Last year I got into a healthy conceptual discussion with my friend Jaime who is professionally involved in the arts world. I had an idea for this “think piece” you are about to read, discussing the intrinsic artistic and emotional value of physical media at a time when many in the industry have tried to toss “it” under the bus. Over the past year I have seen a number of commentaries which pretty much dismiss “it” — vinyl and physical media in general — positioning various formats as irrelevant, retro-nostalgic and even, perhaps, broken. On one hand, I understand what some of those people are getting at. Time marches on. But on the other hand, I do think that the physical embodiment of prerecorded music as an art form holds an important, and perhaps even honorable, role in the artistic process, at least as we know it today.
Jaime told me about a fascinating and influential 1936 essay written by a fellow named Walter Benjamin entitled The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In this manifesto, the writer lamented then-emerging technologies — such as high quality, mass-produced photography — and the threat it posed to visual arts such as painting and sculpture. Benjamin argued that a reproduction can’t communicate the original “aura” of a work of art. He reasoned that the full effect of the art is tied to time and place, seeing the painting in the flesh. You can look at a reproduction but to get the full impact one needs to experience the original work, first hand, in person. According to the wiki, “Aura” as Benjamin refers to it is a “unique aesthetic authority.”
Characters in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland might have called it “muchness.” Jaime posited that the underlying point I was trying to make somewhat reflected a 21st Century audio twist on what Mr. Benjamin discussed so many years ago.
In 2000, I had the good fortune to see in-person some of the stunning Tryptych works by Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch and I was completely blown away by them. None of the prints I had seen in numerous books could have prepared me for the depth of the experience witnessing these incredibly detailed, large-scale original works up close and personal. It was a pure, cathartic art experience.
To that, I do wonder if certain physical media can arguably deliver a more pure representation of the musician’s intent than others, a more complete presentation of the artistic statement — audio, visuals, text, etc. — all in one place.
While many people like the productions of 21st Century producer / prog rock wizard Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree fame) in Stereo, it might be argued his music is best appreciated in surround sound, a form at which he is renown. In case you are not familiar with him, he has gained the trust and support from a multitude of significant, high profile recording artists (King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Yes, XTC, etc.) who have hired him to remix their music into a high resolution surround sound experience. In present times as a mass marketed consumer product, high definition surround sound pretty much only happens via physical Blu-ray Disc and SACD platforms.
While an LP (or even a Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc) of a favorite album may be technically a “reproduction” of the artists’ original master tape, is also arguably the intended, embodiment of the artists’ music which has been put out to the world to enjoy. Several generations of musicians have created and delivered their art to the universe revolving around a physical form of “the album” or “the single” as a concept. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album is linked in so many ways to the physical cover design, the packaging is part of the bigger concept. In effect, the LP version of Sgt. Pepper IS the original artistic statement for that particular album. The music, large scale graphics, special inserts, lyrics and such are all part of the artist’s statement.
Actually, Sgt. Pepper is a good place to expand on this concept a bit because in many ways it became “ground zero” for the album-as-art package 50-plus years ago in 1967. I’ll never forget that day in 7th grade when our Music teacher spent an entire class focused on this album. As an already huge Beatle fanatic, this was a bit of heaven to be actually studying The Beatles in school! “Wow!” I thought.(and still think, frankly). For the first 10 minutes or so the teacher had us explore the cover design, the artwork and photography including the people featured on it. She asked us: “Who are they?” “Why are they there?” “What do they represent?” “Why were The Beatles dressed in colorful military outfits?” She got us thinking about the full artistic concept The Beatles had delivered, not just the game changing, mind blowing music.
Then we went on to discuss most of the tracks on the album, listening to key songs and exploring the lyrics, and what the songs meant. Now, I had already been somewhat immersed in the album concept instinctively as a kid, spending hours with my older brothers’ record collections. But from this point on I looked at album art in a bigger and different way, recognizing it as an important part of the entire feel of the album. The physical album is your point of entry, your door way to the musical adventure stored on the disc inside. The aura of the music begins in many ways even before you put on the music when you look at the album’s artwork. When you pick up a physical version of an album, at times you “feel” like you are holding the work of art…
While this “complete package” concept has been somewhat devalued over the years — what with mostly disposable CD packaging and then with the wave of MP3 downloads — it has been making a comeback of late as evidenced by fairly elaborate packages from the likes of “newer” artists like Beck, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, Father John Misty, Tool, Mastodon and others. Look at the detail on the first few records by Fleet Foxes — you really need a vinyl-album sized version of their albums to fully appreciate the fine detail there; even the CD version doesn’t quite do that package justice.
Many artists are putting out multi-disc CD and vinyl boxed sets that are terrific studies of the artists work, from b-sides and singles by Bob Dylan to rare Stax soul sides. XTC’s Andy Partridge has re-issued his his band’s landmark album Skylarking in a super deluxe edition boxed set which includes both the commercially released artwork as well as his controversial original cover designs which were rejected by the record label back in the day; the band has also released a version of that album remixed into 5.1 surround sound available only on Blu-ray Disc. Physical media. You don’t get this complete experience from a stream or download.
In recent years while crate digging and record store shopping I have spoken with many a young person collecting LPs today who have commented on how much more interesting and compelling it is to look at the large scale art work while listening to their new music finds. That more complete offering from the artist can make the process of getting “into” the music more satisfying and engaging. It can help to keep the listener focused and listening to a whole album vs. the music simply becoming a soundtrack for other things one may be doing!
Audiophile-ly speaking, when it comes to vinyl as the playback process of choice for numerous artists, I’ve heard all the arguments pro and con about why it is great and also why it sucks. Some of the technical downsides impacting vinyl are very real issues. But, so are the emotional upside responses which many a vinyl fan and audiophile will defend: that the presentation of music via vinyl records simply sounds better to their ears. I could continue down this tangent but I’ll save that perhaps for another time …
More to come soon……