November 28, 2006
Jamie Radford is a Georgia hip hop artist, his Athens album is one of the most refreshing debuts to be sent my way this year.
Generally, I don't read many books. My day job as a law clerk requires me to read prolix pages of legal documents, statutes, and court opinions, and the thought of cramming more into my spare time never seems so appealing. My desire to learn new things is usually satisfied by listening to every program that NPR offers and reading a lot of internet criticism (e.g., blogging). I find that to be a faster way to learn, and allows me to use the rest of my time writing and recording weird rap/pop music in my humble home studio.
So, when I am actually motivated to pick up a book and read it, there has to be some special impetus that drives me. Some self-interest, even.
As a musician and an enthusiast for any potentially new avenue of artistic expression and dissemination, my ears perk whenever I hear of something that offers a fresh insight into some aspect of digital culture. When I read a brief review for Steven Levy's "The Perfect Thing" on boingboing.net, I realized that, though I had a personal love for my own iPod, I hadn't put much thought into the history or the cultural impact of the device. In my own artistic development, I've attempted to exploit all that the internet offers a budding musician – music blogs, myspace, mp3 file-sharing networks – but hadn't thought much about the effect of the actual device that most people use to transport the files that I had tried so aggressively to spread around cyberspace.
I learned a lot about the iPod, but perhaps the most important lessons I took involved the work ethic and the innovative mindset that went into creating the device.
Most artists, or at least those who strive for success, are constantly struggling with the concept of "cool"-ness or, to put it another way, that invisible force that seems to draw the masses irresistibly toward some music and not toward others. In fact, anyone browsing through the record store or surfing through Myspace will be confronted with countless artists that have tried hard to tap into that essence of "cool" by dressing in the way another "cool" band dresses or singing in that certain raspy yell (or rapping with that certain indifferent slur) that they've heard in some other artist who has managed to attain "cool" status.
The iPod has certainly attained that magical status, but has done so in a way that should cause us to rethink whether there is anything truly magical about that status at all. Levy recalls a conversation with Steve Jobs about the famous multi-colored iMacs:
"The thing that all our competitors are missing is that they think it's about fashion, they think it's about surface appearance," Jobs complained to me once. "And they couldn't be further from the truth." The iMac isn't about candy-colored computers. The iMac is about making a computer that is really quiet, that doesn't need a fan, that wakes up in fifteen seconds, that has the best sound system in a consumer computer, a superfine display. It's about a complete computer that expresses it on the outside as well. And [competitors] just see the outside. They say, ‘We'll slap some color on this piece of junk computer, and we'll have one, too,' and they miss the point."
While "cool" is probably the vernacular most often used to describe the iPod, "quality" is, in my thinking, the term that most accurately describes why the iPod has become so successful. And this quality was no accident. Levy describes Steve Jobs "maniacal attention to detail" and "harsh way of communicating" with his engineers and programmers in the development of the initial iPod. Jobs' lofty aspirations to create something truly great, and his uncompromising demand that the final product be the best possible, from all perspectives, had everything to do with the success of the iPod. The lesson artists and musicians should take from all this? "Cool" comes not from some invisible essence that is captured in fashion or a certain tone of voice or a certain odd camera angle at band photoshoots; "cool" follows hard work, perfectionism, and high-quality. Brilliant – and thus potentially successful – music comes from innovation and endurance, not from slapping some a certain color onto mediocre art.
Given the lesson that I took from Levy's discussion of "cool," it seems strange to me that Levy himself seems to be a subscriber to the idea that "cool" is truly an essence, with some finite character that can, theoretically, be dissected and engineered into a successful product like the iPod. He compares the iPod to other mp3 players that have emerged to compete with the device and concludes that the iPod's dominance has something to do with this "cool" factor – or, the ability of the device to distinguish itself from its competitors through some essence that transcends functionality, aesthetic, and price. Its hard to fault the author for being enthusiastic about the iPod – millions of others are as well – but at times his writing turns into nearly-religious praise for the device and the company that spawned it. Given the informativeness and readability of this book, though, I can forgive that.
In fact, one consequence of reading this book has been to re-energize my own faith in the power of digital dissemination of music. I've known for a while that the internet was beginning to open new avenues for spreading the music I create, but I think I may have actually been underestimating the potential that currently exists. The iPod truly has become a cultural icon, with its millions of owners truly falling in love with the device and the music in it, truly rediscovering their love for music. The number of people purchasing music off of iTunes – a piece of software in many ways wedded to the iPod – continues to grow. More and more, social interactions are defined by the experience of the occasional zoning out to the sounds in one's white earbuds.
People are listening again, due not only to the ability to share music easily over the internet, but due specifically to the affection and respect they have attached to one specific device. And the emergence of those little earbuds as the primary means of enjoying music opens up opportunities to experiment more in music – to inject subtle nuances like panning, odd modulations, barely discernible background noise – now that people are listening closely enough to appreciate these innovations.
The idea that I can send a Myspace friend request to some kid in Malaysia, and he can become a music-buying fan via the iTunes music store, without scanning through some obscure catalog of import records, is incredibly exciting. Sometimes I worry that the music I make caters to too small and esoteric of a marketplace – that I could never achieve commercial success. But knowing that millions of people are in love with the idea of listening closely to music on a device they cherish, and are willing to store thousands of different songs in their libraries, gives me renewed faith that I can sell music, and I can have people who listen and appreciate it, all around the world.
Levy's book is an excellent read for anyone who loves to learn new insights into the technologies that are shaping our culture, but also to any musician who needs a little motivation and hope. A book like this makes me think that maybe I should read for pleasure a little more often.