Monday, July 29, 2013
The Social History Of The MP3
(By Eric Harvey, Pitchfork.com, posted August 24, 2009)
Considering all the new music we have to sort through so far in the 21st century, we've sure been focusing an awful lot lately on two of the biggest stars of the 20th. Decades after their respective popular peaks, recent events reminded us, neither the Beatles nor Michael Jackson have loosened their grip on our imagination. Yet one particular thing I noticed amidst the nostalgia surrounding the latest (and likely last) Beatles CD reissues, and
sudden passing was a sense of resignation that the eras within which both stars
emerged seem highly unlikely to happen again. The Beatles, in 1963-64 and 1967,
and Michael Jackson in 1983-4 arguably represented for pop music what World
Cups, the Olympics, and Super Bowls do for sports, and what blockbuster summer
hits do for movies: the ability to command everyone's attention at once. Jackson
The latest chapters of these two long-running pop narratives not only celebrated their art and pop-culture impact, but also-- with MJ posthumously topping the Billboard charts and millions preparing to shell out again for new copies of Revolver and more-- commemorated the ritual of paying for it. It's a way of framing these events that could only happen now, at a time when mp3s and file-sharing networks have allowed millions of disparate global collaborators to create the largest shadow economy in history, which has eaten away at the music industry like termites on the foundation of an old house. In its place, an unstable infrastructure that has created infinite new demands for our attention, yet is far too unstable to support world-conquering superstars. We've all read the trend pieces and editorials lamenting the record industry's poor decisions and crumbling business model, the fact that kids don't value music anymore, and the outmoded strategies used to try to win back paying customers. So omnipresent have these discussions become, in fact, that it's possible the past 10 years could become the first decade of pop music to be remembered by history for its musical technology rather than the actual music itself.
This is a chastening thought, but at the same time we have to be careful not to overlook how the technologies we invent to deliver music also work to shape our perception of it. When radio came along, its broadcasts created communities of music-listening strangers, physically distant from each other but connected through the knowledge that they were listening to the same song at the same time. Where radio brought listeners together as a listening public, the LP started splitting them apart. The LP and 45 rpm formats took the phonograph, which had been in existence for over half a century, to the masses, right as the American middle-class was going suburban and privatizing their lives. We could then use musical objects like we'd been using literature and art for centuries prior: as collectibles, and signifiers of personal taste. The emergence of the cassette--the first sturdy, re-writeable music technology-- allowed us to "manufacture" our own music in the privacy of our own homes and recirculate it at our will, through mixtape trading and full-album dubbing. By the early 1980s, home taping had become the latest fall guy for an industry trying to blame consumer delinquency for its slipping fortunes, rather than its own overspending.
The cassette "crisis" seems quaint when compared to the rise of the mp3. The first widespread music delivery technology to emanate from outside industry control, mp3s, flowing through peer-to-peer networks and other pathways hidden in plain sight, have performed the radical task of separating music from the music industry for the first time in a century. They have facilitated the rise of an enormous pirate infrastructure; ideologically separate from the established one, but feeding off its products, multiplying and distributing them freely, without following the century-old rules of capitalist exchange. Capitalism hasn't gone away, of course, but mp3s have severely threatened its habits and rituals within music culture. There is nothing inherent or natural about paying for music, and the circulation of mp3s > through unsanctioned networks reaffirms music as a social process driven by passion, not market logic or copyright. Yet at the same time the Internet largely freed music from its packaged-good status and opened a realm of free-exchange, it also rendered those exciting new rituals very trackable. In the same way that Facebook visually represents "having friends," the mp3s coursing through file-sharing networks quantify the online social life of music by charting its path. The social routines that take place around online music are visible data-- which makes them much more susceptible to intellectual property statutes than was the case with cassettes or CDs.
These changes are part of a social and economic shift that is both revolutionary in scope and potential but also reliant on very traditional ideas of interaction and production. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution upended Western societies from their agrarian ways of life, distancing the average person from the means of production, and introduced what would later be called "modernity." In the late 20th century, the Internet quickly made this phase of communication and economics look quaint and distant. This latest shift-- you can tell your grandkids you lived through it-- opens the possibility to freely create and distribute culture, with the idea of reaching a global audience. Compared to the one-to-many model of last century, the current one, which is still coming into shape, gives us the capacity-- maybe even necessity-- to cheaply and easily collaborate, create, organize, and speak truth to power. Technologically, it's futuristic. In terms of what it might hold for social organization, the roots are pre-modern, even ancient.
Let's not get carried away, though. A lot of forces would have to coalesce for any sort of revolution to happen. More likely, it will take a while, as it did with radio and the phonograph, for mp3s to stabilize and reach a point where the old ways of doing things learn from the new tools. The mess left by free digital music-- a collapsed industry, a rising generation of kids with a vastly different notion of musical "value" than their parents, a subset of that set with more eclectic tastes than a teenager should be capable of, and a wave of lawsuits that are going to appear increasingly surreal and ridiculous as they fall into history-- is going to take a while to sort out and clean up.
This is our attempt to survey the damage, assess the gains, and try to put the mp3's first full decade in perspective. Keep in mind that while the mp3 is a radically new technology, it's not a different musical medium: The mp3 is still "recorded music"-- that's not going to change until Apple unveils the iBrain-- but it's recorded music that moves around very differently than ever before. As a result, mp3s have opened up vast new musical horizons over the past 10 years-- how we discover it, the value we give to it, and how we see ourselves connected to other people through it-- that both depart from and build upon the innovations that came before it. Everything's still messy at the moment, but it's not going to be this way forever-- a few decades from now, we'll most likely find ourselves nostalgic for the mp3 decade.
The MP3 Story Begins
The mp3 story begins, appropriately enough, in the same subversive, bottom-up way that so many of the files wind up on the Internet today: as a leak. In 1988, The Moving Picture Coding Experts Group, a collection of about 25 geeks from industry and academia, was tasked by the International Organization for Standardization-- which sets codes for everything from railroad engineering to rubber and plastic-- with crafting a workable standard to move movies digitally (and, it was anticipated, cheaply). By July 1989, they'd come up with "MPEG-1 Audio and Video," which was in use by 1992. Soon after this, a hacker called "SoloH" swiped the codec off an unprotected server, extracted the layer devoted to audio encoding, and shipped it around the globe. Within a few years the dam had burst. Instantly, it seemed, fans started ripping music from CDs to trade with unseen others, and small-time artists and entrepreneurs started figuring out how to turn a profit from mp3s. The recording industry actually saw mp3s as an opportunity, too, at least initially. Geffen Records' "director of technology" told USA Today in 1997 that Geffen "doesn't see MPEG as a problem. We like anything that increases the ability of consumers to listen to high-quality music, and if that means on their computer, that's fine, too. We're actually working on ways to program for it and to provide material in this format because consumers are making it clear that this is a format they like."
Needless to say, they failed. By 2003, things had risen to the level that Orrin Hatch was grilling technology firms at Senate Judiciary Committee hearings about the possibility of "warning" copyright infringers, and then-- I'm not making this up-- destroying their computers. "If that's the only way," Hatch said, "then I'm all for destroying their machines. If you have a few hundred thousand of those, I think people would realize the seriousness of their actions." In 1997, mp3s were disorganized and hard to find online, let alone download through a phone-line connection. By 2003, they were everywhere, and impossible to stop. In an ironic twist, the peer-to-peer networks that mp3s started flowing through were a basic re-engineering of a model developed for a radically different reason, if not a similar function. Originating during World War II to streamline workflow and evade bureaucratic slowdowns between research universities and government agencies, the Internet gradually grew to facilitate discussion-driven communities, finally going overground in the 90s. By the end of that decade, these same ideas found their way into online music, via a tech-savvy, class-skipping Northeastern freshman. Shawn Fanning was a hard guy to root for, but it still holds that what he instigated with Napster at the turn of the century-- and more importantly what others have done with his idea since-- is the most important innovation in musical distribution since the 45 rpm record.
In the broadest sense, mp3s filled a similar distribution function for the Internet era that the convergence of 45s, jukeboxes, and radio did in the 1940s and 50s. That earlier process was set into motion in 1939, when the ASCAP licensing organization failed to come to a royalty agreement with radio networks. As a result, radio executives banded together to form the rival BMI, and set about scouring the country for new talent. The hillbillies and juke-joint bluesmen they found were recorded in storefront studios using new and affordable means of putting music on tape, pressed on the cheap, sturdy discs RCA had just patented, and delivered around the country to fly-by-night radio stations and jukeboxes. Oh, and along the way, they invented rock'n'roll.
The likeness between the two technologies, and their effects on the industries, are clear: 45s were also individual pieces of recorded music made to flow through a network more quickly than their predecessors (the 78s they replaced were expensive and brittle). Those small discs also relied on independent music for the creation of an expansive new music market easily affordable by young people, which put a serious dent in the existing major label market share. When we think about what mp3s have done to the current version of the recording industry, we should compare it to what indies and 45s did a half-century ago: In 1948, the majors controlled a whopping 81% of the market. By 1959, that was down to 34%. Part of the reason the Beatles had the top five songs on the Billboard chart in April 1964? Those singles were released in the
different labels-- Capitol, but also the indies Swan, Tollie, and Vee-Jay. U.S.
There are plenty of similarities between 45s and mp3s, but of course, in terms of power relationships, monetary investments, and the sheer quantity of music available as a result, mp3s are a very different thing. While 45s threatened the dominance of the major labels, they were also created within the same industry (out of a patent race between RCA and
) and then were incorporated by it to
serve as its lifeblood. As a result, instead of disintegrating, the majors
emerged as an even more powerful force in the 1960s. Mp3s, on the other hand,
multiplied outside that industry's control after being wrenched from the
CD, a format created in part to make music seem like a luxury item, repurpose
back catalogs, and revitalize a flagging industry. Coupled with peer-to-peer,
not only did they quickly make musical replication and distribution cheap and
fast, but turned something that used to be a distant, industrial process into
an accessible and easy thing anyone could do. In other words, it's not only
unsurprising that a sustainable independent music industry took shape along
with mp3s. Looking back, it's unthinkable for things to have happened any other
Hoarding, Sharing, and The Recording Angel
In his wonderful 1987 book The Recording Angel, Evan Eisenberg asks the question, "What exactly happened when music became a thing?" He starts answering it by introducing us to Clarence, an eccentric music lover who has packed every nook and cranny of his suburban home with records. Though he obsessively amasses records, Clarence does not view himself as a "collector." He explains: "My idea originally…was to share my collection with everybody. You see, collectors-- take collectors of oil paintings-- they don't do that; they only share with themselves. Share it with everybody!" To prove this, he finds Shall We Dance and A Damsel in Distress on top of the Frigidaire, and forces an initially reluctant Eisenberg-- who had mentioned earlier that he was an Astaire/Rogers fan-- to to take the records home with him. Clarence wouldn't have it any other way. He was a hoarder, sure, but above all Clarence was a sharer. Eisenberg opens his book with Clarence because he represents the social possibilities of music-as-a-thing as much as the acquisitive ones.
Man, remember when people like Clarence were different? He kept stacks of records in his oven, because the physical space in which he lived couldn't come close to accommodating his passion for music. He made less than $300 a month, and still bought records. A couple of decades later, 10 times as much music as Clarence could ever imagine not only don't take up entire suburban homes, but fit on devices smaller than transistor radios. Not only are people with this much music not weird, but the devices they use for storage double as status symbols. This might be the most profound social shift of the mp3 era: hoarding and sharing music changed from an activity for eccentrics to the default mode of musical enjoyment for millions. People like Clarence existed because records fixed the intangible, ephemeral sound of music to objects, allowing for that music to be sold, bought, and hoarded. Mp3s removed music from objects, freeing it to move and reproduce itself in ways that physical objects, and the industry they supported, would never allow.
If we let them, new technologies can alter our taken-for-granted assumptions to the point that the replaced ways look quaint quickly. Radiohead's announcement of a new album in October 2007 made it seem, for a few days at least, like the greatest band of the decade had found a way to mix nostalgia for the old days of the unified market (the 90s) with an innovative economic model that totally skirted the market altogether. Their In Rainbows "tip-jar" stunt was one of the few moments over the past 10 years where it honestly felt like everyone got amped for a new release-- one that no one had heard, that most didn't even know was coming-- at exactly the same time. It was such a shock because mp3s had long since ripped a temporal wormhole in the musical time-space continuum. By 2007, most of us were long used to a state of affairs in which intangible music acquires value before it's even pressed to CD or LP-- that is, before it would have even existed a decade prior.
Weirdly enough, this particular effect of mp3s and peer-to-peer networks-- that information travels much faster than physical goods-- most closely resembles that of the telegraph on the 19th century commodity markets. Before that innovation-- the Internet's great-grandfather-- individual markets based in major cities were separated by hundreds of miles, and goods could only travel as fast as railroads could take them. Yet because information about crop conditions could travel via telegraph exponentially faster than the actual crops, the exchange of money for physical commodities was largely replaced by a futures market, based on what would happen. In other words, space was eliminated in favor of time by a swift new network. The stakes may be much lower in the way mp3s and peer-to-peer have reorganized the music market, but the basic idea is the same. Within the musical futures market leaks are traded as mp3s through peer-to-peer networks and blogs, often acquiring over-inflated value before their physical counterparts reach store shelves. They're aggregated on Hype Machine, the Dow Jones for this new realm of musical value in which the primary forms of capital are cultural and social, not monetary.
This new system of digital music commerce most directly threatened the old one by eliminating its middlemen-- brick and mortar CD retailers, print-based music critics, indie distribution outlets like Touch & Go, radio-- and replacing them with cheap, flexible new ones such as peer-to-peer networks, bloggers, Rapidshare, MySpace, Last.fm, and Pandora. The old industry model was a closed system, impossible to infiltrate and designed to feed profits right back into itself (for more detail, check Chapter Two of Greg Kot's Ripped, or all of Steve Knopper's excellent Appetite for Self-Destruction). Aside from official outposts like iTunes, eMusic, and Amazon, the new networked model is nearly the opposite: It's radically decentralized, has few barriers to entry, and it disperses whatever small monetary profits there are to people and entities who largely have no interest in continuing the current record-industry model.
At the same time, however, the global circulation of mp3s is one of the most crowded culture markets ever to exist. The mp3 may have atomized music into millions of little pieces, but each piece, it seems, found a publicist. The average music fan now has the built-in capacity to double as promoter and distributor in an ever-expanding arena that's making and eliminating rules every minute, including the need for new critical middlemen (and too rarely, women) to step in and make sense of things. It's no coincidence, of course, that Pitchfork's own rise coincided with the mp3 market glut, or that mp3 blogs would emerge as an eclectic network of music fans as the decade opened.
Indeed, one of the most underappreciated effects of mp3s is their ostensible democratization of the critic function. Before every album started leaking out of pressing plants or being ripped from online storage accounts, accredited music reviewers were the only folks outside the industry with the privilege of hearing completed albums well in advance of their official release dates-- a necessity to account for print's long-lead times and the lengthy promotional schedules of the labels. Leaks suck, let's make that clear. But they're going to happen whether we like them or not, so, the idea went, so why not try to turn them into something productive? One of the promises of leak culture was the possibility of a thousand new Greil Marcuses and Robert Christgaus blooming-- hundreds of new fan-critics, or critic-fans, starting conversations about music that were accessible to anyone, arousing reader-listeners enough to buy music the same way radio and print used to. To a degree this happened, and is still happening: Careful searching and curious clicking through blogrolls will reveal plenty of wonderful music blogs, with styles ranging from affective to academic, with writers penning more poignant, sophisticated, and funny things than many "professional" scribes.
As the decade carried on, though, the sheer number of mp3 blogs started outpacing the amount of writing and conversation about music. If they began by merging zines with pirate radio, by early 2005 the coverage in major newspapers and music magazines led to that bane of every subculture: widespread exposure. As a result, thousands of new blogs started up over the next few years, including those that mimicked gossip and news blogs by posting a dozen updates per day and selling ad space. As the old guard of critical and promotional outlets dried up, labels and PR firms quickly developed strategies to repurpose them by exchanging access to pre-chosen tracks for free promotion. As a result, mp3 blogs have become one of the key examples of small-scale, curated promotional model, reflecting individual bloggers' tastes and the incredibly fast turnover of the indie attention economy. An argument can be made that the first industrial era of rock lasted almost exactly for 50 years; from 1955 to roughly 2005, the tipping point of the Internet's impact, five years after TRL and the last pop(ped) bubble.
If, as so many newspaper trend pieces assert, the number of "tastemakers" has exponentially proliferated through unmitigated access to music, that means that, on average, individual tastes are on the upswing as well. It's hard to argue this fact, if only through anecdotal evidence. While the Internet does not represent "the world," and there are plenty of folks who are just fine keeping with their old habits, those who keep up with online music have the capacity to turn into bona fide musical dilettantes, and occasionally straight-up experts, in no time flat. But broadening out to the aggregate, this trend looks different, and less rosy. The ideal would have been that a new network of independent music lovers would have elevated different types of music, or even found new ones, the way nascent rock'n'roll, honky tonk, bluegrass, and R&B benefited thanks to the 45. But online, new genres risk being strangled in the crib before anyone knows they exist, and people are "done" with new albums before the cover art has been approved. This time-compressing aspect of mp3-based music culture does not flow naturally from the technology itself-- it's a result of a lot of people, at the same time, publicly failing to resist their most basic passions for acquisition. Experiencing music in small, never-ending bursts is exciting, sure. But it's far from sustainable.
Part of me wants to weep, as so many critics have, for "what could have been." Yet a wiser part of me knows that there's no point in crying over a utopian benchmark. As it stands, the musical public sphere created by mp3 blogs and filtered through the Hype Machine is more varied and open to taste-based audience input than the U.S.'s industrial model has been in recent years (though a far cry from what it was like throughout most of the rock era), and an increased amount of music from around the world is getting more exposure than could have been imagined just a decade ago. So I'm not sad that print magazines, or newspapers, are dying; I'm sad that music criticism and journalism are endangered. I'm sad that publishers, advertisers, and corporate owners have lagged behind so incredibly long, holding onto an outdated critical model out of blind faith, leaving so many talented writers in the lurch. People expressing their musical taste to an eager audience in the offtime of their day jobs is one thing, and by all accounts a very good thing. But alongside these folks, we desperately need people to get paid to listen, discuss, contextualize, and critique music on a full-time basis. Until someone figures out how to make this work, a music culture will continue to take a significant hit. Print is dead: long live criticism.
Digital Music and Copyright Law
At a time when everything related to popular music institutions, rituals, and values are in an unprecedented state of flux as a result of mp3s, any price for digital music is fair game, right? Apple's more or less emerged as the price point setter-- formerly $0.99, now $1.29-- for digital singles acquired legally, but the federal court system has taken to fixing value for ill-begotten merch. How's $22,500 per mp3 sound? That's what Joel Tenenbaum-- a
grad student-- was charged by a jury for each admitted download during his
recently concluded trial. Earlier this year, Boston University mom Jamie Thomas-Rasset's bill was
even more ridiculous: $1.92 million for 23 songs, or $80,000 per. These numbers
are so illogical, and are arrived at by a mode of thinking so archaic, to be
surreal. It's a Dr. Evil realm of absurdity, comparable to Senator Iselin in The
Manchurian Candidate gleaning the number of Communists in Congress from a
ketchup bottle. Perhaps most frighteningly, it's made lawyers one of the most
profitable sets of music middlemen to emerge this decade. Minnesota
About nine years and some 20,000 RIAA-sanctioned lawsuits after the original 2000 Napster injunction, Tenenbaum's and Thomas-Rasset's trials neatly provide the other bookend to mp3-related law this decade. The major labels, in the face of mountains of evidence suggesting that prosecuting listeners doesn't do anything save stocking their coffers and paying their attorneys, refuse to abandon their tack of trying to scare downloaders into submission. It's a dumb strategy, and I'm sure they know this, but they're at least acknowledging one of the basic tenets of legal logic. In the same way that technology is a social force created by humans, with the power to expand or restrict what we're able to do, so goes the law. If copyright law has been able to convince us that music, one of the most inherently collaborative forms of expression, should be regulated by a statute based on a romantic ideal of the solitary author; and that one of these lone individuals can in fact be Universal Music Group, what else can it make us believe?
Well, lots. Especially to how we understand ourselves in relation to music. Intellectual property has been rapidly expanding into every corner of our daily lives for the past few decades, taking two major steps to get where we are today. First, the entertainment industries realized under Ronald Reagan that their cultural commodities, if they could be protected from pirate networks abroad, could be a huge source of
revenue in the nascent global market. Second, Bill Clinton and Al Gore
recognized in the early 90s that the "information superhighway" was
in fact a vast, underpopulated market, and let the corporate media and their
lawyers draft the most radical revision to copyright since we adopted the
British version in 1790. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 1998,
re-defined making a "copy" of a song or album in a way that equates,
more or less, to "listening" to a song-- based on the technological
fact that when you double-click on an mp3 in iTunes, you're technically duplicating
the song in your computer's RAM for its length. Thus, every time you listen to
a song on your computer, according to the DMCA, you're violating copyright law. U.S.
Then, there's the not-so-dearly departed DRM. The DMCA allowed for copyright owners to imbed code into each mp3, restricting certain ways of listening before the lawful consumer could even think about them. It also made it illegal to remove these restrictions. The Constitutionally mandated "balance" between copyright protection and fair use, in other words, was no longer to be decided by messy court arguments, but enforced by digital code created by tech companies. Those harmless little aggregates of ones and zeroes, iconically representing the creative labor of many people, were staring back at you, with the full knowledge that you're bound to do something illegal. As such, they restricted themselves (however lamely) to five other computers, as a result placing artificial restrictions on the social rituals that have allowed music to survive and circulate for millennia.
What DRM taught us during its short life, is that for the law to work, people have to believe in it. This doesn't necessitate Pirate Bay-level countercultural deviance, but the simple idea that the rules laid down are based in common sense, not the frigid logic of corporate balance sheets. The labels and their RIAA lobbying associates aren't stupid, they're just desperate. They know that when things aren't logical, the smartest way to get people to sign on is to start young, and mix the rhetoric of education with a fair bit of passive-aggressive fear-mongering. I give you "Music Rules," a set of printable worksheets for teachers, who most certainly don't need more externally-sanctioned frameworks telling them how to teach, let alone one that draws on a pedagogy built to create unthinking allegiance to an illogical law. Here's an actual excerpt-- this isn't a joke-- that draws on Cold War fear-mongering and a strategically-chosen new word ("songlifting") for its rhetorical effect:
Now find out if songlifting is a real problem in your community. Use this chart to interview family members and friends about where they get their music. Bring your findings back to class and combine them with those of your classmates. Use your data to figure out how much songlifting occurs among the people you know. See for yourself by completing the calculation below.
Convergence Culture and the Next Step
While witch-hunts are nothing to be wistful about, the mass-media era of popular music has plenty to be nostalgic for. In retrospect, such a limited musical menu meant that there was a much higher probability that the song you were listening to at any moment was being heard by countless others at the same time. The ideology of community, even an imagined one, is hard to shake-- especially when created by events like Elvis Presley or the Beatles on "Ed Sullivan", or Michael Jackson at the "Motown 25" celebration. Equally hard to forget are those images of absolutely frantic young fans captured on film and video-- separated from their idols by what must have felt like light years, they were unable to contain themselves at the prospect of being within hailing distance of them. The star system was an inevitable product of the 20th century industrial production model that invested millions in a handful of performers in anticipation of returns that would subsidize dozens of others.
In place of the old system is a new one, which has been called "convergence culture." Encompassing the hybridization of technologies and the collaboration of corporations on one hand, it also highlights the penetration of the audience itself into the spheres of production, promotion, and distribution. Many academics, commentators, and fans themselves see convergence culture as an ultimate victory for music fandom-- finally, the industries have to listen to their audiences, because their future financial stability depends on it. Yet while there's a bit of truth in this outlook, in the end it only confuses matters more. Fandom has become important in ways many could have never predicted, but that's also because the word itself means something different right now, depending upon who's doing the defining.
At any point in the past century or so, it's possible, with enough due diligence, to reconstruct the possibilities for music fandom by examining how the business, tech, and legal realms work to shape the listening public-- through work that often takes place at the level of language. When labels say "fandom," for instance, they often mean "free labor." Tech companies use the idea of "interactivity" to mask marketing strategies that invisibly collect crucial demographic data, while reining in certain fan performances by simply eliminating options. Lawyers, if they want to be successful, have to apply the cold rationality of statutes to behaviors that are primarily driven by passion. To work properly (in other words, to make money), these three categories have to overlap significantly, with the possibilities for fandom residing somewhere in the ever-shifting middle.
If we pry away all the myths that have built up over the years around the Beatles and Michael Jackson-- for MJ, this is probably a good thing-- and, for the moment at least, set aside the fact that they were brilliant musicians, we can come to a sharper idea as to why they still hold so tightly onto our imaginations. After all, there have always been brilliant musicians-- why have these two stuck around so long? A large part of the reason lies in the specific historical moments in which they both emerged, which allowed them to define new advances in technology, art, and industry in their own images.
Both the Beatles and Michael Jackson emerged in fallow times for the music industry-- the Beatles in the valley after the first wave of rock'n'roll allowed the toothless pop it supplanted to rematerialize, and Jackson in the moment between the death of punk and disco and the rise of hip-hop, new country, and alt-rock. The Beatles took advantage of this situation by helping define what a rock band could be, and what the LP and recording studios could become. Jackson came up when MTV was looking for acts other than Eddie Money and Rod Stewart to visually showcase, and his work still casts a lengthy shadow over the medium of music video (which the Beatles, let's not forget, had a hand in creating). He was so transcendent to watch specifically because he brought dance back into pop-- out of tap, breakdance, ballet, James Brown, Fred Astaire, and disco, he constructed the all-in-one pop star model that so many have attempted to replicate.
Or at least that's what we remember them for. History is never made by single actors, or even small groups, but is made to retroactively fit into a narrative. This is how fandom used to be built. We remember our connections to popular culture through the moments and people that seemed to alter our consciousness through sheer will. We allow them to stand in for the much larger cast of invisible collaborators, influences, technologies, and commercial alignments that made it possible for them to take on the transcendent image they did.
These sorts of nostalgic recollections, to a large degree, are facilitated because the old industry, built on selling magic, purposefully obscured all the backstage collaborators that helped superstars to emerge. But now, we find ourselves within a historical moment that allows us access to all the previously hidden aspects of music-making. Instead of approaching this situation as if the "magic" were gone, wouldn't it be much more productive to seize the opportunity to create an entirely new crop of idols? In other words, if "fan" is going to continue to have any resonance as a passionate listening strategy at a time when its definition is up for grabs, it's clear that fans themselves need to do the defining. The first step in this process-- the establishment of new infrastructures and technologies-- has already happened.
The second step is much tougher: using these new tools to push against the illogical constraints of those who think the old model is still viable, and set about redefining music's value. We've been conditioned for the past century to think about music as a commodity. While in good faith ("support the artists"), this way of thinking only propagates the most fundamental ideal of capitalism: getting the most stuff for the least money. Otherwise known as "downloading." Artists need to make money for their music (if they want to), and they need a set of flexible legal and technological guarantees to ensure this. But these guarantees need to be flexible enough to allow the fans themselves to use their collective intelligence and passion to help the artists themselves, without being exploited, or written into a script fit for retired actors. If the networked public sphere shaped by mp3s could collaboratively re-imagine itself not as an audience or a market but as members of a civil society, who feel that they deserve a stake in its own culture, then the rules going forward, and our appreciation of music's social and affective values, might emerge like mp3s themselves: from the bottom up. We've long since figured out how to grab and recirculate music. Now, let's make something with it.