June 19, 2024

As the date range above would suggest, this post is doing a bit of catching up. Somehow I didn’t find either the time or the inclination to write things up over the last few months. Mostly what prompts me to do so is when a theme emerges, apparently autonomously, from the things I’m reading and looking at. That didn’t seem to be happening for a while, but then it did— twice— and I decided I would write about those instances and throw in any other interesting bits and pieces.

First, to listen to while you read: there is a new Tim Hecker album out, which is always exciting. This one balances electronic and acoustic instrumentation in new ways. It came out at the beginning of April, and I’d preordered it so long before that its arrival was a pleasant surprise.

There was also a short profile of Hecker in the New York Times, in which he reflects on the categorization of his work as “ambient” music.

short profile of Hecker in the New York Times, in which he reflects on the categorization of his work as “>

Next, two good recent articles about the intersection of music and technology: “The End of the Music Business”, by Ethan Iverson, and “It’s Time to Legalize Sampling,” by Dan Charnas.

Iverson’s piece is about the the shift to digital recording and distribution— starting with CDs, then downloads and streaming— and its effect on the music industry. This is a familiar story, by this point: artists no longer make money selling their music, and it’s not actually clear who is making money, since the streaming services don’t seem to be able to turn a profit even though they pay the artists fractions of a penny and only the top .1% or whatever of artists actually make enough from streaming to live on. But Iverson does a good job with both the gains and losses of these changes.

One thing that stood out to me here was the growing prevalence of moral arguments for buying music as opposed to streaming it. This is a broader trend; bookstores, movie theaters— basically anybody who is not Amazon or another giant corporation— is asking us to buy from them to “show our support” for them, their business model, or their industry. You should shop at bookstores because you want there to be bookstores; you should go to movie theaters so there will still be movie theaters. I’m pretty susceptible to these arguments; I do want bookstores and theaters to continue to exist, and I definitely want musicians to earn a decent living through their art. At the same time, though, there’s something troubling about the way that supporting artists or stores is increasingly framed as a kind of charity, or maybe patronage (a relationship made explicit when you subscribe to someone’s Patreon). On the other hand, maybe this is actually a return to normal. The period when musicians made money by selling recordings was actually pretty recent and pretty brief; through most of history, they would have made their money (assuming they made any) through live performance and/or some form of patronage. Maybe the idea that the market is going to provide adequate support for the arts was never realistic, and we should just be glad that the new technology makes it possible for regular people, not just the wealthy and governments, to be the patrons.

Charnas is writing about the way that sampling has been treated differently from other was of using music created by someone else. I did not know any of this, but basically an artist cannot stop someone from making a cover version of their song:

Songs are written, and once performed by a recording artist, remade by countless others. This process is completely legal, enshrined into U.S. law by what’s called a compulsory license: If you are the songwriter, you do not have the right to prevent anyone from rerecording your song, but if you are the recording artist, you must pay the songwriter an amount mandated by law.

But sampling, which involves using a portion of another person’s song, is not protected in the same way, and there is no standard framework or scale for deciding how much the original artists should get paid. Someone wanting to use samples has to negotiate a price for each one individually, and the original creator can demand whatever price they want, or simply refuse to allow the use altogether. This has been a huge problem for older rap records, many of which were built largely or entirely out of samples, none of which were probably cleared because nobody had thought about any of this yet. The example Charnas is starting with is De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, which was unavailable on streaming services until a few months ago, and which is still only present in adulterated form, because of all the samples they used without permission (though a lot of the major ones were actually cleared for that record). His argument is basically that using samples should be treated like making a cover version, in the law, and that not doing so devalues a distinctive form of music making (one which is, probably not coincidentally, associated mostly with Black artists and genres). More generally, the point is that a lot of the lines we draw in intellectual property law are pretty arbitrary: covers are okay, and parodies— like those of Weird Al, many of which recreate the song in its entirely, changing only the lyrics— are protected as fair use, but a sample used without permission is a copyright violation even if the resulting work sounds nothing like the original song. Then, in the “Blurred Lines” case “a jury determined that one song infringed on another without the two sharing any melody, harmony, or lyrics, but rather a vague rhythmic ‘feel,'” but Ed Sheeran’s recent court win cleared him of doing the same thing (and both cases involved songs by Marvin Gaye). As Charnas also points out, this kind of legal ambiguity and inconsistency really benefit nobody but copyright lawyers. (And if there is anybody in all of this who is really making money from the creative work of other people, it is copyright lawyers). So,

The landscape is far too precarious for creators, and so we need two things: a clearer, broader conception of fair use and, for everything else, an expanded compulsory license law, which would ideally clear up that gray area, creating rules for engagement that avoid legal wrangling, ensuring owners’ rights and income without stifling new creativity.

I don’t know if this is the right approach or not, or if it’s plausible legally or politically. But the way things are now is pretty obviously a ridiculous mess.

I’ve also read a bunch of things recently that are also, if less directly, about creativity, but also about aesthetics and technology and the way that market forces can channel or undermine creativity. “The Age of Average”, by Alex Murrell, is the broadest in scope and touches on things that the other pieces go into in more detail. Murrell’s central claim is stated clearly right at the outset:

This article argues that from film to fashion and architecture to advertising, creative fields have become dominated and defined by convention and cliché. Distinctiveness has died. In every field we look at, we find that everything looks the same.

That is, obviously, a pretty sweeping generalization, and my gut reaction was to regard it as an exaggeration. Unfortunately, though, Murrell makes a pretty persuasive case. Starting with interior decoration in homes and coffee shops, he covers architecture, cars, brand logos, movie posters, and the covers of self-help books, among other things. In each case, I was very skeptical until I got to the grid of images he’s assembled, and…yeah, there it is. Clearly, he is cherry-picking examples, and the sample size here is small, but still: the similarities are startling, despite the range of things he is looking at. I’m still unwilling to concede entirely, but I think he has a point, and that there are several different things going on here.

One is best shown by the example of interior decor seen in AirB&B listings and coffee shops. As Murrell says, “The Airbnb experience is supposed to be about real people and authenticity. But so many of them were similar, whether in Brooklyn, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, or Santiago.” I think this is at least partly a version of the ever-present tension between the desire for novelty and the desire to know what we are getting. Starbucks doesn’t thrive because people think it is the world’s best coffee (though some certainly do), but at least partly because it is predictable; wherever you are, however unfamiliar your surroundings, if you see a Starbucks you can go get the same drink you might buy a block or two from home, and expect it to be more or less identical. This is also something people want from accommodation when traveling; you might like “boutique” hotels, with touches of distinctiveness, but there are also features you want to be able to count on, and most people will only put up with so much discomfort, inconvenience, or unfamiliarity in exchange for aesthetic novelty. AirB&Bs are obviously competing with hotels, and so face the same pressure to give people what they are used to.

How you interpret this impulse is, I think, quite subjective. Murrell puts together two quotations that illustrate this, the first from someone at AirB&B and the second from journalist Kyle Chayka:

“You can feel a kind of trend in certain listings. There’s an International Airbnb Style that’s starting to happen. I think that some of it is really a wonderful thing that gives people a sense of comfort and immediate belonging when they travel, and some of it is a little generic. It can go either way.”

“I called this style “AirSpace”. It’s marked by an easily recognisable mix of symbols – like reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting – that’s meant to provide familiar, comforting surroundings for a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere “authentic” while they travel, but who actually just crave more of the same: more rustic interiors and sans-serif logos and splashes of cliche accent colours on rugs and walls.”

The first of those is obviously less critical, but they are making basically the same point. I probably tend to be a little more forgiving of the desire for predictability (especially when it comes to places to eat). But the sheer pervasiveness of a specific sets of aesthetic choices in all these domains is certainly a little troubling, as well as just plain boring. In “Liberating Our Homes from the Real Estate-Industrial Complex” Kate Wagner reacts to the dominance of “greige” in houses listed on real estate sites like Zillow— that is, a bland color scheme that elides any trace of the house’s current or former owners and their tastes or preferences. She notes that “It’s a realtor adage that a neutral interior with unobtrusive furniture allows buyers to imagine their own life in a space, whereas a highly customized, eccentric interior is a deterrent…” Homes listed on Zillow are, of course, being “staged” or presented to maximize their appeal to buyers, and a neutral palette is part of that presentation. But these colors haven’t all been applied just for the sale; repainting a whole house you’re hoping to move out of is a significant cost in time and money for something you’re not going to enjoy yourself, and many people wouldn’t do it. That means that some share of these houses must already have been painted this way, before they went on the market. Wagner also argues that this is a product of the changing way we think of houses:

The home is no longer seen as a space of personal expression or comfort, or as the backdrop of everyday life, but primarily as an investment and as an asset—meaning that enforcing one’s aesthetics is a financially detrimental decision.

Which is to say, a lot of people are apparently living in homes that are, in effect, permanently staged for sale— living with aesthetic choices made not out of their own preferences, but to appeal to prospective buyers. Not taste or desire but the market determines the material terrain of their lives.

“Why is Everything so Ugly?”, by the editors at N+1, extends this point back out to a wider range of things. This one is most certainly hyperbolic and, it must be said, a little snobby, but none of that necessarily means they are wrong. (For what it’s worth, I’ve been thinking lately that a little snobbery in the right places might be salutary; some of the points made by Becca Rothfield in this edition of her newsletter seem persuasive to me). In a way, the main argument of the piece is that the people making a lot of the things around us just don’t seem to be trying very hard. Describing one building, they say that its “lineage isn’t Bauhaus so much as a sketch of the Bauhaus that’s been xeroxed half a dozen times.” A little more specifically, they note that

In 2020, a study by London’s Science Museum Group’s Digital Lab used image processing to analyze photographs of consumer objects manufactured between 1800 and the present. They found that things have become less colorful over time, converging on a spectrum between steel and charcoal, as though consumers want their gadgets to resemble the raw materials of the industries that produce them.

So, it might actually be reasonable to say that, as things have gotten more and more similar, they’ve also gotten uglier, or at least less varied.

Another part of the story here is technology: many of these stylistic convergences are at least partly a product of the easy availability of masses of online images, whether Zillow or Instagram or Pinterest, which average out to a sort of standard or model that everyone tries to emulate. It might be telling that this is, more or less, how the AI systems that have recently been making so many headlines work: they trawl through vast quantities of text or images, extrapolate patterns from those, and generate new material that follows those patterns. (Side note: this post by Stephen Wolfram is worth reading for a detailed, technical but still relatively accessible explanation of what exactly a Large Language Model like ChatGPT is doing). These systems surprise and trouble us because they have gotten so good at this, but in the context of these articles it looks like this is just a way of automating what we are already doing anyway: identifying a common denominator, honing the presentation of it, and replicating it as quickly and as widely as possible. As both Murrell and “The Class Politics of Instagram Face”, by Grazie Sophia Christie, show, this is true even of people and their faces. The dropping price of procedures like botox injections and lip fillers has made this particular look more attainable for more people— which may in turn make it less appealing for the wealthy people like the Kardashians who started the trend in the first place. Personally, I think we can’t get away from this look fast enough, but that’s not really the point. The idea that so many people have settled on a such a specific style, not just of clothes or makeup but of particular forms of facial alteration—of self— might be the clearest indicator of the pattern Murrell is talking about.

Also related: Izzie Ramirez explains why many kinds of consumer goods are actually less well made than they used to be, and Adam Mastroianni uses data to make a persuasive case that pop culture has become an oligopoly. Murrell points in his piece to the increase in monochromatic cars as one example of decreasing variety, but this newsletter entry by Ed Conway explains how much of an obstacle paint has always been for auto manufacturers: at Ford, paint drying time was actually the main thing slowing down production of the Model-T, until the development of nitrocellulose lacquer paints in the 1920s. Finally, Kate Wagner (author of the piece about griege) also has a good one about Saudi Arabia’s ridiculous and obscene NEOM project and the architectural firms who are contributing to it, in apparent contradiction to the ethical positions they claim to hold.

This piece by Teju Cole about an exhibition of Vermeer’s paintings at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam shows that you can appreciate the greatness of an artist and their work without exempting that work from critique, or pretending that they somehow existed outside of their historical and political context. He is clear that he considers Vermeer a great artist, one of the greatest, and also that his work is implicated in colonialism and slavery; these things are in tension, but it is a productive tension. As he says, a Vermeer painting

is an artifact inescapably involved in the world’s messiness — the world when the painting was made and the world now. Looking at paintings this way doesn’t spoil them. On the contrary, it opens them up, and what used to be mere surface becomes a portal, divulging all kinds of other things I need to know.

I’ve only seen a couple of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films, but Media Virus! at some point in college, and can distinctly remember the feeling of having found something really new, of a world that I had been entirely unaware of opening up. It was in that book that I first heard the word “meme”— which had a related but richer meaning than it is commonly given now when talking about internet culture— and it was the first time I remember reading anything that talked about technological change not just descriptively or historically but philosophically, in terms of what it meant to be able to connect and communicate in all of these new ways. This was still in the days when people were enthusing about hypertext as a whole new form of communication, and the web as a powerful decentralizing force to break up the old hierarchies and allow us to reimagine society. Needless to say, all of that sounds pretty naive now. So, it was both sad and, in a way, affirming to read his new book, that Rushkoff himself has largely soured on digital technologies and their emancipatory possibilities.

In “The Law of the Sea,” Surabhi Ranganathan considers how the distinction we make between land and sea has changed over time, and what those changes tell us about the interactions between knowledge, technology, and the law. In the 16th century, the sea was treated as an entirely separate realm from the land, a place that could not be divided up into territories and so could be neither claimed nor governed. Over time, though, this barrier eroded— as anything at the edge of the sea will do, given enough time. The desire for minerals found under the sea led to laws giving nations control over parts of the sea, defined at first by geography and a country’s continental shelf, and then by an arbitrary but fixed distance (since the shelf extends much farther from some coastlines than others). The ability to mine or extract resources from ever-deeper areas is now prompting questions about who has rights in places far from any nation’s territory, while climate change, in multiple ways, is making what was land into sea. Ranganathan ends with a discussion of deep-water hydrothermal vents, which contain lots of valuable resources but defy many of the categorization on which the current laws governing the sea are based.

Related: A new study has found lots of coastal species living far out to sea on bits of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where they are reproducing and living next to— and competing with— species from the open ocean.

Mike Rugnetta’s podcast Reasonably Sound has a fantastic recent episode about scam calls and texts. Americans now receive billions of these calls every year, and the reasons are both exactly what you think they are and much, much more complicated than you’d ever guess. The podcast has been…irregular recently, but I hope this is the start of a return.

And finally: for me, the Guinness Book of World Records is permanently associated with elementary school, when we would find it in the school library and marvel at the guy with the long fingernails, or the world’s tallest man. Perhaps surprisingly, it is still around, and thriving, although there are people who accuse the organization of having “sold out” and becoming “sensationalist”(!). The most interesting thing to me about this story is actually the people who want to break the records, in particular the “super record-breakers,” some of whom have dozens or hundreds of records to their name. There is something about being able to call what you’re doing a world record, and having that verified by a recognized authority, that seems to draw people in, even when the accomplishment itself is pretty well purposeless.

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