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This is an album cover: In the digital age, it's nice to own a CD or vinyl you can hold

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CD cover for composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir packed and designed by Armann Agnarsson Courtesy of Innova Recordings
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Artwork by Yet Torres for Screwed Anthonlogies Photo by Chris Becker
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News_Chris Becker_covers_CD_Anna Thorvaldsdottir
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“Physical objects engage our reality; you have to pick them up and manipulate them if you want to utilize their function…Digital files are a much more insidious form of clutter. When music has been reduced to the status of junk mail…what depth of understanding or appreciation for these creations can we have?”  Amanda Brown, The Wire, September 2011

The experimental music magazine The Wire has been running a series of op-ed pieces where musicians are given space to speak about the “collateral damage” they’ve endured as a result of “music’s shifting economy.” The columns address how we, in the digital age, are discovering and consuming music, and impacting artists' livelihood.

In one column, pioneering electronic and sampling musician and composer Bob Ostertag writes: “I don’t think the future we are facing is one almost any of us would wish for. But it’s coming faster than we can take in.” The ubiquity of the Internet, the now culturally accepted practice of file sharing and the compromised quality of digitized sound are components of a brave new world musicians are expected to embrace.

Put more simply, when you pull a record out of its sleeve and put it on a turntable, the brain’s synapses start firing. Your eyes dialate. You get butterflies in your stomach in anticipation of what you are about to hear, whether it’s brand new or a well-loved classic….

 Speaking only for myself, I find it refreshing to know that a handful of level-headed musicians like Ostertag are wary of the very products that are supposed to bring more attention for their work and even finance their creative endeavors.

I guess a deep part of me loves the contrarian nature of musicians. If we can't stop the future none of us has wished for, maybe it's possible to slow it down a little?

Hands On

In her “collateral damage” op-ed for The Wire, Amanda Brown measures the relationship we have with physical objects against the profundity of an aesthetic experience. Put more simply, when you pull a record out of its sleeve and put it on a turntable, the brain’s synapses start firing. Your eyes dialate. You get butterflies in your stomach in anticipation of what you are about to hear, whether it’s brand new or a well-loved classic….

  • “Dude, you haven’t heard this live version of “Kashmir”? Dude! Sit there and let me put it on (cough). You wanna hit that?” 
  • “You know my dear, Roxy Music’s Avalon is without question one of the most romantic records ever made. Shall I put it on? No, no. Sit still, I’ve got it on vinyl and CD. Why yes, that is Bryan Ferry’s wife on the cover with the hawk. Would you like a little more wine…?”
  • “MOM! DAD! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU!!! AND I’LL PLAY MY MUSIC AS LOUD AS I WANT!!!" (Cue after a door slam and a short pause: Black Sabbath’s song “The Mob Rules.”)

Although Houston is definitely a town that embraces social media, digital culture and whatever the latest app is that will (happy voice) connect you to more friends who want to share the things they love with you (end happy voice) the city also enjoys a long tradition of handmade art, produced in limited numbers, graced with an indigenous and spiritual energy.

I have a handful of CDs by Houston musicians with handmade packaging on the shelving in my office. The pictured Screwed Anthologies package (created by Yet Torres) lovingly references the state where DJ Screw pioneered his chopped and screwed remixing techniques.

And from Iceland, a world away from Texas, a brand new CD by composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir utilizes the composer’s own graphic music sketches, drawings and descriptive words, as part of its beautiful design on recycled paper stock.

Maybe I’m a hypocrite. I have plenty of music in my iTunes (“in my iTunes” – what a weird expression…) And I really dig Spotify, although I’m still confused as to how it works and am afraid to “share” with all my Facebook “friends” the fact that I listen to Kraftwerk’s remastered Tour de France every morning .

But I like physical objects. There is a kind of primitive power contained within the construction of a album cover or an eco-wallet. (Cough, cough…)

This is a record cover

A few weeks ago, I was grumbling to myself about not having some extra cash to go and buy a new CD of music. Orpheus must sensed my pain, for later that same day, I was blessed with the request to write about Poncho Sanchez’s Houston show, which precipitated the quick arrival of his latest CD. And in the mail, two new CDs from Innova Recordings arrived to do with as I please (and no, I didn’t upload them to bit torrent or whatever...).

Receiving free music, in the form of a physical object, makes me feel…well, not GUILTY exactly. More like NOW I am required to give something back.

 Although Houston is definitely a town that embraces social media, digital culture and whatever the latest app is that will (happy voice) connect you to more friends who want to share the things they love with you (end happy voice) the city also enjoys a long tradition of handmade art, produced in limited numbers, graced with an indigenous and spiritual energy.

 What baffles me about people who buy a CD and then upload the entire recording  to their blog so that anyone with a decent Internet connection can download it at no cost is what I perceive as a sense of their entitlement to the music. As if the people who created the music in the first place, including the musicians, the studio engineers and the designers who packaged it all are trying to pull a fast one you and rip you off.

The album cover art for XTC’s 1978 album Go 2 explicitly runs with that idea, i.e. naive music lover vs the greedy corporate artists, in the form of line after line of ominous horizontal copy. I find it interesting that the impact and subversive humor of Go 2's presentation is pretty much lost unless it’s presented in its original context, i.e. a vinyl album cover.

Sad, but true; I get free music from whatever source and am then compelled to do something positive in return. So I write about music, I play it once a month with my friend Hsin-Jung Tsai on our show “Composer Talk” on ktru.org, and I make sure I thank the people who send it to me. Occasionally, when I have some extra bread, I even (cough) up some money to buy a CD.

My most recent purchase? Wilco’s The Whole Love. Highly recommended.

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