition. Indeed, this space is validated by the ownership of music in this phorm, the act of buying constituting a liberation from outside evaluation. Owning music meant appropriating music on your own terms rather than those who made the music and its habitus.

In the last example of the writer disliking the concert hall, opposition to various elements of the performance ritual would have been seen as a disregard of the music. By moving the distribution of music from a open corporeal phorm to a closed physical one, the boundaries of appreciation shifted from social ones to individual ones. The relationship between the subject and the object is a key process of identity formation and consumption in the physical phormat of music. Indeed one responder wrote a succinct and wholly accurate description of physical phormats: “object fetishification / completness / collecting” (Katz, 2010, pp.192). One could argue that the development of physical phorms acted as a catalyst for the development of underground and counterculture musical movements through solidification of alternative visions of music and the attraction of like minded people thereof. By placing music in the ‘ownership’ of individuals, arbitrary critical notions of music are lost and replaced with subjective ones based on persuasion and expression. Adorno is a good example of the types of arguments used against physical phorms especially the way debates of music are framed between “high art” and “low art” (1991, p.29-61). The move from corporeal to physical phorms have made these debates increasingly redundant, or at the very least limited to and justified into their own respective musical genres.

The second stage, the isolationism of the listener, is based on the mobility of personal music, a stage that changes the way that music is listened to. At this stage, physical and digital phorms of music distribution dominate, their decreased physical presence reflected in the increasing backgrounding of music. The types of technologies I am referenceing here are the Walkman and the iPod, both based on transportable personal media formats. Adorno writes of the “fetishisation of music”, but his criticisms are based on the physical phorm as well as what he termed a “regression of listening”. In the cultural context he inhabited, many of his criticisms appear as hyperbole, though his overarching point that that nature of listening was being changed by the nature of music distribution is valid. I argue that the isolationism of the listener personal players encourage leads to a more disconnected relationship with music, a process prominently seen in digital phormats than any other phormat.

Phormats and the digital

Digital distribution removes the tangibility of music as a concrete concept, removing the listener from the music by negating the sense of ownership. By having music in a phisical phorm, an individual could have a interaction with the text outside of its aural construction. Many advocates of CDs and vinyl in particular highlight the notes and art that accompany the format as a key part of music consumption (Kats, 2010, pp.191-193). In digital phormats this is not possible, or to put it another way, it is possible, but it does not function as an integral part of digital music consumption. Notes and cover art added to music distributed digitally must be downloaded along side the music, but this questions the necessity of such value added content as the limitations of that applied to physical phormats (the size of the front cover) do not apply to digital phormats. It is in this way that music is disconnected from the listener through the digital distribution of music. First, through the ubiquity of music distribution that isolates the listener from the music by enabling music to blanket the life of the listener for different uses. One example would be the use of music in retail environments such as Hollister where “It gives a type of casino-feel,where people can get lost in a club-like environment, people relax, and hopefully spend more”. The second is the loss of tangibility of the music, which enabled a greater interaction with music through alternative mediums that were attached to the phisical phorm.

However, the digital phorm of music also has positive consequences as well as negative ones. The hyperconsumption of music that digital distribution entails also has the inverse effect of increased creativity due to the liquidity of digital distribution. Yasunao Tone speaks of “paramedia”, the deviation of uses that existing technologies present for expressive purposes and tracks this tradition back to the introduction of  vinyl turntables, which gave rise to turntablism and hip-hop culture. Digital phormats of music follow in this tradition, but the lower barriers of entry for creative practice enable a higher number of listeners to become creators. Not only does digital music lower entry barrier but it also expands creative possibilities and audiences. Some argue that this has come at the expense of the quality of music, but it does not negate the creative practice. It is true that much of the music made in the present day will not be played on high end stereo equipment, but cheap laptop and headphone speakers, but again, the creative practice of digital music making cannot be undermined.

An example of this digital liberation that the digital distribution of music provides can be seen in the song “Take Care” by Drake which is the third iteration of Gil-Scott Heron’s original “I’ll Take Care Of You”. The first “remix” was made by Jamie XX, though rather than a remix he considers the track to be a collaboration with Gil-Scott, even though the vocal samples came from the original track. At each stage, digital distribution made each subsequent release popular through online virality, to the point that there now exist remixes of a remix of a remix. the important point of note here is not the perfect formation of sound through specialised speakers, but the distribution of the song through digital phormats, providing a sound-image of the song rather than the ‘song’ in its perfect state. For many listeners, this sound-image is sufficient for the appreciation  enjoyment of the music on a base level. It is through this process that the content as well as the form of music has changed.

This has been seen starkly in the development of sound of dubstep as a genre. An important feature to note here is the distinct phorms that dubstep takes shape in. The corporeal phorm is rooted deeply to soundsystem culture and the idea of bass as a physical manifestation of sound. The importance of dubplates focuses the genre in the physical phorm, not only artistically (white label dubplates form a key part of DJ sets as a differentiating factor) but again, culturally. It is the digital phorm where dubstep has been affected in form and content due to the distribution of music over information networks. In particular, the increased speed and distribution of music and the regression of stereo sound systems as the dominant form of music reproduction. This affected the content of dubstep because the lack of sound system speakers, through which to experience the bass, were not avialable to those listening to the music online. The compression of the sound over digital formats also affected the transmission of basslines. As a result of these limitations dubstep, particularly international scenes, developed a sound based more on the wobble of mid range sounds rather than the manipulation of the sub-bass. This is one example in which the content of music was affected by changes in music distribution.

Phormats and the web

The last stage of the individualisation of music through the evolution of phormats is the conclusion of all the process discussed above. In the same way that the isolation of listening can isolate the listener from the music, digital phormats also isolate the idea of the music from the music itself. This is because the real value of digital phormats lies not in the reproduction of sound but the smart process of reproduction. I use the word smart here to denote the active way that digital audio files and formats are used by digital systems. Physical phormats and corporeal phormats are ‘dumb’ in the sense that there is only one action and process occurring during the listening of music. During the listening of digital phormats however, there is more than one listener, especially with connected digital phormats. All digital files contain metadata that include information such as the name of the song, the name of the album etc. This metadata can be used by users and by programs to categorise music, to track it and a multitude of different uses that have not yet been realised.

Programs and websites such as spotify and last.fm use the metadata of music to enhance music discovery for the user, thereby taking the process of discovery out of the hands of the individual and into the hands or an algorithm. One could also interpret this change to be the remapping of music to place the site of musical exploration in the hands of corporations, which then makes the process dull, by presenting the user with music that is most likely similar to music heard before, rather than music outside expectations. The manner in which music is distributed also underlines this powershift, especially as the listener is now a user or music not an owner. This shift lies in changes in technology which make higher bitrates and faster internet connection speeds more universal. These changes have impacted nearly all cultural industries, but the global music industry more so as the monopoly on music distribution held by record companies was now lost to networks of users uploading and sharing music. In reaction to this, the presentation of music has now taken over the music itself. A music listener now does not ask “what should I listen to?” but “where should I listen?”. Finding music online has become the standard so the process of looking for music and its consumption has now become the unique points of interest rather that the musical content itself.

Conclusion

The changes in the form and content of music due to changes in musical distribution can be tracked to the separate and the specific phorms music take shape in. I argue that a new language of music is necessary to understand new ways of music distribution and the affect on individuals, as well as new insights this new terminology can in the study of historical forms of music. Principally, the idea of musical phorms is to create a new level of meaning, a new layer of encoding and encoding based on the manner of aural distribution. In this sense, the idea of musical phorms is a step back in the understanding of music semiologically, but I argue that the manner of distribution affects that manner music is heard and understood, even the same musical text. This distinction has to be made due to the multiplicity of distributional channels through which music is heard, not just digitally (which has in recent times been the site of much proselytizing and voguish literature) but physically and corporeally also .

I understand, however, that there are limitations to this new terminology, particularly in relation to the Occidental and relative technological centredness of these ideas. Though I have written at length regarding digital phormats, phormatisation is not strictly limited to it and one space of academic development could be to transfer these ideas to physical and corporeal phormats at greater length. The study of vinyl cultures and of “world music” respectively come to mind as areas that would benefit from this new way of understanding musical and aural distribution. Another area of academic interest would be the political economy of musical phormats, particularly the political economy of digital and physical phormats as these are the phormats most integrated in the corporate structures of the record industry, the consumer electronics industry and the web industry. By looking at the political economy of music through the lens of phormats, one could gain an understanding of the value of various phormats and the economic value of the affect they yield.

Changes in technology have made barriers of distribution perceptibility melt away, but these changes have also actualized pre-digital musical records as a rarified commodity, not just a historical one. These changes have also changed the way that music is heard and listened to, not only in the quality of the sound, as was the case in dubstep, but the types of sound. It is through the analysis of phomats through which changes in the form and content of music can be traced back to technological changes in music distribution.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Katz, M. (2010). Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, University of California Press: Los Angeles.
Eisenberg, E. (2005). The recording angel: music, records and culture from Aristotle to Zappa (2nd ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press.
Small, C. (1998). Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, University Press of New England: London
Burnett, R. (1996). The Global Jukebox: The international Music Industry, Routledge: London
Strene, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Duke University Press: London
Kivny, P. (2002). Introduction to a Philosophy of Music, Clarendon Press: Oxford
Cumming, N. (2000) Musical Subjectivity and Signification, Indiana University Press: Indianapolis
Adorno, T.W. (1991) The Culture Industry, Routledge: London
Barthes, R. (1977). Image Music Text, Fontana Press: London

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