I’m ripping old cassette mixtapes and burning them to CD for a friend’s birthday party, marking a significant milestone — the party, not the ripping. It used to take a long time to rip a CD, almost as long as it did to listen to one. Then it took very little time at all. At some point the digital process sped up so much that the CD itself essentially disintegrated, or at least its utility did. That is, you no longer needed the CD at all. Audio had, in a manner, reached a singularity. Digital had accelerated to the point where you bypassed the physical medium entirely, and you listened directly to the digital audio file on a device that both stored and played back the file. The intermediary CD, that mirror-faced descendant of the vinyl LP and the tape cassette, was no longer a requisite.
Where streaming sits along or alongside this continuum remains a little unclear. Streaming is more like radio than it is like a recording medium. Radio can be said to have experienced its own parallel acceleration toward a singularity: optimization through automation of commercial broadcasts. Commercial radio went, over time, from a freeform medium to one managed by human beancounters, to one managed by algorithmic beancounters. At some point the algorithm decided for us — not unlike humanity’s helicopter parent at the center of D.F. Jones’s anxious artificial-intelligence novel Colossus, published in 1966, same year as the first Association for Computing Machinery Turning Prize — that the optimal ’cast scenario wasn’t broad-cast at all. Instead, the algorithm proclaimed beneficently, we should all stream what we want to stream.
In many instances, thousands upon thousands of people might be listening to the exact same song at roughly the same time, but off by a matter of seconds or minutes. Somewhere right now thousands upon thousands of people are listening to the latest momentarily popular verse-chorus-verse assemblage about failed or expectant romance. If we were able to listen to them all at once it would be a mutant version of the original: repeated, layered, looping back on itself, reaching crescendos of volume during peak listening, and fading out when the majority of the population in the target audience — Central Time Zone in North America, perhaps — happens to be asleep.
That communal sound, if we had access to it — if, say, the Spotify API could let us sync and produce such a pop-music ambient surveillance apparatus — might produce an apt sonic portrait of what it means to listen in culture, to listen to culture, at this moment. Imagine observing Spotify activity the way a service like Listen to Wikipedia (listen.hatnote.com), by Mahmoud Hashemi and Stephen LaPorte, allows us to observer activity on the global communal encyclopedia: we wouldn’t be listening to Spotify so much as Listening to Listening to Spotify.
I have a dream where observing that streaming process becomes not just technically possible but genuinely popular, and pop music itself mutates to match the new norm. Songs as we known them would slowly disappear, replaced by rich, long miasmas: a slow-motion, longitudinal EDM of ambient pop. Paul Lamere is the Director of Developer Platform at Echonest, a division of Spotify. I asked him this past week if my dream API scenario could be implemented, and he said the current API doesn’t necessarily support it, but he pointed me to a visualization tool called Serendipity coded by Kyle McDonald during an arts residency there. McDonald’s Serendipity depicts pairs of people listening, per chance, to the same track within seconds of each other across the globe.
As for the ripping and burning of cassette tapes to CDs, it’s proceeding at its own, antediluvian pace. It’s very fast to burn a CD, but the tape needs to be recorded at its original speed. I have no fancy, double-speed cassette player, just this old stereo-system component. There are no functional silences on the tape, at least not by contemporary standards. In regard to these mixtapes, this isn’t simply because of the static of the tape’s own surface noise. It’s because the tape was itself second generation: most of these tracks were copied from LPs, so the CD versions are replicating not just the tape noise, but the vinyl noise, as well as whatever file-format compression is involved on the digital side of things. The residual file-format artifact is inaudible to me, and probably to most people. Perhaps down the road we’ll be able “hear” that something was an MP3 or a Wav or a FLAC file the way, today, we can “hear” that something was vinyl or tape. The idea that a skill like that would become commonplace seems futuristic, but then again the idea of burning one’s own digital media once seemed futuristic — and now burning one’s own digital media doesn’t just seem antiquated; it is antiquated.
The original reason to make these tapes was just to have some dusty musical memories playing at the party, but it’s clear now that the music is only part of the memory process. The tape hiss and the vinyl crackle will provide their own ambience, as will the physical act of putting one of these CDs into a CD player. (A thumb drive is being filled up, too, just in case. In the world of Spotify playlists — and, yes, Apple Music and Google Play Music, among others — tiny portable hard drives are simply another, more recent antiquity.) The physical act of putting a CD into a player will initiate a surface hiss that will summon the physical act of putting a tape in a tape player, and in that tape noise there will appear the sound of a needle touching vinyl, triggering yet another memory of physical activity. Audio has passed its singularity, and in our post-physical listening mode we now hear echoes of our earlier, embodied listening. Nostalgia may be as much a fool’s game as is futurism, but heck, that’s what birthdays are for.
Right now, though, I’m just watching in a software program called Audacity to keep an eye on the audio levels of the source tape. When they flatline, I’ll know the tape is through.
This first appeared in the January 26, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.