Friday, September 26, 2008

Digital Media, Ritual, and Pink Floyd

I guess before I go into the “how did I get here from there” bit, at which I sometimes marvel myself, I should come out with my basic problematic, and then explain how I arrived at it along with all the thrilling moments (Ha!) and startling revelations that came on the way.

My problematic is this: How does the shift to digital media (primarily referring to information rendered on one’s computer or personal media player, formless and easily copied) devalue information and art, and how can this shift work to the advantage of artists and media professionals who seek to actually make a living off of their efforts?

My background and training had been in theatre. From the time I was in elementary school, I believed that I my future had been mapped out for me and that future would be on the stage. It was only after I graduated from college that I decided that the vitality of theatre as a changing force in mass consciousness was a myth, or at the very least, a highly outdated notion. People were no longer getting their ideas in theatre. Theatre was no longer affecting anyone’s daily lives. I must have known that. I had grown up more on movies than plays, and as a child I watched more MTV than saw live music. Why and how did I end up with this unshakable reverence for the direct, immediate live experience?

The MP3 started to gain in popularity around this time. I knew, as everyone did, that digital media was the way of the future. CDs had put vinyl in a pauper’s grave (the resurgence of vinyl was still a few years away), and DVDs were threatening to do the same to VHS (which then, as now, nobody looked at as any big loss). Information was getting put in smaller and smaller (and more portable) packages, but in my stubbornness, I refused to believe that the package would go away altogether. I had a debate with my best friend, himself a former actor now turned musician, about whether the MP3 would really catch on. He believed that it would, but I said otherwise. I made reference to an article I had read about McLuhan (“What If He Is Right?” by Tom Wolfe, which I had read way back in junior high school and represented the whole of what I knew about McLuhan at the time) in which he said that in the future, people would want tactile experiences (however, he also said in the same breath that packaging would become obsolete), as well as citing the autobiography of Frank Zappa, in which he said that “People like to own stuff.” I thought that by quoting two dead guys that I would automatically win the argument and, in doing so, provide an accurate forecast for the future. I don’t think I need to say how wrong I was.

Years later, my friend called me and reminded me of the talk that we had had. I, of course, conceded to him, and he told me that even though he had been right, he wished that he hadn’t been. He mentioned how he was listening to the album “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd, and he recalled the first time his father played it for him as a child. He remembered noting the care with which his father pulled the LP out of the jacket and placed it on the turntable, gently putting the needle on the record, then hearing the warm crackle of the old vinyl as the music started. He listened to the whole album staring at the image of the burning man on the jacket. How will my children experience that now? He felt as if the future had been gypped of something, that a beautiful bit of ritual would be missing from their lives.

Of course now, the beautiful ritual is the least of everyone’s concerns. Given the nature of digital media to be copied easily and exactly and the move away from a physical carrier (such as a packaged CD ), the idea of authenticity is becoming a hazy notion. Fewer people are paying for media, and the industries are losing income (boo hoo) as are the artists who create the material. How can the artist benefit from this shift instead of being shortchanged by it? How do we get that sense of beauty and ritual back, and if we can’t, what are we getting in return? What’s going to happen to album cover art?

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