Sunday, 20 December 2009

Utopia of Sound

In relation to music, I read this denial of circumstance - denial of the micro-social and global exploitations inflicted in the name of First World standards of living - into the ideologies framing our transition toward download audio, and the obsolescence of CDs and other product-based media formats. Through downloads, music is gradually being recast as a matter of "pure information," the rhetoric of which makes us further lose sight of the material methods of such information's production and distribution. At the forefront of this misinformation is Jacques Attali, who said at the 2001 Cybersalon Net Music Conference:

Music is very specific for a number of reasons. One economic reason is that music is pure information. In economics, information is a devil - it's impossible to manage. For example, the whole of economic theory is the theory of scarce resources... but it doesn't work for music; it doesn't work for information as a whole. If I have a pot of milk, and I give it to you, I don't have it anymore. But if I give you a piece of information I still have it, I keep it. Which means that if I have something and I give it to you, I create something new: abundance. And this means that economic theory doesn't work for information, when that information can be separated from its material support - a CD, or whatever is the case today.... In an information economy, something has more value when a lot of people have it. For example, if I am the only one to have a telephone, it doesn't mean anything, not if there is no one else to call.... We must be very careful, when we speak about music, not to have in mind the main economic laws.10 Jacques Attali, transcript from "Cybersalon Net.Music" conference, May 2001, printed in The Wire (UK: The Wire Magazine, Ltd., Issue 209 July 2001), p. 70.

Attali sets up a very peculiar argument in which sound, as information, is neither a matter of time nor space. I say peculiar, but not surprising. Since the compressed digital audio file archive's potential for infinite transfer and expansion has eroded the boundary of the album, the length of which has always been bound to physical time restrictions of the recording media of the day, the constricting relationships between duration and media, between time and space, have for the most part been lost. Consider the length of albums prior to the advent of CD's, which averaged thirty five to forty five minutes based on one side of a 33RPM vinyl record being able to contain up to eighteen minutes of audio before the density of grooves causes unacceptable loss of quality, and compare that with the first seventy four minute CD's in the 1980's, and today's eighty minute CD's. This presents a curious labor and wage condition in that during the age of CD's it has already become expected of musicians to produce albums of sixty minutes or more - essentially double albums - under the same financial terms as vinyl-length albums of previous decades. Even from the consumer side, who of us has not bought a CD and been disappointed to find an album was only thirty eight minutes in length? And now, in a post-CD era, audio producers find ourselves having to generate media endlessly for the vacuum of possible internet downloads which frequently pay on a track-by-track basis. We may produce an album of audio, but if only one track becomes a popular paying download we will only receive payment for that fraction of the album's royalty rather than the full royalty if it had sold as a whole. And, just as the cost for labels to manufacture CD's has always been much less than the cost of manufacturing vinyl records despite their being sold for more, digital record labels face even lower overhead costs yet continue to pay artists according to traditional royalty rates of ten to twenty percent. It is a massive widening of the financial gap between those who produce audio and those who own the means of distribution, a gap that is symptomatic of the increasing financial inequity between poor and wealthy seen in most every industry under contemporary global capitalism. It is symptomatic of the same corrupt ethics.

Digital audio finally brings recording and distribution processes in synch with other Modernist archival systems such as museums and libraries. As Foucault described:

Museums and libraries are heterotopias in which time never ceases to pile up and perch on its own summit, whereas in the seventeenth century, and up to the end of the seventeenth century still, museums were the expression of an individual choice. By contrast, the idea of accumulating every-thing, the idea of constituting a sort of general archive, the desire to contain all times, all ages, all forms, all tastes in one place, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside time and protected from its erosion, the project of thus organizing a kind of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in a place that will not move - well, in fact, all of this belongs to our modernity.11 Foucault.

According to Attali's description of information as something that is always retained, even in the act of giving it away, audio information also becomes perceived as something that spatially will not move, and chronologically is infinite. Of course, in a material sense this is as absurd as the notion that libraries and museums do not crumble or burn. I recently experienced the loss of a 500GB hard disk containing as much audio information as my wall full of CD's, some of which was not reproducible, so I can assure you the death of information only requires the death of the last copy or accurate memory. And in specific regard to memory, when one listens to an album one clearly does not retain all of the information. One only retains an impression of the experience of listening, and any ensuing ideas or feelings of comprehension we associate with our memories of that situation. Information ceases to exist without an object of conveyance, even in the instance of oral traditions where the orator's body becomes the object of conveyance. Thus we find ourselves scouring record shops looking to re-buy a record we had once sold or given away, because we are overwhelmed by an awareness of the gap between our lingering memories and the actual experience of listening. We are compelled by an absence of information, compelled by silence. And, ironically, when we track down the lost treasure it is usually not as good as we remembered.


When this archival impulse combines with download technology, the scale of our home collections also begin expanding in odd and infinite directions. While looking to download a song using BitTorrent, Limewire or similar file sharing software, how many of us have ended up downloading a hideous discography of ten or more albums by some artist from which we only knew, only wanted to hear, and only will every listen to one song? Although one may attempt to draw parallels between such easy access to file collecting and, say, the carefree collection opportunities offered by one euro used record boxes at flea markets, it seems we as individuals are entering a digital audio heterotopia in which our home collections cease to be the expression of our individual choices in favor of a sort of general archive. It represents an informational dead time of sorts in which we experience our comprehension of sounds not only passing without affect, but often without playback or any possibility of listening to it all... without duration.

Statements such as Attali's which purport all of this access to information marks our entry into a new economic phase are generalizing statements that could only be made by people in those minority of countries such as ours where we have the luxury of excessive access to information archives. Its arrogance becomes apparent when compared to something such as the underground library movement in Cuba, in which disconnected groups of one to thirty people secretly store a small collection of books, any books, only to be periodically raided with the opositors imprisoned and the books burned. Ultimately, the ideological underpinnings of our bold, new information economy are straight in line with the development of traditional capitalist systems in which all experience is reified and regurgitated in the form of abstract relations. As capitalist processes become more refined and unhindered in the post-Soviet era, it seems only logical that we find it difficult not to conceive of abstract information - of our own knowledge - as external commodities of the ether for barter. To paraphrase from Karl Marx's Capital, we might say that information, like use-value, "possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labor and, consequently, a creation of value." But given that information starts in worthless singularity (such as a thought), it can only be traded for its "surplus-value" through transference and replication, in which case it "reproduces the equivalent of its own value [zero], and also produces an excess, a surplus-value, which may itself vary, may be more or less according to the circumstances." As information only takes on value in the late phases of surplus-value once it is somehow recorded, it becomes easy to dismiss the materials of information development (such as my home-studio production time), which assumes a corollary use-value of zero. We enter the world of the "no overhead" bedroom studio capable of yielding pure profits, forgetting about the actual costs of studio gear, space and utilities. Economically, the advent of the bedroom studio meant an album's "advances" that were traditionally paid in advance in order to subsidize studio expenses (imagine that), are now typically paid on or after an album's release, and are considered advances strictly on the future sales revenues of the end-commodity itself. Labels act as though the "bedroom musician" produces audio with no raw materials, auxiliary materials, instruments of labor, cost of living, nor any other material expenses. Audio without overhead. Therefore, we can see that the ultimate underpinning of Attali's information economics is no more than the capitalist dream of profits unmitigated by circumstance


The technology industry refers to this ethereal internet-based information economy as "the cloud," but given its ecological reality it would be more aptly referred to as "the smog." Lurking in the vapor are server storage facilities by companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and AT&T, each currently consuming enough megawatts of electricity to power a town of about 80,000 homes, or the World Trade Center at peak power on a hot summer day. These facilities require a half-watt in cooling for every watt they use in processing, just so we can troll through petabytes of data on key words such as some of 2007's most popular searches, "iPhone," "Pavarotti" and "Radiohead." In the US, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and are all building data centers along the Columbia River, demanding handouts from local officials in the form of tax exemptions, assurance of cheap energy rates from state-owned power facilities, and city-funded fiber-optic connections. As was noted in the March issue of the US magazine Harper's:

The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] estimates that by 2011, US data-center power use will double, but a quirk in its accounting excluded Google from the study.... In 2006 American data centers consumed more power than American televisions. Google... and it's rivals now head abroad for cheaper, often dirtier power. Microsoft has announced plans for a data center in Siberia, AT&T has built two in Shanghai, and Dublin has attracted Google and Microsoft. In all three locations, as in the United States, the burning of fossil fuels accounts for a majority of the electricity. Google is negotiating for a new site in Lithuania, disingenuously described as being near a hydroelectric dam. But no matter where the data center is located, Google will be tapping into Lithuania's power grid, which is 0.5 percent hydroelectric and 78 percent nuclear.17 Ginger Strand, "Keyword: Evil - Google's addiction to cheap electricity," in Harper's Magazine (US: March 2008), p.65.

Clearly, any attempt such as Attali's to represent information as something other than record is an ideological affront. The non-materiality of data, the very idea of engaging our own process of thinking in outer-body ways (as alluring and even vital that may appear to those with a spiritual disposition) is the grandest of social ruses duping First World publics today. It is a lie that drives economic bubbles and market crashes, hammering deeper the wedge between rich and poor, all through the absurd promise that we too might become overnight millionaires or some other mythical figure of late-capitalist freedom. In specific relation to music consumption, who wants to pay for downloads by unknown producers when major acts like Radiohead give away albums for free? And so everyone is eager to give away their commercial-oriented audio for free in search of their "big break." Their chance to be Radiohead. Not Radiohead as the musicians who give away music for free, but Radiohead the artists who are financially capable of giving away their music for free without personal repercussion.

Source: Terre Thaemlitz "Utopia of Sound", May 30, 2008 at Comatonse