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Is Music Software or Art?

Steven Wilson has no shortage of opinions on technology and digital music.
May | 25 | 2010

May | 25 | 2010

When not listening to Rush (and yes, it does happen on occasion), I’m also a big fan of the English neo-prog band Porcupine Tree. Led by its ridiculously talented and prolific front man Steven Wilson, the band has earned increasing levels of both commercial and critical success since its unique beginnings. Indeed, to go to a “PTree” concert is quite the experience, an ambient pastiche of sounds, videos, and images redolent of early Pink Floyd.

Wilson has no shortage of opinions on technology and digital music. He politely asks fans to turn off their cell phones and digital cameras during shows, believing that they detract from the overall experience. And don’t get him started on iPods. He destroys them

Wilson recently vented in an opinion piece in The New York Times. Wilson writes, “There was something in that magical, romantic, tactile relationship with the album that has been lost by the reduction of music to content.”

Along these lines, there’s also the great debate over digital audio quality. Many believe (as Wilson does) that MP3s and other digital formats provide inferior audio quality compared to analog format. Case in point: the recent surge in vinyl sales from audiophiles.

Conflicting Feelings on Technology

I happen to agree with Wilson about owning physical albums. I like looking at their art, lyrics, and liner notes. At the same time, though, I move all of my music over to my ubiquitous iPod for one simple reason: It’s convenient. I can’t imagine carrying around a Discman. A guy at my gym has one and, I’ll admit, I chuckle when I see it.

Wilson’s comments could just as easily apply to books, a subject that I’ve addressed before. I feel the same way about eReaders such as the Nook, Kindle, and iPad.  (Yes, I know that the latter can do other things but I’m throwing it in that group for now anyway). I like the experience of holding books and albums in my hand.

Maybe my feelings on books and music make me a dinosaur. If so, then so be it.

What do you think?

Image by KevinDooley.

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  1. John R

    If it makes you a dinosaur then I’m a T-Rex. I feel the same about owning physical media. The technology is headed towards digital delivery, on-demand, and clouds so it’s an inevitable switch we’ll all have to make eventually.
    That said, I’ll never ditch my LP’s and CD’s. As you mentioned there’s something about holding the album cover in your hands and admiring it, reading liner notes and lyrics, and just putting on that one album and going “there” for 45 minutes. It’s something lost in the golden age of mp3. There’s a quality missing there, too, which analog provides…but the most important thing to me as an artist is knowing that the album itself is not as lucrative as a hit single that shines in a sea of 4,000 songs on an iPod.
    Haven’t quit yet, though! I still prefer buying albums on CD and putting that CD in the car stereo on a loop to get to know it first. It all ends up on the iPod eventually, but each disc gets proper attention first.

  2. Rob Paller

    My wife shares the same opinion on e-readers as you do. She has developed a voracious appetite for reading over the past 18 months and I have suggested she consider an e-reader. Each time I am met with the same response, “I prefer the feel of holding the book I am reading.”
    There is something that vinyl albums, their sleeves, and even a book brings to the experience that an iPod or e-reader does not. There is the distinct smell of the album or the book and the tactile feedback of the pages that just can not be reproduced by technology. There is the pop and crack of the your Miles Davis Birth of Cool that is lost by digital conversion.
    While technology makes our lives more convenient it often comes with an intangible cost – the experience.

  3. Scott Andrews

    Technology in music has been the law of economics at work – make it plentiful and it becomes cheap.  If we could produce unlimited amounts of gold and diamonds the same would happen to these priceless commodities.  This is not a mere result of the mp3 format but a force that has been at work for hundreds of years.  Sheet music, the phonograph, the player piano, the radio, and all the countless innovations in sound production in the last century have all contributed to this.  Each innovation made music more available and hence less expensive.  Once restricted to concert and opera halls, music is now literally everywhere.  And I am glad to be able to play my favourite music on my computer or in my car, but I cringe when I hear it when on hold, in an elevator or during a commercial.  Why?  Because it highlights just how cheap music has become.

  4. philsimon

    Great comments, all. I don’t have too much more to add, other than that I really wonder if generations Y and Z(?) are so digital that they’ll never know the joy of records, albums, books, and other tangible assets.



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