A Far-Reaching Liquidation

by Misha Lepetic

For the last twenty years neither matter
nor space nor time has been what it was
~ Paul Valéry, 1931

Wu-tang_boxEver since Napster tore through the music industry like an Ebola outbreak, there has followed a ceaseless hand-wringing about the ever-decreasing “value” of music. Chart-busting hits have been replaced by body blows to an industry that was once fat and happy. From Napster's peer-to-peer networking model to the current ascendancy of streaming services, the big labels have seen their fortunes scrambled and re-scrambled by the onrushing and ever-changing technological landscape. This is further complicated by the fact that young people are its most desired demographic, but are also the most ardent adopters of said inconvenient technologies. It's easy to say that there is no going back – and there isn't – but how can artists respond to this seemingly unstoppable race to the bottom, now that the link between a work of music, and the physical artifact that is its vehicle, has been permanently sundered?

Earlier this spring, we received a candidate answer from the venerable hip hop outfit Wu-Tang Clan. The Wu-Tang have been secretly recording a new double album for several years, an event that would commonly be greeted with much rejoicing by their legions of fans. However, the zinger is that only one copy of the album will be made, destined to be sold to the highest bidder. Even more interesting is the fact that, prior to the auction, the record will tour “festivals, museums, exhibition spaces and galleries for the public as a one off [sic] experience.” (Imagine the stringency of the security that will be required to keep this particular cat in its bag; I am already anticipating the Twittersphere lighting up in outrage as museum staff shine flashlights into people's ear canals, conduct full body cavity searches, and generally out-TSA the TSA.)

Of course, such acts of conceptual brazenness are usually (and usually regrettably) accompanied by a manifesto, and Wu-Tang does not disappoint…

…although they seem to prefer the term “edictum“:

Is exclusivity versus mass replication really the 50 million dollar difference between a microphone and a paintbrush? Is contemporary art overvalued in an exclusive market, or are musicians undervalued in a profoundly saturated market? By adopting a 400 year old Renaissance-style approach to music, offering it as a commissioned commodity and allowing it to take a similar trajectory from creation to exhibition to sale, as any other contemporary art piece, we hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music. We hope to steer those debates toward more radical solutions and provoke questions about the value and perception of music as a work of art in today's world.

HirstNow, the Wu-Tang boys bring up a real issue here. It's not hard for musicians to look at the contemporary art world, with its bloated traffic in fetishized objects that seem to spring, fully formed, from an inexhaustible well of cynicism, and wonder what wrong turns their own art form has taken. The concept itself has a very appealing simplicity to it as well: it is the re-attachment of the content to its vehicle. And what a pretty vehicle it is, too. But what kind of a “radical solution” is this? Because once the auction goes through, whoever buys owns all the rights to the music. They can distribute the album or simply squirrel it away for personal listening pleasure. They can bury it in their backyard, or douse it with gasoline and torch it. They can be as democratic or as perverse about it as they may feel inclined.

However, my disquiet runs even deeper than that. From the “conceptus” (!) page of the album's site, we read that

…a new approach is introduced, one where the pride and joy of sharing music with the masses is sacrificed for the benefit of reviving music as a valuable art and inspiring debate about its future among musicians, fans and the industry that drives it. Simultaneously, it launches the private music branch as a new luxury business model for those able to commission musicians to create songs or albums for private collections. It is a fascinating melting pot of art, luxury, revolution and inspiration. It's welcoming people to an old world.

This nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone of noblesse oblige makes me think that the author intended for this copy to end up on the Financial Times' How To Spend It, a sort of Whole Earth Catalog for the One Percent. While I value the provocative nature of Wu-Tang's act, I wish that they had stopped there. But by dressing up an old patronage system in new clothes, they are pointing to a cul-de-sac in the conversation. This has nothing to do with the radical opening of possibilities. It is merely about the enshrinement of exclusivity. It also grates against the intrinsic ephemerality that is the very nature of music. Even if I possess the only extant recording of a certain piece of music, I still cannot “consume” it just by looking at the recording. I have to play it, and once I have played it, that moment is gone. This is the deep appeal of streaming services. But the Wu-Tang Clan has conjured up the most radical opposite imaginable. Is it still music if it's never played? Or if there's no one around to hear it?

(There is another, greater irony here. Hip hop was once the voice of the urban voiceless in this country, and despite its commoditization here, it has gone on to fulfill this role in many others. Has hip hop reached yet another apotheosis on the way to perfecting its self-worship?)


I cribbed the title of this post (as well as the Valéry quote) from Walter Benjamin's seminal 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Anyone who has read (or who vaguely remembers reading) this essay would consider it the go-to critique for this sort of discussion. But Benjamin is mostly concerned with film and does not in fact mention music at all. It is also further problematic because Benjamin regards art as a point of contention between fascism and socialism – that the only possible response to the state gaining control of the reproduction of art is its politicization. The Wu-Tang stunt fits neither category. Instead, it's just another signpost along the way to the reductio ad nihilum of our late capitalist fantasyland.

However, there is another, more generous provocation that was offered by Beck in 2012. Beck, conjunction with McSweeney's, released a new album, except he didn't record a single note. Instead, he released 20 songs as sheet music, and invited everyone to create their own interpretation. You can view the results at Song Reader, the site set up to collect all these contributions. This may seem precious and retro, the kind of winking irony that would be at home in a snooty Williamsburg coffee shop. But this gesture is not dissimilar to the kind of “instruction art” that was refined by John Cage and Sol LeWitt, where the fundamental idea is that people can – and should – create the work for themselves.

BeckOf course, prior to the advent of radio and 78s, sheet music was the primary vehicle by which music was distributed and popularized, and as such formed a significant part of the connective tissue of a society's culture. In her article “Before the Deluge: The Technoculture of Song-Sheet Publishing Viewed from Late Nineteenth-Century Galveston” author Leslie Gay notes that “communication technologies like song sheets are implicated within the myriad ways we build social relations, make exchanges and create meaning”. There is something very important here: the idea of being a mere consumer is discarded. It is quite simply impossible. As a score, music only exists in its potential form. The musician is the vehicle. Put another way, the siting of “value” has shifted from the monetary expectation of the producer, to the experience of the participants.

Take as an example Russia in the 19th century, where orchestras would go on long tours. People in the town would know not only when the orchestra would come to town, but what it would be playing, sometimes months in advance. So households would procure piano reductions and work through the scores in anticipation of the big night. One can only imagine the intimacy with which the listeners were able to “consume” the music, having played through and argued over many of each work's nuances. In this way, the act of consumption was in fact replaced by an act of consummation.

Similarly, what makes the Song Reader project really groundbreaking is its expectations. In order to engage the work, you have to know how to read music. And I mean really read music – there are no guitar tabs here. There is something fascinatingly paradoxical about this. On the one hand, the fact that there is no authoritative recording – so far Beck has yet to put out a disc of his own interpretations – implies a vast artistic freedom. On the other, that world is only open to those who have a sufficient degree of a very specific kind of literacy (one that, nevertheless, was much more common a century ago than it is now). What Beck offers us is an invitation to engage deeply with the world around us, whether it is in the form of the text of the score, the playing of our fellow musicians, or the interpretations created by others. Having worked through this text ourselves, we are in a much subtler place, one that can appreciate why certain decisions may have been made or ignored. We have created a foundation for critique, and for pleasure.

The other, even more important implication in Beck's act is one of trust. Consider the courage that an artist must have in order to issue his art in the form of instructions. I'm pretty certain that Beck knows exactly how he thinks his songs should sound. I don't know if he thinks that he is more qualified than anyone else to interpret them. I know that if they were my songs, I would think that way. But by only giving the instructions, Beck is saying that this latter concern really isn't relevant. He is essentially saying “I trust you” to his fans. There is an empathetic generosity that is really rather astonishing. And what is given back to him is a richness of interpretation that will doubtless have an impact on the way he views his own composing.

1000platosThis rhizomatic conception stands in stark contrast with the idea of a final object that is perfect, authoritative and unique, as is personified by the Wu-Tang Clan's gesture. The rhizome is resilient and unpredictable, whereas the unique object is non-negotiable and brittle. On account of its uniqueness, the object's ownership has real consequences, whereas the ownership of a score of music is of much less relevance to the purpose of that score's existence.

For its part, technology is always telling us that it will catalyze society into new, more effective forms of social organization. It does not necessarily ask what society is doing already, and what the value of that activity might be. Simultaneously, technology oftentimes devalues our own participation in society and especially culture by ensuring that that participation has less at stake. We are assured that we no longer need to read music in order to pretend to understand it; it only matters that we possess it.

Thus, in a final twist that emphasizes the poverty of choices with which technology eventually presents us, two Wu-Tang fans became determined to ensure the album's dissemination. This took the unsurprising form of a Kickstarter campaign. Since there was a rumored $5 million offering price for the album, the job of finding enough consumers committed to an altruistic redistribution was a daunting one. Indeed, by the time the fundraising window closed, the project had only raised $15,400. Maybe Wu-Tang's fans should have asked for a score instead.