Essay: Solo for MP3 player

Adam Harper considers the MP3 player as a musical instrument, and the empowering but isolating effect it has had on our headphone generation.

So it turns out that crisp hardwood floors and falling MP3 players don’t get along very well. Having tried to carry too many things off my desk at the same time, it became a case of saving either my MP3 player or my external hard drive, and the choice was grimly obvious. You can always get a new record player, but a new record collection is much more of a challenge. If the analogy holds – it’s strange to think that both can fit into your pocket nowadays, and that both can easily be snuffed out in an instant.

As I repeatedly tried and failed to get the thing to syncronise with my laptop, its life started to flash before my eyes. I got it about four years ago, my first one, largely because there was so much I hadn’t listened to yet that it was useful to do so away from home. Looking back, it was basically your standard field-of-daisies romance montage, my access to and intimacy with musical listening having tripled. I have some grand memories of listening to Guido mixes and Hyperdub showcases as I found my way around London’s bus network, or listening for the first time to Scott Walker’s entire discography while on a daytrip to the bizarre town of Welwyn Garden City, or inanely smirking in the middle of a tight crowd of City workers marching down the stairs of Bank station while secretly listening to the most ridiculous high-tempo drum & bass, or getting lost in a nature reserve while trying to keep up with a Žižek lecture, as well as many hours spent with fresh material in Debenhams, a relatively low-end department store chain in whose cafés I like to do my most intensive listening. It’s amazing how mobile MP3 players can cause new music and new places to fuse together upon recollection. But lately the battery on mine had been getting so poor I couldn’t leave the house for more than an hour without a charger, syncing took ages, and more and more music was getting left behind due to its limited capacity, so it’s fair to say the time had finally come for it to say goodnight.

I have some grand memories of listening to Guido mixes and Hyperdub showcases as I found my way around London’s bus network, or listening for the first time to Scott Walker’s entire discography while on a daytrip to the bizarre town of Welwyn Garden City.

Making one final diagnosis, I picked its little corpse up and shook it, to see if anything had come loose inside the casing. When I could hear that it had, something that I had always known on a philosophical level suddenly became very obvious: an MP3 player is a musical instrument. Mine had gone from something that could play many tens of thousands of different files to a simple shaker, a crap maraca. Perhaps, if I opened my mind and ears up wide enough, I could have continued to enjoy the MP3 player as a maraca just as much as I had enjoyed it as a device that can do a half-decent job of representing the entire scope of human music-making. Just two ends of a continuum, suddenly, rudely, hilariously collapsed. The next four years of me grinning as I shook it up next to my ear on buses, trains, sat in Debenhams.

We don’t normally think of an MP3 player as being a musical instrument. We tend to almost think of it as the opposite, something that you use to listen to other people performing with instruments, with the listener being the subject and the instruments on the recording the object. But an MP3 player is interactive just like a musical instrument is – like an instrument, its operator has considerable control over the sounds the device produces, including how loud those sounds are. If you count a DJ as a musical performer and her/his equipment as a musical instrument (and you’d be pretty old-fashioned not to), then it’s only a short leap to see MP3 players in the same way. Using an MP3-player is not an entirely passive activity, and the recordings it performs are not heard entirely objectively.

The key difference, of course, is that much of the time the performances given by an MP3-player-as-musical-instrument, together with its operator-as-musician, have an audience of only one. This pretty solipsistic existence is marketed as the triumph of the individual, over, we infer, radio, muzak, and all the intolerably unfit musical choices of other people. I-pod. This is where my serious reservations about the personal MP3-playing paradigm begin. Despite being sorry to lose one recently, I’m not in the tank for personal MP3 players as a musical form, far from it. Like the late capitalist system they’re a product of, you don’t have to renounce the value of their many benefits in order to wonder whether there might be a better, more gregarious alternative.

The personal MP3 player with earphones is the Tea Party candidate of human music-making. “Total freedom for the individual! No one should make choices but me.” The reason we don’t see this as isolating and even antisocial is because we’ve come to believe, bit by bit since rise of the record industry, that the individually-owned, individually-experienced collection of music-playing commodities (records, CDs, MP3s, and the machines that play them) is the one true paradigm of musical experience, or at least its ideal form. Imagine a world in which buses and trains were filled with people playing guitars or flutes whose sounds were absorbed into tubes that fed directly into the ears of those playing them so that no sound escaped. This analogy works if you permit that the personal MP3 player is a mode of music-making (or musicking), and anthropologically speaking, it is. Playing music only to yourself was considered a bit embarrassing and shameful in the early twentieth century, and it’s rather like the perspex isolation of the narrow booths you sometimes see at airports, inside which smoking is grudgingly permitted so that individuals can get their fix. The inverse of the situation, when music is played openly in a public space such as on public transport, is sometimes called sodcasting, and is thus often regarded with silent outrage, almost as if it were an attack or an act of vandalism rather than just another part of a soundscape expressed by human activity.

The personal MP3 player with earphones is the Tea Party candidate of human music-making. “Total freedom for the individual! No one should make choices but me.”

The earphones also cut you off from the sounds of the outside world, of course, which isn’t entirely a good thing. When visiting an interesting new place, I have to remind myself to take the earphones out so that I can take in the environment in all its multimedia reality. Moreover, when I arrived in America I noticed that people you pass on the street or stand next to at a bus stop are more inclined to say hello or strike up a conversation than their UK counterparts are. With this in mind, I left my ears free for a week or so, but then the old habits crept back, and I sometimes found myself locking eyes with someone and wondering if I’d missed them being friendly while I had my sonic blinders on. Sat on the metro at one point, it occurred to me that a visitor from the world of fifty years ago might have been profoundly disturbed by the sight of practically everybody in the carriage having tiny devices in their ears, with wires sprouting out of them that lead to places unseen, looking like the result of some invasive, dehumanising surgery. Well, I’m usually all for the evolution of the techno-human if there are real benefits, but it does become a bit creepier when you learn that the ear-buds are part of a private sensory experience that passes the time of day.

Another major drawback for creative music-making embodied by MP3 players is that, like other recording mediums, they are assumed to correspond more or less exactly to the total possibilities of musical performance. Thus we tend to suppose an equivalence between the MP3 download of a release and the physical version, and even the live version and beyond. Carles, the author behind the satirical blog Hipster Runoff, alludes to this when he uses the term’s ‘MP3’ and ‘song’ interchangeably, saying, in one post, that Joanna Newsom “play[ed] an MP3 live” on television. The contents of an MP3 player are in no way a comprehensive or definitive manifestation of any musical experience, musician, or musical object. Not only does the sound of an MP3 have a slightly poorer quality, but all kinds of multisensory, flexible and interactive modes of music-making are beyond its programming, its modest bouquet of track selection, album artwork, shuffle and volume control. And yet, with the help of marketing departments and advertisers, we continue to regard MP3 players as the ultimate site of musical interaction, a prospective encyclopedia encompassing all there is and could ever be in music-making.

To take one of the more tangible examples of this, it’s always annoyed me that lots of MP3 players assume in their menus that you’re listening to ‘songs’ by ‘artists’, as if any kind of sound file you might put on there could be summed up that way. The directive here clearly comes mainstream rock and pop (although to say music consists only of ‘songs’ even has quite a pre-Industrial Revolution ring to it too). This messes up classical music, where the ‘artist’ could (and is) variously described as the performing ensemble or the composer, not to mention more complicated possibilities, like audio-dramas or field recordings. And I’m quite confident that the majority of the files on my MP3 player wouldn’t typically be called ‘songs’ (I wish Žižek had sung the lecture I’d been listening to). It might not sound very cosy, but I actually prefer the broad possibilities of simply calling them ‘tracks’ or ‘files’, and a less rigid cataloguing system for them would begin to make the formal and genre possibilities of the MP3 player medium a little more visible.

Imagine if MP3 players were also transmitters, and you could tune in and out of what other people around you were listening to.

Even if alongside their convenience they appear to offer unbridled choice (and they do offer wonderful choice, up to a point), the proscribed solipsism of personal MP3 players can even make the one-way, top-down communication of radio and the concert hall seem like a communitarian paradise. They’re a next step centuries-long trend away from collective music-making. Perhaps smartphones and the recent trend of sharing your listening habits on social network can offer some steps towards a more flexible form of social interaction and cultural communication with music. Some smartphone apps that model musical instruments, such as Ocarina, allow you to listen in on the sounds made by other people using the same app anywhere in the world. Along these lines, I look forward to a time in which personal music-playing devices don’t wall people off from each other but join them together. Imagine if MP3 players were also transmitters, and you could tune in and out of what other people around you were listening to. Perhaps it could even start a conversation or, if the music were interactive, a collaboration. Of course, there would be few royalties or lucrative copyright opportunities for the music industry in that, and to many passengers on the contemporary London bus the idea of interacting with a stranger on it would bring on abject terror.

And so we’re stuck in the present. I unimaginatively replaced my MP3 player with a slightly upgraded model and will continue to be lost in a world of my own making. Yet thankfully, we can still share somewhat in the music many of us heard, albeit in our separate respective pods, and make an interpersonal connection that way, online or in person. One night heading home from work on said London bus, I heard a familiar Boards of Canada beat leaking from the headphones of the passenger next to me. On my own MP3 player, I could display the artwork of the album he was listening to, hold it up, and start a conversation.

Adam Harper is an author and academic. His latest book, Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making, is available through Zero.

Photography courtesy of Craig Dennis.

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