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TDR: The Drama Review 45.1 (2001) 77-83

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Looking at Records 1 - [PDF]

Philip Auslander

Intellectual property expert Paul Goldstein predicts that, in the very near future, recorded music and other entertainment commodities will be distributed by means of a system he calls the "Celestial Jukebox," which he describes as "a technology-packed satellite orbiting thousands of miles above Earth, awaiting a subscriber's order--like a nickel in the old jukebox, and the punch of a button--to connect him to any number of selections from a vast storehouse via a home or office receiver [...]" (1994:199). Goldstein concedes that the notion of a satellite is metaphoric but insists that some such delivery system, whether celestial or terrestrial, is the wave of the future.

The development of a new system of cultural distribution along the lines of the Celestial Jukebox is well underway; witness the popularity of downloaded MP3 files as musical commodities. This development will radically change our relationship to recorded music. Above all, it entails the dematerialization of the musical object, a change so fundamental as to constitute a paradigm shift. Throughout the history of recorded music, the consumption of music has been accomplished through the consumption of recordings as material objects. Arguably, the first such material object--though not strictly speaking a recording--was the mass-produced printed score, which became a consumer commodity in the 19th century with the increased popularity of domestic music production and the piano as a home appliance. Subsequent material objects associated with the consumption of music include the piano roll, the Edison cylinder, the 78 rpm disc, the LP, the 45 rpm single, the 12-inch single, the cassette, and, ultimately, the compact disc. For well over a century, the consumption of recorded music has meant the purchase and ownership of objects of this kind, the material supports for the music itself.

In the 20th century, the consumption of recorded music was often achieved through media that do not require ownership of a musical object, such as the traditional jukebox and radio. It is the case, however, that the primary function of these media is to create a market for musical recordings and, thus, to promote sales. The transaction that is initiated when a listener hears a recording on the radio is not complete until that listener has acquired a copy of the recording. 2

Already, we are able to download music from the Internet onto a material support of our own choosing (e.g., hard drives, recordable CDs and DVDs or other large-capacity discs). When the Celestial Jukebox is fully developed, whether on the Internet or as a cable or satellite service, we will not need to record music at all, since the jukebox will feature a limitless library from which we can retrieve whatever we want whenever we want it, for immediate use. [End Page 77] Such a system of distribution will bring about a major change in consumer culture and cultural consumption. Recorded music will be consumed as a commodity in itself, apart from a specific material support. We will no longer need to buy and own a particular material object to have access to particular music.

Historically, one consequence of the reification of music in recordings is the century-old separation of the aural experience of music from its visual experience. Dave Laing indicates that the critical impact of the gramophone when it became widely available in the 1890s was "a vital shift in the experience of listening to music: the replacement of an audio-visual event with a primarily audio one, sound without vision" (1991:7-8). The advent of recording technology brought about a crucial change in the sensory economy of music consumption that made hearing the dominant sensory mode in that subsector of cultural production.

In this respect, the music industry is perhaps different from other subsectors of commodity capitalist economies. French Situationist theorist Guy Debord, who "grafted [...] antiocular discourse onto the Western Marxist totalizing critique of reification and fetishism" (Jay 1993:426), argues that sight is the central sensory trope of capitalist economies. In his...


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