Ever since the rise of Edison’s wax cylinder in 1877, musical culture has been thrust onto seemingly perpetual unsure-footing. The ensuing debate and dialogue has been filled with extremes, from John Philip Sousa’s prediction that recordings would bring about music’s ultimate demise to Edison’s own proclamation that (as applied to communications more generally) the phonograph would “annihilate time and space, and bottle up for posterity the mere utterance of man,” – an argument often made on behalf of accuracy and preservation. But the birth of recording equipment brought about many unforeseen consequences that populated the middle-ground, changing societal norms, influencing adjacent industries, and providing avenues for seemingly contradictory independently-shared experiences. Highlighting the ways in which recordings led to an increased consumerization of music, Mark Katz argues that the rise of independent listening has paved the way for music to mean new and intriguing things in new and intriguing ways.
But just as Katz argues on behalf of the shared communal experience and the ways in which the commodification of recordings created increased paradoxes, Richard Leppert positions the advent of recordings as a repositioning/redefining of the relationship between the music producer and the music consumer.
Riffing on the positive elements of recording’s insertion into the musical zeitgeist, Katz quotes producer Matt Serletic as he posits that recorded music may actually provide for more honest and passionate preservations and performances.
But much of this is called into question when examining the intersection of electronic music and live performance. Mark Richardson of Pitchfork magazine states that Daft Punk’s most recent album, Random Access Memories “finds them leaving behind the highly influential, riff-heavy EDM they originated to luxuriate in the sounds, styles, and production techniques of the 1970s and early 80s.” By presenting a curated “mix of disco, soft rock, and prog-pop, along with some Broadway-style pop bombast and even a few pinches of their squelching stadium-dance aesthetic,” Richardson argues that Daft Punk’s central thesis is that something special in music has been lost.
In an internet era defined by quick connections, instant gratification, and “ephemeral pleasures”, Daft Punk seemingly seeks to position itself as a return to a more focused form of media. Throughout RAM, Daft Punk recorded in the best studios with the highest quality musicians, they completely abandoned samples and instead hired choirs and orchestras when necessary. Daft punk wanted to slow things down and focus on quality. Quality sounds and a quality listening experience. According to Richardson, “most of all, they wanted to create an album-album, a series of songs that could take the listener on a trip, the way LPs were supposedly experienced in another time.” Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes put it another way:
But such a tailored commitment to quality can sometimes register as somewhat elitist approach to creativity.
The internet has brought with it new advertising models and targeted taste-based ads galore. And with it has come algorithms and theorizing on the linkages between preferences and musical tastes. Daft punk was celarly trying to make an album. A real album. They were trying to harken back to a time before MTV, CDs, and the Walkman shifted listening experiences from live group performances and high quality vinyl to a lesser quality sound dispersed across a range of media and experienced in varying constellations of people and situations.
Alex Ross, “The Record Effect,” The New Yorker, June 6, 2005.
Mark Katz, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). Excerpts from Chap. 1 and 7.