In Part 1 of this article, I referenced an interesting essay by Walter Benjamin, a forward looking, influential 1936 document entitled The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In this piece the writer lamented then-emerging technologies — such as high quality, mass-produced photography and printing — and the threat it posed to art back in the day. 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. One can look at a reproduction but to get the full impact one needs to experience the original work, first hand, in person. The wiki summed it up saying Benjamin “proposes that the aura of a work of art is devalued by mechanical reproduction.”
Riffing off of that concept, I wonder if — at least for a fairly sizable portion of the historic archive of recorded music up until the most recent of times — a physical representation of an artist’s recorded output is the audio equivalent of experiencing an original work of art as a complete package? The music, artwork, special inserts, liner notes and such are all part of the artist’s statement. This “complete package” has been steadily devalued over the years, devolving to basically invisible digital files and “streams.”
Personally, I have made very little emotional connection to my extensive purely digital music collection (ie. downloads, streams). I have lots of the stuff, but for the most part it’s all just data stored on a back up hard drive or in the cloud. If you don’t have them up on your computer or iPad or iPhone, the album basically disappears. Sure, if you have fancy whole house type system or a Tidal subscription or Roon you can access to the music on demand on your computing devices. Its cool. I get it. But, I question: are you getting the full experience as the artist intends this way? Are you fully engaged with the artist’s vision? With the physical portion eliminated, so goes the aura of many an artistic statement.
It is not surprising to me that most artists these days have returned to issuing their albums on large format vinyl and other visually driven media platforms (like DVD/Blu-ray) when feasible. It offers a stronger showcase for the artist’s intent than a transient audio presentation. The physical version of a musical statement brings with it — and leaves behind — an impression which may ultimately increase listener engagement with the artist and the music writing.
The physical manifestation of music is able to exist as a presence in the consumer’s life space even when it isn’t being played — typically, people like to display these things on shelves and such. Indeed, for the artist’s work in a physical form to gain “shelf space” in the consumer’s collection — and mind share in their heads — is as valuable a phenomenon as supermarket shelf space is to packaged goods manufacturers when considered from a pure marketing perspective.
I have thousands and thousands of physical albums, 45s, 78s, Blu-rays, DVDs and CDs and for the most part I have a good idea of what I have and where it is. I can’t say the same about my digital music collection. As soon as I close down that hard drive where I keep the stuff, it pretty much fades from memory.
How long will physical media remain engaging? I’m not sure. Some of you will of course argue that it is already dead and gone, and that everything we are discussing here is moot. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
I think we are currently experiencing stepping stones in the evolution of pre-recorded music as an art form. I hope that perhaps some other compelling presentation for music listening will evolve over time. For example, if virtual reality somehow catches on in a mass market manner, perhaps recordings will become a part of that new direction.
Returning to Mr. Benjamin’s essay, he says at one point: “what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object, the weight it derives from tradition… What withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the…aura.”
Whatever format or platform catches on in the future, the artists’ aura must be reproducible. Without that aura, we’ll just have a cold batch of heartless files to manage. I think we can do better… a new platform for the artist’s aura to bask in will emerge.