Music is seen as the most immaterial of the arts, and recorded music as a progress of dematerialization—an evolution from physical discs to invisible digits. In Decomposed, Kyle Devine offers another perspective. He shows that recorded music has always been a significant exploiter of both natural and human resources, and that its reliance on these resources is more problematic today than ever before. Devine uncovers the hidden history of recorded music—what recordings are made of and what happens to them when they are disposed of.
Devine's story focuses on three forms of materiality. Before 1950, 78 rpm records were made of shellac, a bug-based resin. Between 1950 and 2000, formats such as LPs, cassettes, and CDs were all made of petroleum-based plastic. Today, recordings exist as data-based audio files. Devine describes the people who harvest and process these materials, from women and children in the Global South to scientists and industrialists in the Global North. He reminds us that vinyl records are oil products, and that the so-called vinyl revival is part of petrocapitalism. The supposed immateriality of music as data is belied by the energy required to power the internet and the devices required to access music online. We tend to think of the recordings we buy as finished products. Devine offers an essential backstory. He reveals how a range of apparently peripheral people and processes are actually central to what music is, how it works, and why it matters.
As a musician who's done a lot of writing around environmental issues, I'm sad to say I hadn't put much thought into this. But even Ross's review frames things for me in some new ways:
Edison experimented with wax, celluloid, and phenolic resin, in the process becoming an early leader in the manufacturing of synthetic plastic. Berliner favored shellac, which depended on a resin produced by the Asian lac beetle. Shellac was the dominant format until the advent of vinyl, in the mid-twentieth century. The harvesting of lac, in India, involved horrible conditions for laborers, although the material itself was biodegradable and therefore less environmentally troublesome than the plastic formats that followed.
Polyvinyl chloride, from which vinyl records are made, is produced from the hydrocarbon ethylene. It is a petrochemical—and indivisible from the baleful behemoth of the oil industry. The physical hardiness of the material has added to the quasi-spiritual aura surrounding the long-playing record: decades-old vinyl records can still produce a rich, evocative sound. But the same hardiness means that vinyl is exceptionally difficult to dispose of, once its usefulness is at an end. Often, it winds up buried in landfills. Devine naturally does not overlook the irony attendant on the much bruited vinyl revival: progressive-minded hipsters who fetishize vinyl are widening their carbon footprint in ways they may not realize.
In a chapter on the digital and streaming era, Devine drives home the point that there is no such thing as a nonmaterial way of listening to music: "The so-called cloud is a definitely material and mainly hardwired network of fiber-optic cables, servers, routers, and the like." This concealment of industrial reality, behind a phantasmagoria of virtuality, is a sleight of hand typical of Big Tech, with its genius for persuading consumers never to wonder how transactions have become so shimmeringly effortless. In much the same way, it has convinced us not to think too hard about the regime of mass surveillance on which the economics of the industry rests. Spotify's inability to become consistently profitable tends not to bother investors, who see vast potential in the company's hoard of personal data.
I knew all of these things, of course — the chemical compounds of the various plastic-like materials that go into physical recorded music, and the fact that streaming platforms are not technically immaterial, as all that data is still stored on a server somewhere that must be maintained with immaculate climate conditions — but this framing of the issue really puts it in the front of my mind.
The Hidden Costs of Streaming Music [Alex Ross / The Atlantic]
Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music [Kyle Devine / MIT Press]
Image: Wikimedia Commons (CC 2.0)