Friday, October 16, 2009

The Digital Revolution: Viewing Art as Data

Think about the last time you bought a CD. A physical CD, the kind that comes in that annoying shrink-wrap, with a little paper booklet held in place by plastic insets that always break off. You are standing at the cash register, having just purchased said CD. What do you do with it now?

Well, if you're like me, you drive home, put the CD into your computer, upload the contents to your music library, plug in your iPod, and transfer the music from your computer to the mp3 player for actual listening purposes. The physical CD is stacked in a dust-covered pile, never to be touched again.

The fact is that I like having a physical copy of my stuff. Not only music, but books and movies as well. There's something very satisfying about looking at the tangible copy of a work of art, and being able to say that "I possess this. It is mine." But, as I just described in the above scenario, there's something rather absurd about me buying a physical CD in order to transfer it to my computer and eventually my iPod. It’s an unneeded step, and with new digital music services, that additional step is no longer even necessary. The question is now whether we can make the jump from viewing music, books and movies as objects to viewing them as data, the same way we think about, say, email.

In the end, even though we've been conditioned to view these things as physical objects, they are just data, and always have been. Now, it's just more apparent than ever. We’ve already been conditioned to think about video and audio as such, thanks to the omnipresent format wars. But text is something new; books have pretty much been the only medium for text for about 600 years or so. As data formats go, that's a pretty good run. But now, we’re confronted with the ability to access the entirety of Wikipedia from our hard drive. It's a hefty 2.4 terabytes, no joke by any means, but think about what that would be on the printed page. One terabyte is the equivalent of one million large books. That means we have the ability to access nearly two and a half million books worth of material. Of course, not all of us may have a free 2.4 terabytes lying around, but even my paltry iPod hard drive can store the equivalent of 120,000 books, which is more than I can reasonably expect to read in my lifetime.

Digitized forms of media are more and more prevalent, not only for books, but for music and even movies (in the form of Netflix streaming, for instance). If you can get over the new format, this digital revolution is quite convenient. By sacrificing our access to a concrete material object, we're allowing ourselves a much wider range of access that's infinitely easier to obtain. I have twenty and a half days worth of music on my iPod, and it's barely a quarter of the way full. I could rely on the paltry stock of music at the local Target, or I could obtain practically any track immediately from the Amazon store, with virtually no wait. As a classical music aficionado who has found his beloved genre often ignored completely in brick-and-mortar music stores, digital downloading means a much wider selection of music that was once difficult for me to obtain. And, I get the additional benefit of never worrying about scratching or losing a disc. A similar revolution is occurring with books. Google Books already has thousands of public domain texts available for instant access, and, if it gets its way, will soon have tens-of-thousands of more out-of-print but still copyrighted materials available for digital download for a modest fee.

There’s the catching point – the price. If I go to a store and buy a fifteen dollar music CD, I have a physical object in exchange for my hard-earned money. Part of the price I paid goes toward the manufacture and production of that CD, another part goes for the transportation of said object to the store. We as a culture have learned to equate money with things. If I give Best Buy a twenty dollar bill, and they will give me a DVD. Seems fair.

But what are we paying for when we begin to purchase our art in a digital format? We’re no longer paying for a physical product; we are paying for the access of information. In the back of my mind, I know that it's a ripoff to pay fifteen dollars for a physical CD, but at least then I have a real object I can pull out at any time, to show what I got for my money. If I download an album from iTunes, even though it only costs ten dollars, what do I have to show for it? The access to data hasn't changed; I still have the ability to now listen to this music anytime I want, to copy it and give it to a friend, and so on. But I have nothing tangible in return for my ten dollars. Something important still seems missing. The loss is even greater with e-books, when I no longer have a physical copy to lovingly parade on the bookshelf so visitors can admire my extraordinary taste in literature.

This evolution of artistic material from “physical product” to “data” is one of the reasons for the prevalence of piracy amongst normally angelic folks. If you steal a physical book from a bookstore, that’s one less book the store can sell. If you download a pirated e-book, theoretically the publisher has not lost any material, so to speak, as the data can be infinitely reproduced. Suddenly, the ethics of the situation are a lot fuzzier.

There is another aspect to consider. When we are buying physical CDs, we are not only paying just for that band's music. For every one CD release that makes money, there are ten that don't. The idea is that the record company will produce ten CDs, and hope that one will not only be profitable, but be SO profitable that its profits cover the losses of the other nine. It's not a perfect system, but it allows the record companies to be slightly less picky about whom they sign. Book publishers have a similar system. When I buy the latest Stephen King bestseller, the profits of that go not only to support King and his ability to write, print and transport books, but the ability of the entire publishing company to write, print and transfer all kinds of books. By buying a physical copy, you are supporting the entire industry.

But is this necessary if I download a Stephen King book digitally? If King can just type up a new novel and put it up on his website for digital purchase, what's the point of the middleman at all? Why should we, the consumers, be subsidizing a bunch of failed projects?

Well, actually the subsidization of the less profitable titles is a good thing for the consumer; it ensures that there is a large quality of material available, and that your favorite author/artist will continue to find publication even if they aren't bestsellers. If we were to reject the corporate middlemen and start self-publishing material directly on the Internet, there would no longer be a system in place to make sure your favorite artist gets a paycheck. Only the most popular artists would be able to make a living off that sort of system. While that might sound like a good thing, consider the fact that Couple's Retreat was the number one movie in America last weekend.

Do we really want a system in which only the blandest, most trendy artists can make a buck, and even then only when their first release is an immediate success? Smaller niche authors would be unable to make a living, as would artists who need an album release or two before they reach that magnum opus. I’m willing to accept Dan Brown’s eminently forgettable The Lost Symbol as a bestseller if it means the profits of that title will be used to ensure the publication and (and therefore survival) of a number of “riskier” authors. Our corporate distribution system is not perfect, but the populist digital distribution system would have its own set of problems that needs to be considered. (However, I think there are valid possibilities for a completely different kind of commercial marketplace for art; perhaps I will discuss these options in a later post. Stay tuned!)

Last week, a friend lent me a copy of Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde", on three physical discs. Instead of loading it onto my computer, I actually wiped the dust off my CD player, listened to the music off the actual disc. Maybe it was the quality of the recording itself, but something about the ululating voices of angry German women invading my apartment made it seem that much more real than when I simply hook my iPod up to my speakers. A mental trick? A difference in sound quality between my digital tracks and the audio CD? I'm not sure. As I listened, flipping through the accompanying booklet, I wondered if I wasn't quite ready yet to eschew material art altogether. In the future such material art may seem a luxury (like leather-bound books today) or a nerdy obsession (like vinyl records today), but here's to hoping it’s a format that never fades away entirely.