5. Beethoven and the iPod Nation
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5. Beethoven and the iPod Nation The long-playing record, popularly known as the LP, appeared shortly after World War II. Columbia Records introduced it to the American market as a medium for classical music, under the assumption that longer discs had greater commercial potential with Beethoven than they might with Bing Crosby: the company’s first LP ads promised “a truly new experience in listening pleasure—complete symphonies on a single record.” The medium initially offered five times the side length of 78rpm shellacs, allowing listening sessions to be measured in hours rather than minutes. And a single LP was able to encompass most every work from the AustroGerman symphonic tradition before Bruckner’s Eighth and Mahler’s Second . Those first vinyl discs held about seventeen minutes of music per side, and side lengths increased to roughly thirty minutes within several years.1 So the LP defined a range of possibility when it arrived in 1948. But the compact disc, when it arrived thirty-five years later, set a firm terminus ad quem, imposing a more-or-less rigid seventy-minute limit on a classical market accustomed to the gigantism of Wagner operas and Mahler symphonies. The CD did serve musical continuity with its lack of side changes, allowing listeners a new form of uninterrupted “listening pleasure ” that encompassed the linear compositional spans of complete symphonies . Though the LP presented a more flexible time-heuristic than the CD, both formats became commercial measures of aesthetic experience as well as containers for sound—they represented new bottles for old wines, potential time spans to be filled up with music. When MP3 files and players like the iPod arrived in force some twenty years after the CD, the new technology contrasted with the LP and CD in that it was significantly non-bottlelike. In its main difference, MP3 made durational possibilities of 162 media largely irrelevant: an MP3 file is “nonclassical” in orientation in that it is not time-specific, stretching to three seconds, three hours, or any length in between. The MP3 thereby shifted musical phenomenologies away from the durational parameters typical of art music, at a time when the public appeal of classical music was already in significant decline, at least in North America. While the 78rpm disc, the LP, and the CD all served to define and limit stretches of musical information—that was their function—the MP3 removed such limits, or more accurately it moved the argument away from those discussions. In fact, to mention MP3 in the same breath as the older technologies is to risk comparing apples and oranges: it is neither a medium nor a recording method. It is a form of data compression and decompression, a lossy codec that cuts corners to reduce file size and expedite transmission and storage. It cuts those corners strategically, in such a way as to psychoacoustically minimize undesirable artifacts. MP3 can be described even more narrowly as a container technology—a format “designed to execute a process on its contents,” as Jonathan Sterne puts it.2 Lossy codecs like the MP3 have made sound files more mobile in a time of limited bandwidths, able to zip from Toronto to Tokyo in seconds. They have thereby ushered music into the information age, wreaking profound musical and cultural changes with their mutability and speed of transmission . From the broader cultural perspective, the MP3 could be described as an “intellectual technology”—social anthropologist Jack Goody’s term for a tool, like print or video media, that instigates a new “cognitive potentiality for human beings.” Conrad Shayo and Ruth Guthrie, authorities in information science, point to the specific market shifts heralded—or brought on—by lossy codecs. They call MP3 a “disruptive technology,” their word for a technology that “offer[s] a different value proposition to the market and tend[s] to appeal to new categories of customers who have different perceptions of product value.”3 These issues are all the more pressing because lossy codecs such as MP3 promise to become the dominant format within less than ten years. Since art music has become just as technologydependent as pop, but has long since ceased to dictate format or market decisions , we need to ask three important questions: how art music itself represents a type of information—in other words, just how amenable to art music MP3 is, how MP3 technology influences consumption of art music, and how lossy codecs might affect its future...


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