In late 2008, my wife and I were in London for work and decided to spend one of our days off at the Tate Modern. For whatever reason, we hadn’t really done any research ahead of time, but had planned on simply enjoying the visit to the museum in general, which is quite impressive in its own right. When we arrived, we noticed that there was a Mark Rothko exhibit highlighted as one of the featured exhibits at that time. Rothko, in my mind, conjured up images of cheaply framed college dorm posters, sitting along side a variety of band posters of The Cure and Echo & The Bunnymen. Rothko had achieved a level of fame that most artists will not achieve in their lifetime, he had become a household name for most. He was one of a few artists who broke through into the mainstream, making his work easily recognizable by most. Consequently, I didn’t think much about the exhibit since I felt that I had probably seen most of his work in some form or another, but do remember thinking that it might be nice to see the paintings in person since we were there. We made our way through the gallery, eventually arriving at the entrance of the Rothko exhibit. We walked in with relatively little expectation, neither of us prepared for the reaction that then followed. We were speechless and immediately transfixed on these massive paintings that had been very intentionally placed in this amazing space. We were both silent, and from that point forward, immersed in an experience that was truly awe inspiring. Seeing those paintings at scale and alongside one another was impressive in and of itself. The impact was amplified by the environment in which they were displayed – flawlessly designed, creating an experience that showcased these paintings is such a way that they had transcended their reputation of ‘commodity’ and reclaimed their ‘holiness’ as they had been so reverently placed back in their temple. My wife and I have talked about this experience for many years, it changed how we think about art, music and the environments in which they are shown and performed.
We have landed in a place in which the convenience of distribution has significantly impacted how we experience and perceive music. We don’t have the Tate Modern museum experience for album releases today. The excess of accessibility, has commoditized it to the point of feeling unimportant, or just ‘there’. All music sits side by side on the same plane and the listeners are then left to decipher what is special. Furthermore, as reward, our listening “habits” then become the subject of a mathematical equation that further commoditizes you as a listener. We have been reduced to statistical probabilities in how we experience and discover new music, and it feels pretty bad. It is offensive when we receive recommendations based on the highest statistical probability. It is similar to that person at the party who acts as though they know everything about you, and yet, you have never met them before. They are trying to connect with you through inauthentic means and it violates very basic principles of etiquette.
Like the Rothko exhibit, ‘how’ music is presented and experienced makes all the difference between moving someone to tears or simply being overlooked as just another record release. A lot of promises have been made throughout the years; the promise of accessibility, curation, better experiences, fidelity, etc. Those promises largely remain unfulfilled. ‘Fidelity’, in the sense of shipping a higher quality file, does happen, however, in order for that experience to be truly realized, the listener needs to have the resources and care enough to design and carry out the promise of that experience on their own. The technologists claim that they have done their part, however, they are not the culturalists that first and foremost care about the music. Many of these platforms can absorb a loss on music since it works in the context of packaging their other service offerings. I am not implying that they don’t have good intentions, however, when it comes down to it, in this new context, it often becomes a commodity on a platform designed for mass scalability.
The promise of more immersive experiences has also fallen a bit short. There are numerous claims of live VR concerts, but I have yet to see much in the music world that makes meaningful use of this medium. With that said, there have been some individual efforts that have been quite impressive. Bjork Digital has been the most consistent innovator using these new digital tools in the context of real content and art. Apart from the mavens who are beginning to push the boundaries of these new mediums, we are mostly still in a time where we are trying to figure out the best applications for using these new tools to create sensational and meaningful experiences. Like all tools, it is up to the user to become the craftsman. The tools often steal the thunder in the beginning, but in the absence of meaningful application, they lose purpose.
Like Rothko, musical experiences must be framed and placed in a spectacular environment, supported by other sensationally relevant experiences that elevate it to its rightful place on the walls of the museum. If we keep it in ‘print’ form and place it in a cheap frame, it will remain there and will be experienced as such – as just another poster on a wall.