Digital Disposal: the i-Podification of Waste

Tara Brabazon

Tara Brabazon is an Associate Professor of Communications and Cultural Studies at Murdoch University and author of From Revolution to Revelation (2005), Digital Hemlock (2002), Ladies Who Lunge (2002), Tracking the Jack (2000). She is also director of the Popular Culture Collective (popularculturecollective.com).

Our popular cultural clocks stop at the point of our greatest immersion, passion and excess. For me, 1987 was the musical zenith. I never quite recovered from acid house, chalk-stiff styling mousse, black eyeliner and pixie boots. I remember Rick Astley with fondness, and bring out water-stained taffeta dresses upon request. At thirty six years of age, there is much in contemporary popular culture I adore – from Basement Jaxx to Versace, but it does not mean as much as Billy Bragg and Vivien Westwood.

While I own much vinyl, triggered by the rhythmic revolutions of house and techno, I remain a compact disc junkie. My collection of has beens and never was is without equal. A room of my house is filled with the architecture of its storage: from 'twin towers' stacks bought before September 11 to dull but functional modulated systems.

These structures are now shells and relics from an earlier age. As my i-Pod is loaded with the greatest hits of these compact discs, soon they will be removed from this room and view. The space can then be occupied with more function and pleasing leisure devices. In this transitional stage, it seems appropriate to ponder the plastic and remember the residue. While remaining in the analogue loops of my mind, these monuments to digital waste will soon be erased from popular memory.

The revolution triggering these changes to my house and musical collection has been the i-Pod. Suddenly, the scale and scope of my 1980s musical collection is wasted and wasteful. The compact discs tracks, once loaded into the gleaming white object steered by the sensual tactility of a wheel and screen, are residues of an earlier era. They are the entrails of popular culture. For this special edition on 'Waste,' I investigate the changes to the physicality of popular music through the i-Pod and the ghostly plastic relics of an era of fishnet stockings and fingerless gloves.

Changes to musical technology create new markets. The shift from vinyl to compact discs through the 1980s resulted in a massive programme of reissuing. Each decade had a predominant recording medium.

1950s

Single

1960s

Album

1970s

Cassette

1980s

Compact disco

1990s

CD Roms and Internet distribution

2000s

File compression applications

Through this streamlined and linear presentation, there were years of clutter, disorder and waste that cut up this linear and streamlined progression. In 1983, five different types of audio recordings existed concurrently: two 45RPM formats (the 12" and 7" single), the long playing record, audio cassettes and compact discs. For a short period in the mid 1980s, the most popular of popular songs was released on all formats. Compact discs did not kill vinyl, but did transform its role and place in the music industry for the next decade. By 1988, the sale of compact discs had surpassed vinyl, allowing the 'obsolete' platform to be born again in dance clubs as the backbone of house, trance, techno, drum 'n' bass and dub.

The change from vinyl to compact disc was so rapid during the mid-1980s that record companies focused on album-based artists like Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton. They did not have a following only in youth culture. Therefore compact discs were pivotal to the unraveling of the relationship between youth and popular music. Such a dissociation – a trial separation – would last twenty years. With the permeation of the World Wide Web through leisure and work and the popular acceptance of compression files such as the MP3, new platforms for music arose that signaled the end of the compact disc and a decline in the physical retailing of music.[i] Just as email was the unexpected success story of the Internet, so has compression software been the 'killer app' of the World Wide Web. The convergent potential of digitization renders the movement in musical files efficient and productive through the capacity to move through multiple platforms. Downloadable (and generational) revenge was enacted when the British Photographic Industry commenced proceedings against the parents of children caught illegally downloading songs over the internet.[ii]

There is always a poignant nostalgia for lost objects. The ephemera of popular culture encourages obsessive collecting because life, love and loss are catalogued through the back catalogue of music. There is a poignant argument to be made that the great days of new music are over. Now that our large personal collections are easily accessible through the i-Pod's wheel, the neophiliacal desire for music is satiated.[iii] There is also the gift of rediscovery, finding long forgotten music and listening to it after the breadth of experience and life. The benefit of accessing this personal music database, facilitated through file compression technology, is captured evocatively by Neil McCormick

I spent a recent long-haul flight comfortably ensconced in my own musical world; 10 uninterrupted hours with my MP3 player set to random. I knew I ought to get some sleep, so I made a bargain with myself to turn the device off when it played a song I didn't like. But, of course, it never did. This is the beauty of MP3 players. With storage space of thousands of songs, all of which you have personally chosen, it is like listening to your own private radio station, without the ad breaks or irritating DJs.[iv]

Intriguingly McCormick also noted the formation of "the i-Pod bore." He described them as "male and middle-aged (or older)" and "the only thing the i-Pod bore likes more than listening to his music collection is comparing it with someone else's."[v] This masculine comparisons of i-Pod size, menu, genre and style may be another attempt to naturalize and normalize baby boomer culture throughout society, but the plurality and complexity of the platform will not allow such singular histories to predominate. The shuffle, the mini and the diverse storage capacities mean that there is no single i-Pod to value. It is a diffused, customized and post-Fordist product.

The waste of compact disc obsolescence encourages mourning for that bright and younger memory, when life made sense. There is precedence for this redundancy. Ponder Paul Morley's investment in seven inches of black vinyl.

I was brought up on the pop single, and now it is no more. It truly was just for me, and the others who were around at the right time, in the right place. Those of us born in the 40s, the 50s, the 60s. Those of us who find ourselves measuring out our lives in terms of the seven-inch vinyl single that was alive with the moment, and all moments ... But the world is different because the seven-inch single has gone, and it is only now, as the new world finally begins to arrive, that we can get over the loss of the damned thing. The CD single created the illusion, for a while, that there was still a single, and as great as the songs have been, they have gradually become something else. Post-singles, sub-singles, shadows, adverts for themselves.[vi]

My memory only slightly dovetails with Morley. I was born in 1969 and while I owned vinyl singles, my youth and early adulthood was punctuated by changing formats, not a continuity of music media. Therefore, the loss is lessened. But I do remember the first single that I bought. It was part of a network of new independencies for a young woman. I was eighteen years old, had just qualified to drive and started university. During the first week of my first term, I drove to record shop on the way home from university, and bought Johnny Hates Jazz's "Shattered Dreams." I listened to it in the privacy of my room repeatedly and wastefully. It captured disappointment and despair at the very moment I was feeling euphoria and the world of possibilities. It served as a reminder that every moment of happiness and joy contains the seed of desolation. Morley's unmitigated sadness at the loss of the single has meant that he has missed its buoyant survival and revival, but without the blackness of the vinyl.[vii] The physicality of music has been lost, with music downloaded into an already existing digital platform. The single has survived, only to cannibalize the album.[viii] The i-Pod and mobile phone ring tones returned the single to popularity,[ix] without its vinyl and analogue platform. Music is made young and mobile again.[x] When reviewing the last fifty years of popular music history, it reveals the survival of the single, through itunes and ringtones, and the decline of the album, masked by the twenty year blip through the compact disc. Instead of applying the analogue standards of vinyl singles and albums, with particular lengths and structures, the 'new' single may be 45 seconds long, or sixteen bars.[xi] An 'album' may be two hours of remixes, dubs, beats and interviews. While the compact disc continued vinyl history without the vinyl, the i-Pod does not perpetuate such irrational analogue nostalgia.

Even when it was developed, the compact disc was an obsolete and wasteful way of consuming music. Although it had potential for diverse and convergent use of digital encoding and decoding, it replicated its form, track listing and packaging from the vinyl long playing record. Yet the CD, like the cassette, permitted mobile music – not possible through the vinyl platform. It was the CD single that was the most wasteful in the suite. There is little cost difference in manufacturing a compact disc, regardless of how much data it contacts. CD singles cost as much as the full album. They were limited by their vinyl predecessor rather than the specifications of the platform. Much more information could have been contained on the CD single. In 2003 alone, CD single sales in Australia declined by 16.5%[xii]

Because the CD was perpetuating the limitations of an older platform, when the next change emerged, the transformation was going to be swift. In 1998, the MP3 – the Motion Picture Experts Group Audio Layer III – compression technology was developed by the Industry Standard Association. It allowed uniform compression for low bandwidth streaming through the internet. MP3 allowed the compression of many more songs to be stored on a compact disc, with little loss of quality. It also allows the transfer of files over the internet. Napster file sharing network was launched in 1998 and while it was attacked through analogue law, moving digital music over the internet would not be so easily curbed. With the music industry wedding itself to the CD single for distributing individual songs, they missed the potential for the sale of music over the Web as MP3 files. In this corporate gap, and recognizing the waste of full CDs and singles, the i-Pod jutted into popularity. As a storage device, it was able to record and play music, while holding the selected contents of a whole sonic library, not only one disc as was the case with the Discman.

Technology does not cause change, but facilitates it. It was the waste and greed of the organizations that replicated vinyl structures on digital platforms that created a space for the i-Pods and the eagerness for quick downloadable music. New vertically integrated models for music were already emerging. Sanctuary Music Group, an independent record company in London, not only signs artists like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beyonce, Coldplay and the Strokes, but has a publishing and management arm, sells merchandise, books gigs and build websites. This value-adding is necessary, as digitization has meant that mobile telephone operators and broadband internet providers are major operators in the music industry. Andy Taylor, Sanctuary Music Group's executive chairman, described this changing environment.

These new digital sales mechanisms – the interviews, the wallpapers that go on to mobile phones, the webcasts, the video on demand – require more involvement from the artists. The artist is the music industry, and servicing the artist in whatever way they want is the business that people want to be in.[xiii]

While Taylor's diverse interests are commendable, actually the consumers make the music industry. Popular culture is not determined by texts, but by audiences. Music fans recognized the waste of compact discs and wanted their popular music histories stored efficiently and through more mobile media.

Music capitalism requires waste and obsolescence. The fetishization of the new ensures that music continues to be bought, rather than consumers living in their own back catalogue. While the sociology of the i-Pod is yet to be written, the easy accessibility of past music – with thousands of songs available at the turn of a wheel – means that this fetish of the new is weathered. As I have been selecting the CDs and songs to upload into my i-Pod, I have (re)discovered a richness of my earlier self and collecting habits. With fifty years of music available through the scrolling of a screen, we can live in our sonic memories, without the need to be challenged by difference. Because of the hyper-privacy of i-Pods, no one can see the selection of Barry Manilow or Abba, rather than Massive Attack and James. Discmans required the removed of a CD from its plastic container, revealing its contents to voyeuristic observers. Outside the i-Pod headphones, there is no information about the taste, obsessions and passions of the listener. To live in someone else's i-Pod is to be disconnected from the musical soundtracks of our own lives. To understand waste music and the tidiness of the i-Pod necessitates a discussion of i-fans.

From air guitar to i-guitar

Being involved with popular music is one of the visible and intense of fandoms. From the shrieking girls of Beatlemania to the Kiss Army, popular music displaces the reasonableness of high culture into the excessive irrationality of swaying cigarette lighters, screaming, sweating, crowd surfing, stage diving and air guitar. Being a fan of popular music is about knowledge, making a stand about some form of popular music to confirm that a song, performer or group are of personal relevance and importance. A fan of popular music assumes that those outside of the fan base cannot hear the music. This sense of common aurality grants fans possession of the music. To make popular music even more complex, it only acts temporarily. It is only crucial to a person's life for a short period of time and is then decentred. Another text replaces the previous one, only to return as memory and nostalgia. Popular music is the textual waste of the accelerated culture. For those moments when a song is important in a person's life, it defines the nature of the rest of that life. It is a filter for the rest of the socio-political moments that are active at that time. That is why the phrase 'they're playing our song' is a cliché. It is a reminder how popular culture – particularly sonic media – provides a trigger for memory.

Waste is disposable, by definition. In every text of popular cultural waste, there is memory, a physical anchoring and reminder of a younger self. It is efficient, productive and space-saving to dispose of waste. But the textures of our identity are composed from the ephemera and effluent of history. It is a short passage from disposable products to disposable people. In accelerated capitalism, the speed with which waste is transformed into profit-making potential is best revealed in suburban shopping malls. In the first six months of 2005, Kmart and Target transformed their Compact Disc selections into DVD sections. The CD back catalogues were sold at heavily reduced prices. What would have been A$30.00 worth of compact disc in 2004, within a few months became embarrassing, wasteful and unfashionable, thrown out in the 'under $10' bargain bin. The shelves once capturing music memories yet to be born became wasteful, only to be replaced with the rapid DVD-ification of visuality. Needless to say, I have transformed into a scavenger, finding the music made redundant by platform. Yet the quality of the CDs – particularly in dance music – that I have picked up for three dollars is extraordinary. In our move to itunes, there has been no recognition that heavily discounted CD compilations are a cheap way to populate the i-Pod library. Two of my most extraordinary finds have been Academy, released for the 15th anniversary of the Brixton Academy,[xiv] and a Black Grape CD single that I never knew existed. What both these rare items were doing in a suburban shopping centre in Perth, Western Australia is uncertain. Yet because they are locked into a wasteful and obsolete platform, there has been a confusion of price and value.

As the analogue and physical retailing of CDs declines, there have been many nay-sayers proclaiming the end of popular music. Yet music had a history before the shiny discs and it will survive their decline. The lack of music technology historiography has meant that the major music producers and distributors have been conservative and analogue in their thinking. Some companies have taken chances and gained dividends. For new bands like the Bravery, downloading offered an opportunity, with 'an Honest Mistake' discounted remix being exclusively downloaded through i-Tunes. For new bands and performers, the cheapness of i-tunes downloads means that listeners may again take risks, trying new music with little capital outlay. The compact disc was an expensive white elephant, imposing a mass of mediocre music on consumers. This new post-Fordist musical economy allows consumers to select their music in their order. There are no more filler tracks. Some sectors of the music industry acknowledge these changes. Some record companies are still trying to increase the price of iTune downloading.[xv] Some still cling to physical retailing. Steve Knott, Managing Director of HMV in the UK and Ireland, confirmed his belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and record shops in an attempt to rebuild the significance of his brand and business.

I get a bit pissed off at the number of headlines and column inches that would have you believe the record shop is dead, that physical retailing is in the past, and it's all about the future being digital distribution ... But everybody in this industry's salaries are paid for by records that are physically sold in stores – and will be for some time to come.[xvi]

Knott is trying to perpetuate the analogue history of music. Actually he needs to focus on the changes to audiences. The sociology of i-Pod audiences means that new and innovative auditory cultures are being formed that are cutting away the waste in time, space and texts that was a characteristic of physically buying a compact disc from a store, filled with songs that will rarely be heard, and then storing it in the already commodity-cluttered house.

There was one moment that charted this transformation. Only in retrospect will we recognize its significance. On April 17, 2005 the BBC introduced its first music chart that amalgamated the CD single purchases and downloaded sings. It was such an important moment because it allowed analysts, perhaps for the last time, to track the different sociologies of music audiences. How would the ranking differ between downloaded tracks and those bought in a physical retailer? The first change was remarkable: the singles' chart almost doubled in size to 800,000 units when including legal downloads from more than twenty sites, including Napster and i-Tunes. While there was no change to the number one ranked song, a remake of Tony Christie's '(Is this the way to) Amarillo' with comedian Peter Kay, other movements and comparisons were more telling in incorporating neglected musical audiences. Elvis Presley's 'The Wonder of You' would have been number three in the conventional chart listing. Under the new method, it lost a place to '1, 2 Step' by Ciara featuring Missy Elliott. Dance music was represented even more strongly. 'Oh my gosh' by Basement Jaxx would have been number 45. It lifted to 27 when downloading was included. In a profound moment of analogue revenge, the biggest movement was Gorillaz's 'Feel Good inc.' Only available on seven inch vinyl single, it would have been number 197 through the current chart format. With downloads it propelled to number 22.[xvii] At this moment of change, it is clear that dance music, hip hop and electronica is gaining visibility and importance from the incorporation of downloading into the official chart. Downloading is making music young, fun and mobile again.

The i-Pod is a convenient, efficient and productive way to story music, rendering large CD collections accessible, convenient and fast to sort and organize. Physical clutter is reduced. The waste of popular music is left to drain outside of the database. The copying and distributing of the digital information is fast. However the surprise of music – the unexpected sample, the extraordinary new performer or song - is far less common in the i-Pod age. Our physical collections of music are not only a collection of tracks but a sequence of memories. While such structures may appear a relic of the analogue age, they hold a social function – to enable users to re-remember and configure narratives of self and society. While the i-Pod may appear to remove the physicality of music, we are yet to make this leap conceptually. Every new piece of software and hardware steps over the broken bodies of files, images, peripherals and ideas that – with ruthless precision – have been lost and destroyed, rather than migrated or moved. Programming languages, storage formats and operating systems are made redundant – useless – alongside the documents, images and words written through the platforms. We accept the losses, the tragedies, as the nature of working in our long now. While the i-podification of culture seems to shred waste and preserve forever our individual greatest hits, the history of popular music tells a different story. Every platform becomes redundant, it just takes time. The flexibility and efficiency of the i-Pod will lengthen its proto-obsolescence. The uploading of fifty years of pop music history into a slimline case, 105mm x 60mm x 17mm[xviii] in dimension, has transformed compact discs into a wasteful platform memory and baggy nostalgia. The i-Pod is a beautiful object that encases the millions of micro narratives of music. Paul Morley acknowledged that "it's the whole point of pop, to create change, to be part of change, to record that change."[xix] It is therefore both appropriate and ambivalent that the i-Pod's library privatizes musical history, accessed by the turn of a wheel.


[i] Paul Morley described this compact disc period as "a banal bastard stopgap between the perfection of vinyl and the moment when music is transported into our lives without the need for any object," from P. Morley, "The magic circles," The Guardian, August 1, 2003, http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,3858,4723619-110760,00.html, accessed on May 7, 2005

[ii] S. Morris, "Mother faces music for girl's illegal downloads," The Guardian, July 21, 2005, p. 13

[iii] A report by Gordon Smith confirmed that "digital music still will not replace CDs or bring music sales back to its 1999 peak, the company said," from "Digital music sales double but CD sales not in danger," siliconrepublic.com, http://www.siliconrepublic.com/news/news.nv?uid=&sid=&storyid=single3574, accessed on August 8, 2004. A counter argument was offered by Peter, who stated that "With devices like i-Pods, people can hold up to 10,000 songs in their hands. This means that collections are getting bigger and bigger ... If people are to get into the habit of owning an awful lot more music, then it is essential that playlists drive the model, not albums. Customers want 'type' or 'genres' of music to sit together to create mood. They do not want all of a recording artists' work played in one block, and they don't want to be forced to buy it that way either," Peter, "Music biz waves axe at goose that laid golden egg," The Register, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/05/18/goose_golden_egg/print.html, accessed on August 8, 2004

[iv] N. McCormick, "The jingle v the single," The Telegraph, August 8, 2004, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2004/06/10/bmnmc10.xml, accessed on August 8, 2004

[v] ibid. The official Apple site featured a link to "Share your iMix," asking users to "post and email songs in your playlists for everyone to see. Rate iMixes from other music loves to drive them up or down the chars, and discover new music at the same time," from Apple – iTunes, http://www.apple.com/itunes/, accessed August 8, 2004

[vi] Morley, "The magic circles."

[vii] The evocative colours of change should also be noted. The blackness of vinyl is matched by the whiteness of the i-Pod. Even the i-Pod's white headphones are entering popular cultural consciousness. They distinctive white ear-pods are becoming the target for muggers. As Lester Haines reports, "the police are advising i-Pod junkies to use less distinctive headphones, something which is apparently akin to asking Victoria Beckham to shop at Oxfam. The Sun quotes one i-Pod representative as saying: "There are guys who'd rather be robbed than change the colour of the headphones," The Register, March 30, 2004, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/03/30/i-Pod_this_seasons_musthave/print.html, accessed on August 8,2004

[viii] There is another argument to be made that not only is the album declining, but the single is shrinking. Through mobile phone ring tones, the first sixteen bars is all that is required for recognition.

[ix] Thomas Dolby Robertson stated that "downloadable ring tones have been the surprise smash hit of the wireless data world, generating over $1 billion in sales in the last twelve months," from "Features – improving the quality of mobile ringtones, quality of life?" News Wireless.Net, April 12, 2002, http://www.newswireless.net/articles/020412-beatnik.html, accessed on August 8, 2004. For a discussion of the relationship between the mobile phone ring tone and the i-Pod please refer to T. Brabazon, F. Cull, M. Kent and L. McRae, "Jingling the single: the i-Podification of the music industry," AQ, October 2005 (forthcoming)

[x] Intriguingly, the mobile phone has been marked as the cause of decline in the music industry. For example, Steve McClure reported that, "Ask anybody in the Japanese music industry why music sales are falling, and they'll likely give you a simple, on-word answer: keitai (mobile phones). Young Japanese spend much, if not most, of their disposable income on their mobile phones." Please refer to S. McClure, "Japan: investing in the future," Billboard, September r8, 2001, p. 62

[xi] In many ways, this future of the music industry has already happened. Mobile phone ring tones are naturalizing a shortened sample of music. Please refer to Toby Lewis, "Ringtones become first downloadable music success story," Music Week, June 16, 2001, pp. 26-28

[xii] S. Cannane, "Music industry way off track with song and dance about falling sales," The Sydney Morning Herald, March 29, 2004

[xiii] A. Taylor, in N. Hopkins, "Music majors talking about a revolution in the digital age," The Australian, January 4, 2005, p. 19

[xiv] Academy, Beechwood Music Ltd, 2000. This two CD set, with a short history of the Brixton Academy, was bought for $2.99. It features music from Stereophonics, The Divine Comedy, Embrace, the Stone Roses, New Order, James, Prodigy, Orbital, Leftfield, Massive Attack, Black Grape, Underworld and The Lemonheads.

[xv] Peter reported that "the maths just do not add up. The ungrateful record labels that were so desperate to beat piracy, but which overpriced all their own efforts at online music, are now working behind the scenes to drive up the price of music on Apply iTunes. It is a mistake and it will backfire: and judging by statements that are coming out of Apple, the people at Apple know it and are resist it as best they can," from "Music biz waves axe at goose that laid golden egg," The Register, 2004, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/05/18/goose_golden_egg/print.html, accessed on August 8, 2004

[xvi] S. Knott, "HMV Bullish about expansion plans," Billboard, Vol. 117, No. 11, March 12, 2005, p. 47

[xvii] R. Jinman, "Downloads bring new era for singles chart," The Guardian, April 18, 2005, p. 8

[xviii] In Imperial measurements, the dimensions of the i-Pod are 4 x 2 x 3/4 inches.

[xix] Morley, "The magic circles."