Material Listening

There was a time, not long ago, when graphic design framed encounters with recorded music. The art that decorated an record’s sleeve marked the entry point into an experience. At the height of album cover design, artists like Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis and Peter Saville of Factory created lavish, smart visual inductions into the specific logic of the music their packages contained. But as record sales became big business, profit-driven corporate decision-making processes forced design compromises and corner-cutting (literally). But whether lovingly or haphazardly constructed, the package of an album framed the listening moment as a material one. The flutter of cellophane; the smell of the paper and ink; the sometimes musty cardboard outer sleeve; the sticky gloss varnish collecting every fingerprint; the weight of the vinyl itself, labeled with a familiar iteration of a record company logo; the precise depth of the groove into which the needle sank at the edge of our perception. Then the crackle that emanated from the physical imperfection of the playback process, static and dust and microscopic pits, the grace notes of the undeniable physicality of the spinning slab from whence rose the songs. 

The computer-based digital music collections of today made only slight nods towards material-emotional listening. Music files all but float freely in cyberspace. For the end-listener, these artifacts are tenuous and sketchy. Chimera, they come from nowhere, fully-formed and endlessly replicable, endlessly replaceable, absolutely impenetrable and impossible to tell apart. Remanding music, one of our greatest cultural productions, to this abstract prison (like some scorned General Zod) is a great injustice, and one for which the industry as a whole has paid.

The foregoing remarks have a very local and specific community resonance, as Raleigh is one among many urban cultural centers that serves as home to a vibrant group of creators who center their practices around music production. As performing artists, songwriters, engineers, agents, promoters, club owners, bartenders, designers, label operators, critics and fans, the members of the Raleigh music scene are directly impacted by the cultural position afforded by prevailing practices in musical production. The local echoes the global, in this case.

I believe design supports value. And I believe (and it follows) that lack of design, and poor design, can prevent value from being assigned; worse, compromise or destroy value where it once existed. This has happened in music. While the sonic character of a recording digitally encoded in a high-quality compression format may rival or exceed vinyl, the character of the artifact is not equivalent. A digital file in itself is nothing; it provides no shelter for the emotional projection in which we engage when we commit to an evaluation. Philosopher Mark Johnson has argued that as embodied consciousnesses, we understand ourselves and our worlds through spatial metaphor — and precisely the issue, I believe, with digital files is that they are not there. 

The interfaces and systems that have been designed thus far to facilitate encounters with digital music gesture weakly towards acknowledgment of the necessity of a material support for experience. But the languages and behaviors of these systems have been derived almost completely from existing paradigms of the graphical user interface, already stretched uncomfortably to accommodate our emergent screen-based practices. Tried-and-true GUI schema dictate spatial organizational principles perhaps appropriate for text and numerical data, but in designing systems to support an end-listener’s experience with music, should we not push farther?

This is not an esoteric proposition. As literary theorist Katherine Hayles is fond of saying, materiality matters. In scholarly and critical analysis, sure, but I believe there is also a very basic and fundamental way in which our understandings are shaped by our apprehension of the material dimensions of our worlds. Material implies an awareness both of the substantial physical qualities of things, as well as all the human-touched intentions, motivations, and associations we attach to them. So, a vinyl LP, for instance, indicates and refers not only to itself (as manufactured physical product) but also to the lathe that cut the metal mother, the record store where it was purchased; an older brother who passed it down, the dreams you might have had about being in the band, the girls you made out with while listening to the album, and the mix tape you gave to the one you really liked. In short, the material dimensions of an artifact are the substrate into which we make the emotional-historical imprints that are the only source of value in the world. 

I am not saying that valuation cannot occur in an experience with digital music. I am claiming, rather, that this valuation is intricately tied to lived experience, supported by material encounters, and thus reinforced when the artifacts in question reflect the distinctly human spatial and temporal characteristics of the collateral relationship. This happens naturally with physical artifacts, which casually accrue evidence of their use. (A whole cottage industry has emerged to sell “authentic” music stuff like “vintage” t-shirts and “relic” guitars that are deliberately manufactured to exude the “vibe” of actual used products. The aura of an emotional-historical imprint adds value.) As cultural production and dissemination transitions to the virtual spaces of the digital world, these material reflections must be designed into artifacts. Ones and zeros don’t age, they don’t accrue records of where they’ve been, they don’t have histories, and they are ultimately, infinitely replaceable by other ones and zeros. But interfaces and systems can be constructed that simulate the materiality of the physical world. This is where the designers of today can work to support and frame encounters with recorded music. To be clear, the screen has a materiality of its own, and it is imbued with affordances that transcend many of the limitations of physical artifacts. But existing examples of systems designed to facilitate encounters with digital music files fall far short of even the resonant possibility of the vinyl LP, a vehicle whose heyday was half a century ago. The market (and, hence, the designs it’s produced) has seemingly been driven by lightness, speed, and mobility at the expense of locality, situation, conviviality, learning, literacy, smartness, and flow (in the terms of John Thackara, who has gone to great lengths to expand these notions as ways forward in our rapidly changing world). As it is, we can carry our entire music collections in our pockets, but sometimes we still can’t find anything to listen to. 

What can design do to reintroduce materiality — as a potent substrate for an emotional-historical imprint — into the digital music experience? The answer obviously lies somewhere far beyond the meek album cover jpegs that presently provide the only real visual affordance for representing music onscreen. There is room for more imagery, 2D, static, and motion (Apple is experimenting with this in iTunes LP). But how should it be presented, and to what end? I believe indications of an answer lay in the Haylesian notion of materiality. Construing a digital package as a material artifact gives us some guidelines for the kinds of connotative associations we might think about accommodating in an onscreen encounter with an artifact. The digital object should serve as a hypertext, a manifold thing that becomes a sort of center of gravity around which all sorts of related subjects, voices, and associations swirl. This artifact — the simulated material substrate which supports the digital music file — could collect information over time about a listener’s habits, about particular occurrences, about relationships intentionally and unknowingly forged through use and chance. It could serve as porthole into an archive of other kinds of data about the recording, the group, the equipment, the era, the particular scene from which its sounds emerge. The ways in which it presents itself could be customizable. The artifact could change subtly over time to surprise and engage listeners in repeat encounters. Its character could adapt in response to its context — for instance, it could appear one way when encountered as an album sequence, and another way when experienced as part of a playlist.

The screen offers an endlessly permutable space for visual representation of data that can be tracked, tagged, and associated with digital audio files. Designers can decide when and how this data appears and behaves, according to the logic that best suits their ends. The issue is not precisely how it’s done, but that it is done, soon. Designed systems for managing and facilitating music encounters must acknowledge the role materiality plays in our personal appraisals and emotional connections with things. Even when these “things” are mere digital files, the systems we build can function to reflect our human attachments and ways of seeing, providing spaces into which our specific experiences can accrue and accrete into meaning. 

Design supports value. In the case of design for digital music encounters, the creation of value-space is badly needed. Artists are adrift without meaningful archival contexts for their work. And the difficulty of convincing listeners to compensate artists for immaterial digital files has been evident for some time. If those digital files were housed in simulated artifacts that facilitated immensely rich experiences, I believe many of the concerns now plaguing music might be mitigated. A more robust designed framework for digital music could help creative communities like local urban music scenes prosper. The artifacts produced by scenes could be hypertextual windows into their worlds, forging connections previously inconceivable. With this in mind, it is easy to imagine how a song might key into deep contextual, historical information on the particular community from which it emerged, for instance, providing data, archival images, and suggesting further musical listening experiences. This kind of system and interface could also collect information from listeners in the same space. 

Graphic design still holds the power to frame encounters with recorded music in lavish, smart ways. It is well past time for designers to engage the culture of the screen in ways that accommodate and support the emotional-historical imprints that are the requisite of value in any human experience.