How Much Do I Love myTunes? Allow Me to List the Ways…

From Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix edition”

From Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix Edition”

As interesting as Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix edition” was, I couldn’t help but ask why among the celebration of hip-hop culture, slash narratives, adobe photoshop, Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger, Machinima and Robot Chicken, the lowly “mix tape”, the one form of modified media that almost every one of my friends who are 30 or older own, was left unmentioned. Lest we forget that well before the trend over file sharing spread across Universities endowed with multiple T1 lines and gained the attention of the RIAA and MPAA, there was the practice of home taping. As far as remix culture goes, while a home mixer may never receive a praiseworthy grant or honorary degree, there aren’t too many remix practices that have inspired as much consumer passion. Of the many “compilation tapes” I made and received, those that stand out are those cassettes of songs based on a theme or determined to make an “album better”. Long before college kids were “modding out” their favorite video games with television characters they wish they could get to fight in computer-driven combat (imagine Homer Simpson with a laser rifle tracking down Spongebob Squarepants in a real-time 3D “manhunt” such as the Unreal Championship video game and you get the idea), I had made a tape of all of the one album worth of “good songs” from The Clash’s excessive, three-disc set, Sandinista! Other compilations were put together under the romantic inspirations of friendship and love. As Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth puts it in the introduction of on his latest book simply titled, The Mix Tape,

“This book can only represent one zillionth of the people out there who have made the coolest tapes for themselves or others. In that respect, it simply exists as a nod to the true love and ego involved in sharing music with friends and lovers. Trying to control sharing through music is like trying to control an affair of the heart — nothing will stop it.”

To be sure, putting together the right compilation tape, the right playlist of songs, was something of a sacred affair. As Nick Hornby puts it in his novel on obsessive record collecting, High Fidelity, “The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem.”

Of course, the practice both inspired debate and industry-sponsored paranoia. Memories being what they are, allow me to remind the reader of the “Home taping is killing music” campaign. The slogan would find itself on just about every record store shopping bag and on the lips of every record fan and music lover in the US. Music journalists often asked artists their opinion of home taping and the campaign’s ubiquity became spoofed by one of the most memorable critiques of a public relation message ever launched: the “Home Fucking is Killing Prostitution” bumper sticker. And it wasn’t simply because the sticker used the “F word” that you could buy this piece of latex commentary in independent record stores. By equating the at home practices of record listeners to a rather, ahem, intense pleasure of communication, the sticker underlined the complex set of ethics that have long accompanied the “personal use” of a very “public medium.” Ever since 1940 when in the case of RCA Manufacturing Co. v. Whiteman , 114 F.2d 86, 88 (2d Cir.) the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the claim of the music conductor on “common-law property in [musical] performances ended with the sale of records,” a consumer could now take his own collection of records and, as long as they had no intention of profiting from this stockpile of recordings, share them in any number of manners. In the US at least, this decision opened the door to view recordings as both a good that was at once both potentially private and social. Making a personal copy of my records to give away to friends may be legally contested, but what mattered was that it simply felt like another mode of generosity, one step removed from providing records for a party or dance. Indeed, no matter how high profile a campaign the RIAA initiates, it’s unlikely to change the fact that sharing recordings will almost always be seen as a mode of association, a form of communication that is personal and is none of the industry’s business.

Which is a long-winded way to point out that the “personalization/modification” of media by consumers has deep and entrenched connections with recordings in general. And as outmoded as the “home tape” is, your PC’s hard drive is simply another record and playback device, albeit an extremely sensitive and complex one. Of course, the kind of personal affection that inspired the compilation tape has found its way onto a whole new set of technologies. With the proliferation of mp3 players, CD burners and cheap CD-Rs the art of the mix is practiced now more than ever. Given the fact that the high end iPod now sports a 60gb hard drive that can hold well over 10,000 songs and work in concert with PCs and Macs, as programs such as WinAmp and iTunes that encourage listing and burning, the production of CDs with personalized playlistings has reached a new level. Uniting these technologies with file sharing programs, and the proliferation of DSL capabilities and you more of less have a supercharged in-home music publishing technology in every middle-class American home and office.

So what does a music industry that has been based on the sale of discs of some sort since the late 1940s do? Well, adapt of course. For one, this sort of adaptation has meant less of an emphasis on the direct promotion of discs and more on their indirect promotion through the licensing and cross-promotion of properties. Most specifically this has meant that the role of the music supervisor for any film or television program has become an even more important gatekeeper than it was before. When a company licenses the synch rights that place a band’s song on The OC it is doing the double duty of generating revenue and distributing their commodity. For example, after the screening of the much-hyped finale of Six Feet Under prominently featured Sia’s “Breathe Me” in the final few minutes in a sort of “montage of death” music video. The day after, the “soundtrack” to the show vaulted to the number two position on Amazon sales chart.

A Soundtrack Cover for Six Feet Under

A Soundtrack Cover for Six Feet Under

But moving units is only one method. The second includes the gradual co-optation of personalization, specifically the act of “playlisting.” MTV2 has produced Playlistism, a program which claims to feature “fans and bands talking about what’s on their mp3 playlists as well as the hottest new gear for your m3 player.” But most aggressive by far has been Apple. In its continual quest to commodify taste and style, the company most responsible for the success of personal mp3 players in 2004 launched both a paper and internet version of a music magazine simply titled Playlist through Mac Publishing, LLC. As a place where readers can learn about new portable media technologies, review submitted playlists, and access the occasional free mp3, the magazine conveniently provides a place to integrate consumer desires with the abilities of both its soft and hardware. And even more interesting is the manner in which Apple’s iTunes store regularly features “celebrity lists”, playlists that are ostensibly compiled and annotated by the likes of Tommy Lee, Robert Rodriguez, Bobby Brown, Nicole Kidman, Al Franken, both Brooks and Dunn, Kathy Griffin, Gus van Zant, Howie Mandel and so on. And if for some reason you care what Mr. Mandel has chosen for his listening pleasure, or you find his explanation for listing the Foo Fighter’s “Best of You” convincing, you too can simply download the song from the iTunes for your iTunes player at a convenient 99 cents a pop. At which time, theirTunes become yourTunes and what was once a practice dreaded by the music industry becomes a licensed mode of distribution. And what was once sacred, is now simple, convenient and profane.

Image Credits:
1. From Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix Edition”

2. A Soundtrack Cover for Six Feet Under

Please feel free to comment.

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5 comments

  • Musical Profanity

    Whether the art of the mix is made profane in “a-buck-a-song-and-RuPaul-recommends-this-one” kind of world I’m not sure, although my gut senses something vulgar about this indeed. I wonder, though, whether these new technologies just make music sharing more public? Less a private affair among friends, but still quite indivual and idiosyncratic. (Although I do notice an awful lot of GnR on these lists. What’s up with that?) “Playlistism” (and iTunes) is appealling because it feels like your favorite celebrity made you a mix tape. How intimate is that? And perhaps there’s a certain sense of democracy here too, since I, too, can share my mixes with the whole cyber-world. I wonder though if all the free promotion work that fans do on iTunes is really all that different from good old fashion word of mouth? And what sort of impact iTunes has had on “home taping.” Can such technology really coopt personalization? Are you misusing your iPod if you never post a playlist online? Or never buy a single iTune for 99 cents? What if all the songs on your iPod came from CD? It seems Apple would love to coopt personalization, but I think people are a bit too strange for even Apple to have us all figured out.

  • The Profane

    I guess what I mean by the profane here is more or less in the adjectival sense that it is no longer sacred, no longer “as special”. I certainly do not think that the music business will ever control us, however, I do think that what is interesting are the strategies that they make to have us “buy in”. That’s all. In the past, marketing playlists would not have been much of an option since what you were trying to sell were albums. Given the flexibility of consumption today, this has to happen.

    And that is interesting since what I think “Playlisting” sells more than anything else is a form of technologically enabled activity. In this sense, you sell “playlisting” both as a “real thing” and as a concept that you want your market to understand in order for them to want to buy their first MP3 player or a download a new version of iTunes that, it just so happens, will conveniently take you to Apple’s online iTunes store. Imagine if in the day of records the record store that I bought at was dependent on the playback hardware I owned. While this was initially the case in the late 1940s (CBS produced 33 1/3 rpm LP records and RCA produced 45 rpm records) this quickly collapsed. I certainly don’t think iTunes will be integrated with Yahoos music store in the immediate future, but who knows? That’s besides the point. The issue is that the terms of distribution are, yes, somewhat more democratic, but that form of “democracy” was once considered to be something to be prosecuted but is now openly embraced. And, well, as much as I would like to believe it, I don’t think Apple is embracing playlisting because they love us. Am I coopted by this? Well, let’s just say that that 60GB iPod looks more and more attractive to me the more I think about it.

  • mix tape song

    Once when I was working at a neighborhood Subway making sandwiches I heard a song on the radio that included this lyric “why did you put that song on my tape”. Anyone know the song? I don’t.

  • itunes v ipod

    thanks for the article, tim!

    i too have been co-opted by apple in the past year(i went back to a desktop mac, & just got one of the new ipod nanos to boot)….but i’ve yet to plunk down 99 e-cents on itunes. my desktop itunes has essentially been populated to date with tracks from my collection when making cd mixes for friends….and seeing as all the desktop mixes flash on over to the nano, it becomes a ridiculously small mixdisc boxset of sorts.

    of course, today i’m out with my walkman, playing my cassette of the manics’ EVERYTHING MUST GO….i guess the flow playlist is already forming….

  • Good Article

    Thank heaven for a decent historical summary about the entire MP3/electronic music transmission issue plaguing us today. Being someone who used to be an avid mix tape creator back in the day, I feel the ideas are still the same, the only advancements are with the technology and simplicity. In essence, as many things work in the technological world of computers, the main thing which advances is the issue of speed; making a 60 minute mix tape took the whole 60 minutes at least, in addition to finding and queuing up songs. Now this process can take as little as 3 minutes, yet the idea is still the same, the idea of creating music for yourself as well as the generosity of giving something you enjoy to another for their enjoyment.

    I fully agree with you; the music industry needs to adjust to the technological advancements; not only is it a normal part of human technological evolution, but also because I seriously doubt many of the people who enjoy music electronically will decrease any time soon.

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