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Music Is A Package

In his review of the recent Rune Grammofon release, Money Will Ruin Everything, Dan Hill attempts to counter the idea that the days of consuming music as we do now - bound together with packaging, liner notes and the like - are numbered.

Denying the claims of the Forrester consultancy group that the CD is bound for obsolescence in the face of ubiquitous downloading, and Tony Wilson’s assertion that the iPod has invigorated the packaging of music, Dan says:

Poppycock. While the iPod itself may be kinda coquettish, the idea that digital downloads are the only way forward ignores the important work of several small labels who produce packaging which truly adds to the experience of listening to music; who realise that if you’re going to make something to accompany the music, you do it with the same care and loving attention to detail as the musicians themselves; labels that truly make a physical artifact worthwhile (and incidentally offer a way out for the music industry.)

At the moment, I’m working my way through Dust to Digital’s Goodbye, Babylon, a six CD compilation of religous music that comes in a cedarwood box packed with raw cotton, and an accompanying booklet full of essays, potted biographies and photographs of the collected artists. Taken together, the music, packaging and book offer an experience that goes far beyond listening - the thing even smells lovely - and this is why I happily spent £70 on it, waiting a month for it to arrive in the post, rather than downloading the lot on the day of release.

I do think, however, that this idea of music as an artform to be consumed with attendant artifacts is having a hard time crossing a generation gap.

Maybe Dan’s parenthetical aside is on the money, and packaging will return to the fore as a means of justifying the expense of buying music when it is so readily available free and gratis.

But I doubt it.

My generation’s understanding of music and the way it ought properly to be consumed is inextricably linked to growing up around our parents’ LPs. These were precious things, to be held gingerly by the edges on the way to the turntable, with lyrics on the inner sleeve to be learnt, and cover art to be gazed upon while listening. My introduction to the American civil rights movement came from the inner sleeve of Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July, I had an understanding of Pop Art from Blake’s cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band before I set eyes on a Warhol or Lichenstein, and so on.

I don’t know any teenagers to ask, but surely those raised on CDs - with their illegible liner notes and cramped 5” square covers, not to mention their supposed indestructability - cannot hold the package in such high regard. Those growing up today, who consume music in discrete chunks as MP3 files, tracks burned to generic CD-Rs and - God help us - ringtones, might well raise children of their own to whom the term album will be wholly meaningless.

Even folk my age have music collections that ossified with the advent of broadband. They now buy external hard drives, iPods and streaming MP3 jukeboxes, but fetishising these things is analagous to drooling over shelves, crates and boxes. It is not, as Tony Wilson would have us believe, akin to appreciating the mixed media art object that is the record album.

I’m not saying all this is a bad thing, per se. Freeing the music from it’s packaging could, at a stretch, even be seen as a liberation of sorts. But it is, I think, a sad thing.

Call me old-fashioned, nostalgic and resistant to change if you like, but I don’t want music to become something served up naked and alone; I want it to be framed, contextualised, enhanced and made whole by its packaging.

Posted at 5pm on 29/02/04 by Jack Mottram to the culture, music category.
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  1. Not long out of my teens, and maybe I’m a traditionalist, but packaging is all important. I have a large music collection (5000+ mp3s), and the CDs for all but the rarest tracks.

    People do still buy albums for the art, packaging and liner notes. Even though I knew “beautifulgarbage” by Garbage would be terrible (despite the brilliance of the two prior albums), I had to buy it anyway: a hexagonal fold-out cardboard rose encasing the CD, in a transparent slip… Nice.

    Posted by Gary Fleming at 8pm on 29.02.04

  2. Yeah, there is that side of it - I have way too many unlistenable things bought on the basis that, say, a 3” CD in a sleeve knitted from goat hair and inivindually hand-numbered in gold leaf couldn’t be all that bad.

    I’m a worse sucker for novelty vinyl though - coloured, transparent, marbled, etched, pressed off-centre

    (I should also point out that I’m only 26 myself, not 62 as this post might suggest!)

    Posted by Jack at 9pm on 29.02.04

  3. Oooh. That off-centre one is nice.

    I should point out that I also have a small vinyl collection despite never having owned a record player, most of it bought because it seemed good at the time. Such as the blue Japanese vinyl of JetPlane Landing’s “Zero For Conduct”.

    Posted by Gary Fleming at 9am on 01.03.04

  4. gingerly my arse

    your mother protests that the scratch on sgt pepper wasn’t done by her!

    Posted by Bobby at 11am on 03.03.04

  5. Well, I did say ‘to be held gingerly’ not that I always did…

    Not that it was me, either. It was someone at a party. Which Kate probably orchestrated. Yes, that’s it - blame Kate! Now that I think about it, I do remember seeing her laughing maniacally and holding a Stanley blade in the vicinity of that record…

    Posted by Jack at 12pm on 03.03.04

  6. I was thinking about this yesterday, whilst in Virgin Megastore. I thought to myself: It is ridiculous to suppose that people will keep buying albums as physical items with packaging et al. It already seems archaic. Then I thought: but books show no signs of declining in popularity, and people still want to hold newspapers and magazines in their hands.
    I don’t know. I think it will take a long, long time - a generation - but the importance of owning things as objects is going to steadily decline as we head towards brain-in-jar status. It’s quite nice to imagine a future where you could be almost unencumbered by THINGS. (Imagine the ease of moving house without records!) But nostalgia is extremely powerful too…

    Posted by ida at 12pm on 03.03.04

  7. Yeah, books rather dent the general ‘no things’ argument, although I guess that has a lot to do with the quality of screens compared to print…

    I was saying to Dan, whose post inspired this one, that maybe music is headed the way of fashion: you have the major labels as the high street, punting cheap, near-disposable stuff, then independent labels as pret a porter, for folk who want to spend a bit more for something to keep and love, then the likes of Rune Grammofon and Dust to Digital as haute couture, the last recourse of a dwindling number of obsessives willing to shell out for something really beautiful.

    Posted by Jack at 1pm on 03.03.04

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