“Physical is best. Touch it. Smell it right after opening the shrink-wrap. Take it off the shelf to show to your friends, so they can touch it too. Neither downloaded, streamed, nor any other form of music will ever replace physical (except for live!)” – Chuck, user comment on “Pitchfork Launches Advance,” from HypeBot
“Seriously - you’re going to love it. And if you don’t, it won’t have cost you anything.” masterofreality, user comment on “Spotify’s US launch,” from Ars Techinca.
What do you do when you want to listen to recorded music in 2013? You can opt for physical media: put on a CD, a cassette, a record. You can listen to an .mp3 file on software like iTunes. Or you can stream it from “the cloud.” A number of companies compete for your streaming music business, all with slightly different offerings and business models. Spotify and Rdio offer a seemingly infinite library, integrated with your Facebook account, and sync your collection across a bevy of devices. Pandora generates a stream of music based on any song or artist you give it. Turntable.fm puts you in a virtual room and lets you take turns choosing tracks with and for an audience of other users. The list goes on, but one constant unites all the cloud music services: they are free or have a free option. Sign in and log on.
Streaming music services emphasize the single listen and the individual track over repeated play and the full album. Don’t mistake this for sentimentality or for a lament that “streaming music killed the album.” Fetishization of music-as-object can occur in any format. There’s validity in privileging individual tracks, and for that type of music consumer, streaming is a godsend. There is, however, a considerable hole in the streaming music industry for album fanatics.
Enter Pitchfork Advance. On January 7th, online music publication Pitchfork threw its hat into the ring with a fairly unique offering. For the uninitiated, Richard Beck’s n+1 essay puts it best: “In the last decade, no organ of music criticism has wielded as much influence as Pitchfork. It is the only publication, online or print, that can have a decisive effect on a musician or band’s career.” Pitchfork has attained its reputation through careful curation. Curation is the cultural capital attached to Pitchfork, and the key to its success and self-continuation as the premier source for music news and criticism.
The site invests deeply in bands as brands, and their coverage inherently favors some artists over others. For example, Pitchfork has reviewed every album by Rihanna, but declined to comment on the biggest pop record of 2012, Taylor Swift’s Red. They’ve launched the careers of Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver while simultaneously writing Kings of Leon and the Killers out of the annals of festival-tent indie rock. Pitchfork curates meticulously at the level of form and content, both on its site and with its new streaming platform.
Advance streams full albums, in their entirety, and only during the week before the album goes on sale. But rather than a simple media player, Advance attempts to bring the full album experience, including artwork and liner notes, to the web. If streaming services view the single as critical to a social music experience, Pitchfork Advance posits that the album is critical to an individual listening experience. Pitchfork CEO Ryan Schreiber argues that “Pitchfork Advance allows you to have an experience with the music that’s immersive in the way that engaging with a vinyl LP would be.” Certainly, this is romanticism through new media: an empty basement with nothing but a turntable and a pair of headphones, losing yourself for hours in the music, the artwork, the lyrics.
The first album on Advance, Yo La Tengo’s Fade, was accompanied by a set of video loops and animations, content unique and exclusive to this new format. The trees on the Fade’s cover glisten and shift color. Scroll horizontally to see a list of who played on the record, and where it was recorded. Scroll further for a tracklisting. Since Fade, other artists have expanded upon what the platform can do. Guards’ In Guards We Trust contains lyrics and video artwork of cars and lips, complementing the themes of the album. The Advance interface also includes links to social sharing sites and places to purchase the physical album. Advance emphasizes the close relation between music and its material form, making it impossible to extricate the experience of listening to music from the experience of an album. After the week an album spends on Advance, the music disappears, but the artwork and animations remain.
We live in a new era of media reception, one that has fundamentally changed the way we engage with and consume the music we love. In Strange Sounds, Timothy Taylor notes, “Today’s technology makes possible a greater degree of eclecticism in consumption than ever before because of purchases (or downloads) from the web of single tracks of recorded music.” With .mp3 downloads and the ability to rip CDs, the focus of consumers has moved from the album to the single. Why buy an album when the one song you want to hear costs $.99 on iTunes? With this, the playlist has eclipsed the album collection as a source of personal meaning-making. Like listeners once did (and still do) with mixtapes, users invest themselves in playlists and hold them as sources of identity. The songs acquire personal connotations and flavors, and these can be shared to other users/consumers with similar desires. Spotify and other social music services invest heavily in this concept: if you put yourself and your identity into a playlist, an algorithm can determine recommendations for artists, songs, even other users with similar tastes. The playlist is the primary piece of collected data. But by emphasizing the individual song, streaming services highlight an age-old musical debate: what do you prefer, the single or the album? More precisely, which one do you use to create your identity?
For users of these services, this debate is intricately tied to debates on what, exactly, the ideal listening experience is. Commenting on a piece on Advance in tech-blog The Verge, user juliancamilo writes, “As long as theres [sic] a quick way to skip to the next song, it can’t recreate that experience.” Another user drolly suggests “picking up the needle,” but the point is taken: some music purists believe that the album is the paramount form for the art they love, and appreciate Pitchfork Advance for its effort to return people’s focus to the album. Another user, juanochoaiii, writes, “I think the key of enjoying music lies with giving it undivided attention. A streaming service, iTunes, internet radio app, etc., is always used in the background of Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, The Verge, etc.” And so, fittingly, Pitchfork Advance sets itself in opposition to the streaming mainstream. If most digital music services are fragmented and distracted, Advance tells you that immersion makes you a superior music listener. Welcome to music snobbery 2.0.
Any popular music form has its detractors, from the top-ten-listing musical objectivists in High Fidelity’s Championship Vinyl to the LA Weekly critic who just this week rebelled against his counterculture by writing a feature called “The Dirty Projectors Are Not Good.” But the glance down the nose extends beyond musical taste. Decrying the new music delivery technology is as old as music delivery technology itself. Thomas Christensen writes about the outcry when four-hand piano reductions of orchestral scores allowed concert music to enter the home in the 19th century, quoting one man as saying, “It is horrifying and worthy of the strongest censure how masterpieces have been arranged—particularly for four hands—with such ineptitude, superficiality, and disrespect.” In Christensen’s article on four-hand transcriptions, those who stood in opposition to the format were those who were threatened by its democratic potential: music entering the home meant it could replace music in concert halls, destabilizing class structure. Similar outrage can be found anywhere economies of power are threatened. So how does streaming music threaten the economy of the album?
Streaming and singles work perfectly for music’s most ascendant (and lucrative) contemporary genre: EDM. An August 2012 Forbes article “places EDM’s rise on the genre’s coexistence with the Web [because] DJs were some of the first to truly give their music for free and adopt social media, making money off of gigs and appearances rather than album sales.” The money for EDM is in the single and the live mega-performance, and that money flows heavily. EDM’s fans view it as democracy-in-miniature, a sonic utopia, the music of a new youth.
This leaves indie rock, a historically album-based medium, with the short end of the stick. This summer, Nitsuh Abebe wrote a feature in New York Magazine on Grizzly Bear, a hugely popular act by indie rock standards, explaining that the band don’t make nearly as much as one would expect. The band members barely scrape the middle class. Meanwhile, the highest paid DJ in the world, Tiësto, made $22 million in 2012. Albums are expensive to record and clumsy to distribute, especially in the digital realm. Singles cost less to produce (especially if you’re making music on your laptop), and make distribution a breeze. As such, albums are quickly becoming a format that only record-label artists can afford, because the label provides the finances and infrastructure to make a record viable. In turn, many independent bands have relied upon crowdsourced funding via Kickstarter in order to make and distribute full records, using a recorded single as the promise of future returns.
By following the money trail and the current impulses of musicians, it’s possible to see why Advance represents a new way forward. Because Pitchfork curates so carefully, they ensure that they remain in the inner circle of commercially viable music. They cover the requisite amount of Top-40, EDM, and R&B while keeping their core indie rock audience. With Advance, Pitchfork is using its clout in an attempt to save the full-album listen. And it’s an admirable effort. Advance is an ethical medium compared to other streaming services that offer a pittance in royalties to their artists. Writing for Mashable.com, Todd Olmstead claims, “Conventional wisdom suggests that in an age of rampant piracy, letting listeners sample music legitimately will curb illegal downloading, and in the case of rising acts, might even entice people to buy something that otherwise would have been off their radar.”
While trying out Pitchfork Advance, I didn’t find that I could give it my undivided attention. I did, however, find that I listened to multiple albums for their duration, albums I wouldn’t have listened to otherwise. But I didn’t make the leap to go purchase them. At least not yet. Perhaps I will once the albums are off Advance and the music is still in my ear. I do feel a responsibility to pay for the music to which I listened and guilt about potentially stealing the albums. That, if nothing else, is a small victory.
TRISTAN RODMAN B‘15 is an interactive digital format.