Record Store Day, and Why Home Taping Should Kill Music

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It’s that time of year again; Record Store Day. As the likes of Joy Division, Nirvana, R.E.M., and Frank Zappa get set to have albums and singles posthumous- and post-disbandingly released and rereleased, and the cream of the crop of current artists and bands release special editions (including a reduction of The Flaming Lips’ genre- and limit-pushing 24-hour song, ‘7 Skies H3’, to 50 minutes and 12 inches of wax), we look at where the spirit of recorded music has got to today, in this year of our Lord, 2014.

In the 1980s the message was ‘home taping is killing music’. Oddly, the BPI’s (British Phonographic Industry’s) attacking slogan was aimed squarely at the consumer – that is, the industry’s own consumer – and their den of iniquity, the home. As well as the recording of music from the radio, vinyl, CD, or other tapes to cassette, this doomsday prophecy supplementarily and surreptitiously seemed to target the home taping of our own music too.

More recently, the MP3 revolution has come under this same fire, following on especially from the headier and more radical days of peer-to-peer sharing, before Big Music (iTunes, Spotify, etc.) moved in to make sure money could be milked from this cash-cow-in-becoming (The Pirate Bay torrent site, however, still proudly and defiantly display the logo that accompanied the BPI’s home taping slogan – a cassette in the place of a skull over crossbones – on its ident ship’s sail).

We now inhabit an age in which ‘music’ – in the BPI’s sense, at least; that is, the music industry – is more alive than ever. Alive, though, in an undead sense. Record Store Day celebrates those last record shops standing; it’s encomium for physical formats that have lost out to their digital rivals, but that have also suffered miserably due to the divisiveness of the recording industry itself.

Paul Mawhinney’s story is an exemplary case in point; as the once-owner of the world’s largest record collection, known as ‘the archive’.[ii] Walter Benjamin describes a collection as a way of ‘divesting things of their commodity character by taking possession of them’, and states that it is thus ‘the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects’. Mawhinney’s collection – a forty-year labour of love, valued at $50 million, that he now needs to sell – hasn’t been able to find a buyer even at the asking price of $3 million, and has been undergoing a dismantlement into individual sales over the past few years. As he has himself lamented, it is history itself that is here being broken up and subsequently disseminated. Although he argues that in part the MP3 has killed off the desire for the physical music format (opposed to the virtual), he has identified that the hegemony of the chain retailer (Wal-Mart, for example, in America) has been instrumental in bringing his independent record store, Record-Rama, down.

This then is not the inevitable, yet sad, overcoming of the record store model which is giving way to a more convenient mode of music vending, but something more, something that has drastically changed the selective structures involved in music production itself. As David Graeber has put it, in relation to the Occupy Movement and its championing of the 99%: ‘if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.’ With the over-competitive forcing-out of the smaller-scale music vendor, and the (only ever attempted) exclusion of the free sharing of digital music we see the music industry getting closer to being dominated by what Žižek might call a ‘master-signifier’; something which totalises a field after exempting itself from it (i.e., makes it into a hegemony). The master-signifier here is this 1%; the same 1% who (most likely disingenuously) sounded the alarm about home taping – what was really at stake was not the music or recording industry itself, but its business interests (and the only interest of business is money).

It is therefore worth wondering what effect this corporatist ideology behind the home taping slogan has actually had on the music, recording, and record-selling industries it was ostensibly set up to protect. Its resulting forecast would look like this: that after the death of the independent record shop, the death of independent music (although indubitably its drive will always remain, however far underground it may be driven). If we view popular music (in however microsocial a form) as a series of historical ruptures and epistemological shifts, then in its current prescriptive manifestation – that dictated by the false and falsifying world of X-Factor et al, which sells the hollow goal of superstardom at 15 minutes a pop, and allows no new music to win the day; a manifestation that aims to perpetuate and reinscribe itself, in the very same manner as capitalism does – no new dimensions will be able to open up.

As Félix Guattari perspicaciously put it (in uncompromising terms):

As for young people, although they are crushed by the dominant economic relations which make their position increasingly precarious, and although they are mentally manipulated through the production of a collective, mass-media subjectivity, they are nevertheless developing their own methods of distancing themselves from normalized subjectivity through singularization. In this respect, the transnational character of rock-music is extremely significant.

This formative moment of self-creating through music is precisely that which is being (purposefully) effaced – and replaced by a process of creation in the image of the market – by this master-signifier that is ruling the mainstream music world. The other side – the truth – of the false prophecy ‘home taping is killing music’ is that it is becoming so much harder for a revolution in music to actually occur again; that is, harder for ‘music’ to be killed. In the ethos of those movements in popular music – rock & roll, ‘krautrock’, punk, grunge, etc., that have overcome old and stagnated orders – it may now be the time to advocate killing music with home taping!

Illustrated by Ali Hoff.

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