Saturday, December 09, 2006

Lost Art

First of all, I made a slight mistake in last week's post. I said I bought my copy of It crawled into my hand, honest in 1968, but I actually bought it in 1969. It was released in 1968, but I didn't hear about it until the following year. Not that you care.

I also mentioned last week that I thought the album cover art for Golden Filth was better than the album itself. The same could perhaps also be said of another album by The Fugs, Tenderness Junction, since the cover photographs were done by Richard Avedon.

Back in the LP days, a lot of thought often went into the design of album covers, from the art itself to the liner notes. So the consumer was rewarded twice: You could listen to the music while looking at the album cover and derive pleasure from both.

Album cover art was such a big deal back then that people used to publish art books consisting of nothing but LP album cover reproductions. I don't know how many such books were ever published, but I remember looking through one and thinking it was pretty cool.

This kind of attention isn't given to album art anymore. LP covers were about 12" x 12", which was plenty of space for some interesting and unusual art. And for gatefold covers, there was twice as much space, so the artwork could be even twice as interesting. But unfortunately, a CD jewel case insert is too small to inspire much artistic creativity. And when LP covers are scaled down to fit jewel cases, so much detail is lost that it isn't any fun to look at them -- they just remind you of everything you're missing.

Of course just as LPs became obsolete, CDs are also becoming obsolete, due to the increasing popularity of downloadable music. When we reach the point where music downloading services obviate the need for CDs, album cover art will be a lost art form. In a way, that's too bad, but it's not unprecedented and it's actually not that big a deal. No one makes cave drawings anymore, for example, but the art world doesn't seem to have suffered much because of it.

And we're definitely getting to the point where CDs are becoming obsolete. A lot of people buy CDs and never even listen to them. They just rip them to their computer and either play them on the computer or copy them to a portable MP3 player.

For some reason, I think this is sort of interesting -- not so much from a technical standpoint, but from a social standpoint.

It used to be that you'd buy a record, or even a CD, and you could sit around with a bunch of people listening to it on your stereo. I don't think that happens as much anymore.

I also don't think a lot of people are interested in audio equipment anymore -- they're more interested in what kind of storage capacity their MP3 player has or how many buttons they have to click to rip a CD. The fact that the fidelity of compressed digital audio played through a set of headphones is nowhere near the fidelity of uncompressed audio played through a decent amplifier and a good pair of speakers is almost irrelevant. The decrease in sound quality is more than made up for by the convenience of being able to store all your music in a tiny little box and take it with you wherever you go. Besides, most people can't hear the difference in sound quality anyway.

But a consequence of being able to take your own little personal music library with you wherever you go is that people don't listen to music together as much anymore. They might share their music (by making a copy of it and giving it to a friend, for example), but they're less likely to listen to it together since so much music is listened to through headphones and earbuds these days.

This "personal music" phenomenon didn't start with digital music, of course. It started sometime in the 80s when the Sony Walkman was invented. I never had a Walkman and I don't have a portable MP3 player, but it's not because I'm old-fashioned or anything -- it's because I don't really feel the need to listen to music wherever I go, and I don't like carrying things like MP3 players with me. My pockets are too full already. But the real reason is that I don't like sticking things in my ears. I can't stand those little earbuds. And headphones aren't much better. I'd rather listen to music through a set of speakers.

But even the portable MP3 player will be obsolete one day. Within a few years, they'll be able to inject portable music players right into our skin. They'll probably do it at birth, when they inject the RFID tags. I don't know what could be more convenient than that. And if future generations of music lovers have absolutely no idea what album art was, or why people went to the trouble of creating it, it's no big deal. Most of it wasn't that good anyway.