Blog / Mark Katz Considers Music and Technology

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By Andrew & Wendy

Mark Katz, who contributed an essay on the pathologies of record collecting for the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition The Record, recently released a revised second edition of his book Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (University of California Press). The new edition comes six years after the first edition, but takes into account of a number of musical platforms which have arisen — YouTube, iTunes, Pandora and MySpace. We asked Mark about the new book and how he envisions the future of music.

The revised edition of this book comes six years after its initial publication due to the rapid rise of iTunes, social networking, You Tube, Hype Machine, etc. What changes have these technologies made and how have they continued to make changes in the time between the completion of your manuscript and the publication of the book?

When I wrote the first edition of Capturing Sound, Facebook, MySpace, Pandora, and YouTube, didn’t exist, and iTunes had just gotten off the ground.  They have now become so entrenched in our culture it’s easy to forget how new they are. These technologies have had an enormous influence on the way we experience music. They make a vast amount of music available easily and cheaply (sometimes legally, sometimes not); I believe that kids growing up now are likely to hear a greater variety of music than they did a generation ago.  But perhaps the tendency is to listen more superficially now, too. Since we’re putting much less effort and money into acquiring music, we may invest correspondingly less time listening to it. One can hear ten seconds of a song and then delete it or skip to a different song, and never give any music a second chance.

Your essay for The Record catalogue is about the pathologies of record collecting. How does a personal digital archive of music such as iTunes change the experience and pathology of record collecting? How does file sharing do this?

The main difference is the lack of physical objects–LPs, CDs, etc.  This, of course, is a big difference, because the fetishistic aspects of record collecting are generally directed more at the objects themselves than the music on them.  Collectors tend to be drawn to the images on record covers, and to the look and feel of the vinyl, and even to the musty smell of old records.  MP3s don’t smell.  But the intangibility of music files won’t stop people from collecting them or obsessing over them.  I myself like to have as much information as possible about the songs and albums I have on my computer, and will spend a lot of time finding dates, label information, and cover images if the files don’t already come with that.  I’ve even deleted some files from my computer when I couldn’t readily identify them or even assign a date to them.  But this may be a function of my obsessiveness as a scholar rather than as a collector.

As we well know, in spite of the downturn in the music industry, vinyl sales continue to make small grows. In your opinion, what accounts for this? How do you reconcile this growth with the changing digital nature of our world?

I see the increase in vinyl sales as a direct reaction to the intangibility of digital files.  People like things, and many people–even or especially those who have grown up in the age of MP3s–feel that it is more “authentic” to have a record (or a CD) of music rather than a data file of the same sounds. I’ve done surveys on this and the word “authentic” comes up quite often–I think people feel a more visceral connection to objects than data and there seems to be nothing more authentic in music than an engraved black disc that is part of a tradition dating back to the late 1800s.

How has the “shuffle” function affected the way fans digest music? Can you comment on the artist’s loss of control through electronic music downloads, where the prescribed order of songs on an album is lost? How have artists adapted to that loss of control?

I think the shuffle feature has had a significant impact on the way people experience music.  Although it’s always been possible for listeners to skip tracks with records, tapes, and CDs, it was never that convenient, and most people heard songs in the order the artists had decided on.  But with the shuffle feature on iPods, iTunes, etc., songs, artists, and genres that would never have been heard together are being juxtaposed on a regular basis.  What does this mean?  For one thing, listeners may have less interest in listening to albums all the way through.  Albums, good ones at least, are more than the sum of their of their parts, so when their songs are forcibly separated from each other some of the album’s meaning is lost.  On the other hand, the shuffle feature can imbue songs with new meanings based on what they’re heard against.  So if I hear a Beatles song followed by a Johnny Cash tune I might hear and think about both songs and artists differently.  Artists may well resent the shuffle feature and it seems that, perhaps in reaction, they are releasing more of their music as singles.  Historically speaking, though, the album has been the main unit of popular music for only a relatively short period (c. mid 1960s to the late 1990s); for decades before this, songs (as recordings and even as sheet music) were more usually bought and heard singly.  We may well mourn the demise of the album, but in the big picture it is the single that is the norm and the album the anomaly.

How has this technological revolution in music democratized music distribution and production?

It is now possible for just about anyone to create and distribute music on a wide scale without having expensive equipment or the backing of a major label, or any record label at all.  Without spending much money at all, someone can upload home videos on YouTube and develop a huge following; Justin Bieber did just that.   Anyone can also set up a music blog and become a powerful voice in the music world, affecting the careers of musicians and influencing musical taste.  One illustration of this is the “Blog Radio” program that the satellite radio company Sirius-XM regularly airs.  Overall, these developments broaden the variety of music getting to audiences, though as always the ratio of good to bad music is low.  No technology will create good music if there is no talent behind it.

If I may ask you to speculate, what would be in the third edition of Capturing Sound? What does the future relationship between technology and music look like?

A third edition of Capturing Sound (which I find hard to contemplate at the moment, having just gotten the second off my desk) would have to deal with music video games.  Games like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, DJ Hero and the games that will be coming out on controller-free platforms like Kinect raise all sorts of interesting questions about technology and musicianship.  Beyond that, I just have to wait and see what comes down the pike.  I can guarantee that every year or few months some new technology will emerge that will further influence the way we make and experience music.

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