Spend £20 on a vinyl album nowadays and chances are you’ll also get a digital download. In this single purchase, as well as your record, you get to peer over the cultural horizon.
In less than a generation, we have embraced technologies that break all ties to the physical world and transform content distribution by manifesting it only when it’s consumed. So often these technologies offer such profound benefits over the physical systems they displace, it’s easy to assume that physicality has no place in the modern world.
Music was one of the first sectors to feel the steely hand of technology on its shoulder and, though it wasn’t painless, the music industry has emerged intact and boastful of its modernity. You can see the appeal for record company execs: no mountains of inventory in shops and warehouses (and arguments about who owns it), no risk of making product nobody buys (looking at you, Terence Trent D’arby) and a whole global market (not just the US, Europe and Japan) to penetrate. The reduced risk of breaking new acts means emerging artists can reach their audiences and the ‘long tail’ of content means every taste is catered for. The technology has now been around long enough to see some interesting side effects. Live music has blossomed and the old economic model of touring-to-sell-product has been inverted as people seek real experiences and the excitement of seeing artists perform. And alongside the digital, sales of very physical product are booming with heavyweight vinyl and luxurious box sets that glory in their physicality (in 2014, vinyl record sales passed the 1m mark for the first time since 1996).
The urge to own
As the digital guinea pig, music continues to deploy new distribution models that are still on strategists’ white boards in other sectors. Unlike downloads, streaming and subscription services make no illusion of ownership, but when set alongside luxurious physical formats, two distinct and separate utilities emerge – music you listen to and music you own.
Subscription services such as Spotify are really a form of personalised radio and are a world away from a lifetime’s record collection. Yet, ownership has always been an important part of our relationship to music, which is both broad and deep. Collecting music is the most widespread acquisition of pop culture and many people, for whom music is an integral and irreplaceable part of their lives, are deeply passionate about it. This is an emotional relationship that is enhanced and channelled through the bonds of ownership. Physical music – vinyl, CD, cassette – collected over a lifetime, as well as being our life’s soundtrack, become its defining possessions.
I find it hard to believe that technology will sweep all this away, but when I present this argument in talks I do about physical language, people always say it’s an age thing and that ‘digital natives’ are happy to not own music. Maybe, maybe not. I have a theory that humans are so hard-wired to physicality that it informs the fundamental way we see the world and that it blinds us to the fact that digital representations of content don’t actually exist – it’s just code and numbers. I believe we don’t appreciate the differences between digital and physical because they’re so profound. Physical things are intrinsically scarce – we treasure old singles because we know they’re rare – whereas digital ‘things’ only ever become more abundant. While we have many evolutionary responses to scarcity, we have none for abundance. The rapid pace of change in technology obscures the uncertain long-term implications of digitisation. It might be less of a concern with music – they’ll always be a version of Spotify – than it might be for personalised content like photographs. If Flickr’s code stops working, not having your wedding photographs in a shoebox under the bed might suddenly look like a catastrophic error of judgment.
On a very different timescale, our human relationship with physicality is millions of years old. Our senses, emotions and intelligent processes all evolved in a physical environment and, as behavioural scientists are discovering, much of this primitive, evolutionary perception drives our everyday behaviour. The hard wiring of physicality means that we rarely, if ever, think about it. This is an entirely subconscious mechanism – our bonds to the things that we own are emotional and define who we are. It’s no coincidence we call our possessions our ‘belongings’.
Objects of desire
With digital hindsight, physical music formats look hugely compromised as distribution vehicles, but they were also compromised as physical expressions of artistic creativity. The dualistic model – digital listening and physical ownership – is an exciting prospect that could be replicated beyond the domain of music…though it’s not here just yet. A curious question arises from the free-download-with-a-vinyl-album scenario – if the audio is digital, why does the physical thing need to be a piece of vinyl? If owning and listening are now separated, why can’t the physical thing be any other kind of object?
Just as the technology liberates music from the object, it also liberates the object from the music. Digital could make physicality the de facto emotional language by freeing it from its informative utility, just as photography liberated painting from being representative to being primarily expressive. With this idea in mind, I’m working on a new experiment in physical language – Idiom will make music-related artefacts, tangible expressions of an artist’s ideas in the form of an object you can own. I hope the limitless vocabulary of physical language will inspire and excite musicians to make some wonderful and exquisite things that might become the basis of a digital age music collection.