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On Stuff

Sunday’s NY Times Magazine had two pieces, loosely related, about the continuing significance of things in contemporary culture. From James Traub’s piece on museums, “The Stuff of City Life”:

And these companionable places are about things; they are shrines to the particular and irreproducible object. And just as rootedness is a diminishing category now that practically anything can move practically anywhere, so an orientation toward things feels increasingly obsolete in our age of rampant etherealization. The object world has been disembodied and uploaded so that we may access it without standing in its presence. Nevertheless, we still stand in line to see the paintings that we could just as well access online. Ditto with the dinosaurs and the fish. Three-quarters of a century ago, the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin observed that mechanical reproduction had removed the ”aura” from the unique work of art, but it seems that we still feel the magic of the particular. Perhaps, in fact, virtualization imparts a kind of threatened glory to the unique object, just as mobility does to the implacably rooted institutions that house these reliquaries. New York has both a Catholic and an Episcopal cathedral, but they don’t impinge on the city’s consciousness the way these secular cathedrals do.

Russell Shorto’s piece about Nonesuch Records makes essentially the same point. Reform and survival of the recorded music industry depends on beginning not with the economics of the business, but with with the music itself, and distinguishing craft from commodity in the forms of recorded music. To borrow an almost worn-out phrase, form (the business model) follows function. The most telling quotations come not from Robert Hurwitz (who runs Nonesuch), but from Emmylou Harris and David Byrne.

Emmylou Harris: “Their audience actually enjoys buying a record. When I got into music in my teens, the album was a thing in itself. It was a whole piece of work that had a reason to flow the way it did. You weren’t interested in just one or two songs. Nonesuch is still in the business of supporting album artists.”

David Byrne: ”It’s a curatorial effort, a filter. The people who are at the head of it want you to trust their judgment, so that if you like one artist you’ll get to know others. A certain kind of relationship gets established, and it’s based on trust. That’s a very different concept from record labels that go for Top 10 hits. There’s no trust there at all — it’s about that one song. The reason the record business is in trouble is the things they’re selling — the hit singles and the physical records — have become devalued. If people can get those things for free, what do the record companies have left? Whereas what’s incredibly valued and needed is the relationship and trust.”

Record company as curator of musical objects? It sounds a little far-fetched. And yet . . . . The Nonesuch model is no cure all; Larry Lessig points to Terry Fisher’s thumbnail presentation on how record companies could make money on internet distribution. Terry’s full presentation comes in book form. It’s worth noting, however, that the Internet doesn’t make tangibility irrelevant. By drawing attention to the disappearance of stuff — remember how George Carlin used to call a house “a place for your stuff,” and how much of the Web is constructed of “home” pages — the Internet makes tangibility more important than ever.