At the end of May 2005 a friend told me of a development I assumed was a joke.
The number one single in the United Kingdom had just been confirmed. Beating out the rap group Akon, as well as the incessantly popular Coldplay by nearly four copies to one, was a blue, animated froglike creature from a German mobile phone company.
It seems a ring tone, a retake on the huge 1980s hit “Axel F.”, had become England’s favorite music. It would hold the premiere UK spot for the next four weeks. Over the next few months it climbed to number one throughout most of Europe and Australia.
It doesn’t take an audiophile to recognize that the musical possibilities of a cell phone are crude to the point of abstract. But ring tones are perhaps the music industry’s fastest growing opportunity, with $4 billion in global sales during 2004. Though the online music industry proper is only beginning to sell complete singles for $.99 a track, 20-second ring tones have been selling well for years now for about $3 each. Most ring tones are composed of either monophonic or polyphonic (SP-MIDI) sequences, but many newer models support compressed audio clips. The most popular musical ring tones are always cell-phone-capable arrangements of pop songs, with just enough fidelity to be recognizable as a reference to the source material. These brief tunes are their own referential music; music that acts as a sketched abstract of an established song, evoking the memory of this music. The cell phone, so perfect a medium for purely referential music has indeed formed a happy union with the content referencing that has fueled pop music for ages.
But doesn’t the Crazy Frog phenomenon reveal that ring tones can escape their second-hand status as mere pointers and become our preferred music? This anthropomorphic corporate mascot may in fact herald the next stage of popular music as it shifts into its next form, whose value and meaning lies increasingly in its reference to the medium of its predecessor.
Technological innovations not only change music production but what listeners think music is and is not. At the end of the 19th century, new copyright laws allowed the Tin Pan Alley alliances of composers, lyricists, and publishers to make sheet music a song’s tangible artifact, with performers and enthusiasts alike purchasing copies of hit songs (e.g. “After the Ball Is Over") by the millions. In the 20th century, gadgetry gets its big break, and technology no longer merely plays a socially catalytic role but becomes the means of producing musical sound. By 1911 the price of the newly invented Victrola had dropped as low as $15, filling American homes. Stars quickly began to record for emerging record companies. The deep voices of celebrities like Enrico Caruso were a natural fit for this technology, which ignored nearly everything above 2,500 Hz and below 150 Hz, badly reproducing the rest—less than an eighth of the fidelity of our modern CD standard. Much like with cell phone ring tones, this sound served as a mnemonic for the what was understood as the prevailing mode of music—live performance—that it would soon overtake.
But the bright sound of the piano, hostile to early recording methods, found its own way to survive in this age of simulation. As early as 1905, professional pianists were mechanically recording every nuance of their gestures onto rolls of paper. These rolls could then be played back on the Pianola or other brand-name player pianos in one’s living room. A 1920s advertisement for these devices shows just how deeply technology had dug itself into the act of music making. In one frame we see a bored, snoozing family surrounding a regular upright piano with caption reading “The Silent Piano”. In the next, the same family is dancing and singing along with a player piano. Indeed, in 1925 player pianos outsold “silent pianos”.
Radio’s appearance was initially greeted by the industry with hostility but soon found a role as partner. By 1930, Billboard was reporting that “sheet music and record dealers now consider radio a boon to their business, rather than a detriment.” As live performing professionals had once advertised sheet music, now radio would advertise records, since by this point, music was now near completely encapsulated within a vinyl physical object referencing an imagined live performance few people actually witnessed, if it were to take place at all.
But the rise of television in the 1940s and 1950s presented radio with a new challenge. To maintain its entertainment value in the face of television, radio responded with its Top 40 format, choosing songs directly from the Billboard chart of the same name. The domination of the hit single had begun. Casey Kasem hit the airwaves in 1970, counting down hit songs in reverse order. Corporate consolidation among radio stations began in the mid 1980s and resulted in the top 20 owners maintaining more than 20 percent of all domestic stations.
The emphasis on hit singles in the market had the effect of diminishing the significance of artists themselves. To the public, many artists are reduced to and equated with their singles, remaining one-dimensional. Without live representation, an artist’s opportunity to connect with an audience as one human to another disappears.
Now the single-based format is stronger than ever, thanks to song downloads and the advent of music-compression technology—MP3s. The 2005 addition of paid music downloads to Billboard‘s charting metrics signaled their growing significance. Not only does the distribution of individual songs reinforce the importance of singles, but the ad-hoc social process of exchange among users of the wealth of recordings available as swappable digital files encourages users to create a montage of singles, mix-tape style. Indeed, Apple’s research found that many consumers constantly listened to their iPods in shuffle mode, prompting them to create a screenless player the size of a pack of gum that would automatically play loaded singles randomly. This randomization divorces music—now freed from aesthetic, geographic, and personal features—from the musicians who performed it. With all the emphasis on singles, the notion of artists as active musical entities loses force as the aesthetic direction they once offered through albums dissolves. The consuming public confronts their song collections as though they were found sounds, akin to musique concrète. The result is a two-way street of musical decontextualization: Disembodied singles are both better suited for ad-hoc arrangement while such an arrangement further reinforces the idea of singles as isolated found sounds.
But aren’t we searching for more than sounds? If one random ordering of music is as good as another, what does this say about the role of music in our lives? Apple claims in its ads that “iPod Shuffle adds musical spontaneity to your life. Lose control. Love it.” For many however, there’s just not much to lose.
Recording technology needed to evolve to a point where it could effectively stand in for live performance. It didn’t need to be perfect, but the bar for fidelity was fairly high. Now, with recordings handing off the baton to shuffled MP3s, the target for fidelity is that much lower. Even though 128-kilobits-per-second MP3s typically reveal their flaws over multiple listens, this iTunes-recommended encoding level is the most popular, a testament to music’s changing role in society. Digital singles aren’t trying to represent the live show, they’re shooting for the CD playing out of your computer into mediocre headphones. We in turn adapt to the new condition, eventually forgetting the original reference—now the poor-sounding MP3 is what music is. Like a techno-cultural game of telephone, we’re getting signal loss here. Music is simply moving further from our biological experience of sound, becoming more conceptual, more abstract. Increasingly, music need only be vivid enough to trigger memories of cultural reference points. Online file-sharing communities are, most important, about the exchange of these cultural references as about trading songs themselves.
Popular music has always been about fashionable image-making, but as the high-fidelity recording industry drowns in a cacophony of ring tones and MP3s, images—music videos—become more significant. (It’s no coincidence that iPod models have recently added video capabilities.) When yoked to images, music becomes even more a mere referential trigger. Liberated from acoustics, musical experience serves to convey a blend of visual images and cultural references that a listener uses to build their self-concept. The feverish popularity of personalized ring tones (and individualized ring-back tones) attests to this. For many, one’s unique acoustic phone signature is a source of pride, a declaration of self amongst a group that recognizes the cultural references inherent in one’s choice of ring tone. Developing video-phone capabilities now display friends’ faces along with the ring-tone associated with them. Songs are increasingly becoming powerful functional mnemonics associated with one’s social networks.
Coldplay’s crushing defeat makes perfect sense in this light. Think about it: Which experience is likely to get a more emotionally invested response—the single you’ve heard some on the radio, sandwiched between other singles (and commercials), or the simple, catchy tune you picked out that goes off every time your boyfriend or girlfriend calls? Ring tones transcend whatever song they once referenced, even the live performance recordings once referenced. They are immediately and inexorably linked to something far more personal: other people.
So, in an age when most people neither buy records nor go to live performances but constantly answer their phones and download digital singles, we have to ask ourselves who the real performers are. It is possible that the only “live” musical experience left is at the point of user playback. As individual events, these experiences are clearly impoverished—several seconds of midi playback or a few minutes of compressed content, transient and disposable. But when viewed en masse as fodder for social exchange, we see a newly purposed popular music where consumers might take over where their stars left off, adding their own semantic depth to the flatlands of digital music surrounding them. By appropriating music for social practices tied to these contemporary modes of communication, can’t we dig out more hospitable, personalized spaces for ourselves and our peers? Isn’t it ultimately empowering to dictate our own musical meaning?
Possibly, but the challenge of assuming the directive role once exclusive to performers (and producers, musical directors, etc.) is formidable. The consequences of curating your musical environment poorly won’t be dramatic or immediate. Music will simply gradually lose depth, becoming less expressive on its own terms. When musical experience becomes an unconvincing arrangement of disembodied singles and a room full of easily identifiable, but annoying ring tones, the Music in music waves goodbye. What’s left is the functional component. We start thinking of music as caller ID, as time-killing stimulus between subway stops. The industry will in turn respond to these needs. As Tin Pan Alley weeded out the complexity and improvisation of its product’s blues and jazz roots to produce songs both professionals and amateurs could play from sheet music, marketplace entropy will now provide no more than we remember to ask for. Also, personalized references inherently draw listeners’ social circles tighter about them, wielding ring tones and singles with extra-musical meaning their friends alone understand. For the rest of us, the appeal of the ring tone is lost without a meaningful reference to the original, full-range musical experience—to us it’s just bad music.
This is an age where all marketing points to making things as easy as possible for listeners. Everything a consumer could possibly want becomes a click away, eliminating as much decision-making as possible. When I’m browsing through apartment listings, I appreciate this, but for music things aren’t as simple. What is required is a way to empower listeners, sparking them into activity—to return control and provide the means to learn to use it. An attempt to “add spontaneity to your life” via a random number generator simply doesn’t work; spontaneity is a much richer human phenomenon. If listeners are to be the last keepers of live musical experience, the last performers, they will need the ability to make these musical decisions for themselves and, as their techno-social networks evolve, one another.
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