Sunday, 30 November 2008

The last unicorn

This post isn't going to be a review of Chinese Democracy - or to give it its full title, Chinese Democracy (sponsored by Pro Tools). I have my opinions on the thing - something along the lines of "even though it is the sound of one man's ego galloping out of all control, there's still something oddly exhilirating about all that galloping... Possibly the most expensive comedy album ever made" - but this isn't a music blog.

Nor is it a meta-music blog, so this isn't exactly going to be a review of Chuck Klosterman's review of Chinese Democracy either; though, for the record, his opening line, "Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It's more like reviewing a unicorn", may very well be the best thing anyone's ever said in a music review. But his review does make a claim that's of direct interest to a web 2.0/internet/technology/whatever-blog like this one, namely:
Chinese Democracy is (pretty much) the last Old Media album we'll ever contemplate in this context—it's the last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs, the last album that will be absorbed as a static manifestation of who the band supposedly is, and the last album that will matter more as a physical object than as an Internet sound file.
And that's what I want to focus on.

Personally, I hope this claim doesn't quite prove true, since some artists (though perhaps not Axl Rose, it turns out) have a depth and breadth and originality to their vision that's better explored over the course of a collection of songs; in some cases, even the physical packaging the music comes in can add to the experience. Not to mention that a number of labels - Fonal, 4AD, Leaf, and many other independents - as part of their own vision, routinely produce CDs and vinyl that are beautiful and distinctive purely as objects. And perhaps for those reasons physical formats will hang on in there for some while longer - certainly as I try to reduce my annoyingly space-hogging CD collection the CDs fitting the aforementioned criteria are the ones that will remain.

But, as that last sentence also demonstrates, I can't deny that Chuck Klosterman has a point. He might be slightly premature in making it, and I can see music continuing to be delivered in some kind of physical format for as long as that physicality continues to add something; but still, when so many CDs now offer little more than an MP3 does why would you bother with that extra bit of clutter?

Chinese Democracy, though, as Klosterman says, is almost certainly immune to that concern: to Guns 'n' Roses fans it will matter as an object, out of nostalgia as much as anything; fans will want to place it alongside the CDs and vinyl they've treasured since the 80s and 90s - how aesthetically satisfying the album actually is as an object I have no idea, but for those reasons it really doesn't need to be. But if the albums of other bands, ones who aren't going to be given $14million and 14 enigmatic years to build anticipation, are going to matter as a sonic totality, it's increasingly going to take more than simply releasing them as a physical totality.

While some musicians don't create too much more than a bunch of singles and filler anyway, so downloads are probably their more natural outlet, for the rest with perhaps more to say, or a whole range of interesting ways in which to say it, and particularly for those who have yet to emerge and will thus have no existing reputation to trade and persuade on, the future looks to be a challenging place - at least, if they want to be able to have some say in how their work is experienced. Perhaps some kind of physical format will be involved - the CD as a luxury item, the package being an artwork in itself? the Buddha Machine? - but certainly it will be interesting to find out how they'll achieve it.

And perhaps they won't even want to...


Sean McManus said...

There has been a trend towards increasingly lavish packaging of albums to justify the value added of the genuine release. Radiohead's vinyl package of In Rainbows, Nine Inch Nails offering the remix files with one of their album packages, David Gilmour's live album available in five different formats with up to five discs of content, Chris Rea writing a book to go with his rockabilly revival... etc. The packaging has always been a part of the product, but in a digital era, it's the only part that can't be pirated. In many ways, I was surprised that the GNR album was just a single CD. I think we'll see record labels thinking much more carefully about the customer experience they offer, and the touchy-feely aspect will continue to be the most piracy-proof part of that for some time to come.

Tim Warren said...

Of course. Thanks for that. For some reason I forgot all those; despite Sigur Ros e-mailing me every month with news of their own version of the luxury album release (erm, along with other news, obviously; they're not just spamming).

And yep, I think you're right, whatever money it will be possible to make from releasing albums - besides from ad-supported streaming/downloads - looks increasingly like it will have to come from less pirateable qualities - luxury/exclusive/limited edition content/packaging, the personal-touch of handmade CDs by smaller bands, whatever other tangible tie-ins that can be dreamt up.

ankyonline said...

well even if china have no democracy their success is remarkable