The Political Ecology of Recorded Music

I listen to a ton of music, mostly in various digital format — CDs, downloads, and streams — but I do so through a occasionally painfully anachronistic system that involves vacuum tube amplification and single-driver, paper-cone speakers and enough cables to stress my wife (and my  dad, a former old-school IT guy) out. And, yes, I’m one of those guys who believes valves sound better and the best speakers are dynamic and biased toward the middle frequencies where the human voice and most instruments happen (at least at the price point where I operate). I also continue to buy and play CDs but I’ve never allowed myself to get into the so-called vinyl revival.

My stereo, then, is a very material presence in our home even when it’s playing music downloaded or stream through the internet. Kyle Devine’s book, Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music (MIT 2019) examines the political ecology of recorded music starting with shellac disks and vinyl LPs and continuing through to modern CDs and digital music streams and downloads. 

As with so many works informed by “neomaterialist” approaches to objects, Devine shows a particular interest in the processes and materials involved in the manufacturing of recorded music. From the harvesting of lac beetle secretions and quarrying for limestone required for shellac records to the petroleum based plastics that make up vinyl LPs and CDs and their jewel cases, Devine shows how that Father John Misty is right when he sings: 

Try not to think so much about
The truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record
All the shipping, the vinyl, the cellophane lining
The high gloss
The tape and the gear

Devine goes into some detail about the environmental damage and dangers faced by works in the record manufacturing industry which both left behind toxic waste and workers scarred by the process. He spends less time linking the processes involved in making an LP with the experience of playing or handling (or even destroying) a record which is a departure from a certain among of popular writing that celebrates how consumers engage with the distinctive materiality of the vinyl disk.  

The contrast between the consumer experience of materiality and the perceived immateriality of music in the 21st century (as downloads and the like) parallels a broader trends in how we understand consumer culture. On the one hand, people are becoming increasingly aware that we pay for intellectual property as much as the materials themselves. In fact, the intellectual property associated with goods and objects often shapes how we can engage with the objects themselves. Proprietary software updates, for example, can change the sonic signature of playback devices and, in some celebrated examples, prevent informal maintenance and repair on farm equipment. 

On the other hand, there’s been growing attention to the physical infrastructure that supports our download and software driven consumer culture. The human cost of the material in our portable devices which often comes from countries with poor worker safety, child labor problems, and little organized labor. Server farms generate tremendous amounts of heat and require immense quantities of power to serve music. They also reflect increasingly deterritorialized nature of consumer culture where regional and global servers work together to distribute copies of songs to devices in ways that offer only the faintest resemblance to the supply chains that produced and distributed vinyl records or plastic CDs.

Among the most interesting observations in the book is that prior to the advent of the CD (or the distribution of music digitally), record companies were organized and thought of themselves much more as manufacturing companies with significant investments in not only the production of vinyl disks, but their chemical make up and the technologies involved in their playback. A few companies, such as Sony, continue this tradition with investment in both playback technology, devices, and record labels (Columbia, RCA, as well as their own record labels). 

Today, there’s a much greater awareness of the intellectual property associated with music. The fluidity and relative ease of digital recording and distribution streamlines the relationship between a singer, a song, and its possible monetary value. In the past, however, the record companies role in manufacturing the medium through which the song circulated made the link between the song as an idea that could be monetized and the song as a commodity less direct. The medium of the recording and distribution of the music made the record company’s role in the literal manufacturing of a hit song or album much more significant and the role of the artist less distinct and clear. Today, in contrast, the success of musician-owned labels and private, independent releases on the internet shifts the emphasis from song as commodity made possible through the collaboration of the artist, recording industry, and manufacturing, to the artist as primary, if not sole, generator of value. When individuals project this contemporary view of how music generates value onto the past, it is easier to see artists as being exploited in the past, and recordings as more intellectual than material property.

To be clear, this isn’t to suggest that exploitation didn’t occur. The story is well known: white musicians exploited African American artists and used their social and racial access to the manufacturing and distribution capacities of the record industry to make money for white record labels and performers. The role of ASCAP in protecting the intellectual rights of artists took on greater significance well before the internet, of course, with the radio and within the recording industry, but as the route from recording to revenue undergoes material changes in the 21st century so will the very idea of how art is valued.

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