Anyone born between, say, 1900 and 1990 grew up thinking of music as a physical object, whether in the form of vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassettes, or CDs. But this notion of rhythm and sound forged into something tactile is a mere blip in the history of music-making. Sheet music notwithstanding, if you wanted to listen to Beethoven’s 5th in 1808, you would have to throw on your finest frock and head to the symphony.
Now, with MP3s (which are on their way out too) and streaming music dominating our listening habits, the 150-year era of music-as-a-physical-object, which started with Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville‘s recording to “Au Clair de la Lune,” has come to a close.
Or has it? One of the most innovative pieces of music technology all year isn’t a new streaming app or a mind-blowing compression algorithm — It’s the new vinyl record “Lazaretto” from Jack White, who ironically, has a reputation for hating technology. The LP features dual grooves which allow listeners to pick whether they want to hear an acoustic version or an electric version of one of the songs. It also has secret tracks buried under the label and a “hand-etched hologram by Tristan Duke of Infinity Light Science” because why not.
White’s not the only one experimenting with record technology lately. Over at the Smithsonian, Jimmy Stamp rounds up some of the most exciting innovations in this field. Audiophiles are using 3D printers to transform sound files into 33 RPM resin records. Others have created records using lasers, cutting grooves into plastic, paper, and even wood.
But the fact that maker culture and vinyl culture merged so easily highlights problems with both of them. As Pando’s James Robinson has written, maker culture, for all its charms, is still largely a hobbyist movement, unlikely to change the world or move markets. And while vinyl sales are surging, up more than 40 percent over last year, total units sold in the first half of 2014 only amounted to 4 million. Meanwhile, total album sales, most of which were digital downloads, totaled 121 million units while digital track downloads totaled 593.6 million. Vinyl’s not killing the digital star any time soon.
That’s not to say these creations aren’t cool, or that the communities behind them aren’t vibrant. And for White, selling 49,000 copies at $20 apiece brings him a solid haul. But, to be honest, he probably would have been better off releasing his album exclusively on iTunes for a week before letting Spotify, Rdio, and the rest get ahold of it. For superstars of White’s caliber, that strategy has paid off handsomely. Furthermore, while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the innovations behind “Lazaretto” gimmicky, are holographic etchings and dual grooves really need-to-haves when it comes to the music you buy, assuming you even still pay for music?
Limited edition vinyls and box sets with fancy, innovative packaging have always been a good way for artists to skim a little more cash from their super-fans — the Velvet Underground box set with the phallic, peel-able banana was always one of my favorites. But when the Smithsonian writes (with certainly a heaping dose of irony) “Forget the Cloud. In the Future We’ll Listen to Music on UV-Cured 3D-Printed Resin,” don’t be fooled. Music as a physical item will be for collectors and hobbyists, just like Maker Faire’s army of homemade R2D2s. In the future, music will still be largely in the cloud — or whatever they call the telekinetic brain-to-brain medium we use to share songs in 2030.