I don't want my MP3

Or: How the Internet could kill the album

"We call our albums works -- like, 'This work is titled...' or 'This song is from our work...,' much in the same way an artist would call a painting a canvas," says Rubin, whose band maintains a Web site that's bereft of MP3s. "By removing a tune, it destroys the artistic integrity of the work. Then again, we're talking about art. Ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of the people out there don't see music as art really. They just pay lip service to it."

Contrary to happy-happy media reports that insist all artists regard the MP3 as a good thing (progress!), there are some musicians who are galled by this. They view the new technology as the enemy of the musician who exists outside the world of the short, disposable pop single -- the artist who crafts the work to be absorbed in one long sitting. They point out how nobody would ever think of publishing a novel online, allowing the audience to download individual chapters in willy-nilly order.

Imagine if someone out there heard Rubber Soul the first time -- but without "Think For Yourself," "Michelle," and "I'm Looking Through You," because the customer chose not to download those songs to save a few cents. Imagine Pink Floyd's The Wall, missing a few bricks. Or imagine Quadrophenia played backward, beginning with "Love Reign O'er Me" and climaxing with "I Am the Sea." Or imagine Yes albums without Roger Dean's identifiable cover art adorning them. Or imagine, for a moment, Capitol Records releasing "God Only Knows" -- or any other song from Pet Sounds -- as an MP3 single. Think of how small, how rinky-dink it would have sounded -- no high end, no low end, just the thin middle eked out through cheap computer speakers.

Down the John: They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh, left, and John Linnell have a chokehold on the future.
Chris Cuffaro
Down the John: They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh, left, and John Linnell have a chokehold on the future.
Bubba Kadane, left, laments the possible death of the full-length album.
Bubba Kadane, left, laments the possible death of the full-length album.

Such is the brave new world promised by the Internet: emasculated albums bereft of liner notes and artwork, concept albums reassembled until the story no longer makes sense, notable songs left off masterpiece albums because customers didn't want to hear those songs or, quite simply, didn't know what they were missing. Suddenly, freedom of choice really means dumbed-down, commodified, enervated.

"I must be getting old, because the world is just turning too fast for me," says Bubba Kadane, former singer-songwriter-guitarist for Bedhead. "I don't like the idea of people downloading songs and putting them on blank CD-Rs for a lot of reasons. I could elaborate, but a world without full-length albums would just bum me out. They are one of life's great joys, and MP3s represent a de-evolution to me rather than any sort of evolution. I wouldn't discourage the art of making great cohesive records in favor of a single great song any more than I would discourage making great two-hour movies in favor of great 10-minute scenes, and that seems to be the direction that the technology will take us: people making 'mix' discs for 50 cents per song instead of downloading complete records. For all of the 'punks' who think that MP3s stick it to The Man and allow more freedom and accessibility, I say, 'Meet the new boss.'"

To Kadane, MP3s serve only to prove his long-held notion that music is the art form still sitting at the back of the art world's bus. After all, no one would even consider releasing the new Martin Scorsese film or the new Tom Wolfe book on the Internet -- those things are art, man. But a pop song? A record? Sure, why not. It's only music -- who cares how it sounds?

Last month in The New York Times, writer Neil Strauss wrote a story celebrating "the message of the medium" -- how the MP3 is "changing our experience of listening to and handling the music." According to Strauss, the Internet has killed the album -- and that, says Marilyn Manson's biographer and mouthpiece, is a good thing, because "the Internet is a cooler medium." (Astonishing that this appeared in The New York Times and not, say, SMU's Daily Campus.)

Strauss is blinded by the "visual displays synchronized to the music." And, gawrsh, it sure it easy to make compilation discs on the Internet. Click your mouse a few times, and impress the girl of your dreams with a digital valentine.

Strauss, like all MP3 fans and apologists, talks about how the new format -- whatever it eventually becomes, and certainly the MP3 will be replaced by better-sounding technology soon enough -- frees an artist from making an album they must manufacture and sell at stores and advertise. True enough: The technology allows for immediate gratification, no argument there. Record, upload, download -- and it's yours for the taking in an instant, no middlemen involved.

It's rather astonishing how, in the name of ease and "accessibility," the artists and the audience are more than willing to turn computers into the most expensive transistor radios ever made. The fact is, all the MP3 players have done is duplicate the facade of your pre-existing stereo system. It doesn't matter if you have a Star Wars skin (Strauss' teen-beat suggestion, referring to the face plates that adorn the on-screen players) or a high-tech skin; such MP3 players as WinAmp still have the same-ol'-same-ol' fronts: a play button, skip buttons, stop, and so forth.

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