Shortcomings of a Visual Medium

To my friends, those unlucky, patient bastards who get to hear me rant about my most recent introspection, it may be no secret that I’ve entered something of an anti-digital phase fairly recently.  It’s not that I don’t love technology – clearly.  I’m coming off a technology-will-save-us-all phase.  As an example of my hopeless nerdidity, I’ve logged more time as an adult playing super nintendo emulators than I did as a child playing real super nintendo.  (As my 5-year-old niece said over Christmas, “isn’t that game supposed to be for kids??”)  I’ve grown up surfing the net.  My brain is forever attached to Google.  In every general sense I’m living on the grid and loving it.

BUT. It’s the odd cultural death that perturbs me.  I’m more and more repulsed by the nature of our social media culture, and the conversations AROUND technology.  I often find the conversations to be biased, self-righteous and lacking in humanism, lacking in depth.  Many ideas about digital technology in this era have certain undertones… almost superstitious, with hints that social connectivity dwarfs any previous technological jump, that it’s somehow more important.  That we’ve bridged the gap.  That we’ve saved ourselves, and our art, and probably solved the dark problems of sickness and death and war.  It’s this voice, this Singularitarian voice, which I find intellectually offensive.  My reasons are subtle and difficult to express without annoying people, but I’ve thought about this lots and lots.

But putting aside the bigger philosophical problems I see with America’s relationship with technology, I was thinking about a simpler challenge for the musically-inclinded human artists of today – the fact that the internet, by it’s mere nature, has an overwhelming bias towards visual forms of media.  A challenge for today’s genuine musical artist is the progressive skewing of pop and sub-pop towards the visual.  Yes, it skews towards the fast, the shallow, the over-produced/underwritten, and the inoffensive and safe, but more practically, the visual.  I bring it up because it seems like a clear shortcoming in our computer experience, yet we never really talk about it.

The internet is primarily visual.  The visual content of the web and streaming video takes precedence.  That’s nothing strange – communicating on the electromagnetic spectrum, in two dimensions (mostly), is easily the most efficient way to exchange huge amounts of information.  It’s discreet, not linear, enabling the viewer to jump around and find what he wants.  This is a contrast to musical expression.  The rock record, for example.  Music is an art form that exists primarily in the dimension of time (plus a other linear dimensions like frequency and amplitude), is mostly continuous, and in my opinion, is still having an awkward time finding it’s place on the grid.

Music is projected through the medium of thin air (incredibly).  Disturbed air pressure waves radiate out and are received in a binary fashion through the fourth dimension of time.  The visual part of the experience is implied by the music and the soundscape, and constructed in the mind of the listener.  That’s important I think!  A profound and divine musical experience, in my opinion, is listening to a long-form musical creation (like a record) without visual distraction, or at least with unrelated visual distraction.  I’m discounting some other great musical art forms here, of course, but I’m merely sticking up for if not the most pure, certainly a valid way to experience music.  The emphasis is on the songs, the world, the forms within that say what can’t otherwise be articulated.

So music, as I see it, exists ideally as a non-visual (besides in the mind of the listener) exchange that happens in a comfortable chunk of time, ideally in a bubble of non-distraction and presented loudly.

Something like a film has a much easier time marketing itself to the internet.  A film preview makes sense to present online.  Does an album preview work?  Hardly at all.  Literature and writing lend themselves to online marketing.  Comics.  Paintings.  Photography.  Design.  Making anything that CAN be photographed.  These mediums lend themselves to successful online marketing, social media jibber jabber, reviews, whatever.  People invest heavily in state-of-the art visual displays, but mostly use cheap, tiny, complimentary speakers or headphones.  A blogger can throw up a cute picture.  Do people pass around music in the same way?  Do people post many non-visual links to songs on social media (compared to visual-centric things, even modern music videos, which are usually just short films now)?  Does anyone listen?  I mean, compared to a video called Top 10 Animals That Reminded Humanity How To Love I think a deep, intelligent new 4:00 rock track would be practically ignored.  The most-used option for sharing music is through visual streaming services like YouTube, and it isn’t a great one.  Music, in my humblest of opinions, is a time-expensive and physical investment.  Point blank.

So music has become the sidekick of the visual.  It tends to accompany.  It’s part of a film, a video game.  The production norms of music, in turn, have been skewed towards what I call “ear candy”.  It sounds buzzy and glitzy and pumping, but just not deep.  In fact, often the music has to be extremely simple and sort of get cheap emotions when it’s coupled with video or other media.  It’s just pragmatic.

It’s potentially awkward, is what I’m saying, to use the internet as a grass-roots music marketing platform. We’re trying to force feed the visual onto the musical – not on purpose – but because that’s what we’ve made viable through our culture.  It’s gotta catch the eyes to have any life.  And now the musical artist, with fewer resources than ever, spends his time worrying about everything BUT the damn record.  And that’s really my biggest problem with all the “music biz” talk going around.  Most of it ignores the fact that the final goal, in a culturally aware society, should be to give the human (important to remember…. humans…those fragile, emotional beings who need money and get sick) artist room to create.  To create different.  To create weird.  To be clever and dark if she wants.  To spend time on like, you know, the song.  To bring us into her world, not always the other way around.

I find that posting a song on Facebook without visual accompaniment feels strange and awkward.  People don’t know what to do with it.  They’re impatient.  A four-minute song, which might take a few listens to appreciate, just doesn’t stand a chance next to a cheap, sexy meme.

These are just some of my observations as a musician in the internet age.  I point this out only to encourage a balanced criticism of our current culture, not to say the internet sucks, or that technology sucks, or music sucks now because I don’t like it.  Point blank, it’s awkward to present deeply crafted musical creations online.  Despite my many other issues with social media’s ideas on digital music, this is an issue which I haven’t seen discussed very often, but that I find very real. Thoughts?


7 Thoughts on “Shortcomings of a Visual Medium

  1. A very interesting post, Chris. It’s impossible to compete with the visual medium. Forgive me for the blunt example, but what would you prefer- hearing a naked woman moaning in the next room or going there to see her? Seeing is more engaging than hearing. There’s no way around it.

    The problem, as you mentioned it yourself, is that the music industry nowadays centers so much on the visual that the actual music becomes a side dish instead of the main course. It’s all about the performance, the flashy music video, how the artist’s hair looks like and what the artist wears (or doesn’t wear). The focus is on the performer, not the song- and that’s one of the main reasons 99% of the music people are exposed to is copy/paste and shallow.

    Artists who create more meaningful/original music can’t ignore the ‘visual is more engaging than audio’ aspect of things. They have to embrace it and the fact that people have a short attention span that’s growing shorter. They need to use photos, vids etc. as a part of their artistic efforts and make sure they create visual content that’s as original as their music and that helps it and them stand out. It sucks that this is the way things have to be… but if you can’t fight the system- join it (and use its own mechanisms against it or to get what you want).

  2. This resonates.

    Viewing an image takes a fraction of the time it takes to listen to an entire piece of music, even if the music is only 30 seconds, so the image is going to win on the Internet.

    And poor masters of visual arts: It’s no more difficult to find an image of “The Mona Lisa” as it is your favorite cat meme, but even then, I bet the cat meme will be viewed longer because there are a few words to read, and there are laughs to be had.

    On the note of music as a side-kick to the visual, I’ve felt just the opposite when it comes to album art. Pre or post-Internet, cover art rarely seems to offer anything of value to the music other than functioning as a way of cataloging a collection of songs and aiding in the recollection of them; it rarely illuminates anything about the music.

    I hate most music videos for the same reason. Nothing is really illuminated about the music in a music video. Unless it’s a live performance, music videos are often just a hodge-podge of wanking band/artist selfies. That said, I am interested in visuals that are subservient to the music, offering a subtext to the story, be those visuals moving or static. But, I really don’t think there can be a definitive music video. The definitive video is the video an individual creates with the music in their mind.

    But then there’s the problem of actually listening to music in the first place, which is what you wrote about. So…….. I don’t know. Keep us informed with your continued probing!

  3. Chris Merritt on March 11, 2014 at 2:28 pm said:

    @Tal – YEAH! Long time no bloggage – good to hear from you Tal! Good point with the lady sex time moans. There’s no getting around the fact that we are primarily visual creatures. And so, presumably, are most information-wrangling creatures out there in the cosmos. Ultraviolet radiation is ubiquitous, super fast, super useful. I agree that artists need to step up the visual to market online. I’ve been thinking for my own music what that means… something, as a visual artist, I should embrace. I find listening to music an important part of being a human. And listening to music is partly about making images appear with your mind, inspired by the music. I see things when I hear music. I listened to Queen’s jazz on my friends vinyl player the other day. I never really got that album…. the other day it hit me as incredible. I couldn’t even believe such an amazing thing existed. Listen to that album… it’s this genius soup of tongue-in-cheek, super heavy rock, powerful operatic-like movements… funny, sad, sexual. Anyway. It hit me and stayed with me ever since. What was my point? I guess that… this experience i find fundamentally rewarding and important for humans… just isn’t quite compatible with our internet. I’m not 100% sure why or even that what I’m thinking makes any sense.

    @Ryan – thanks for the intelligent response… and I completely agree with you. Album art has always been secondary…. I guess I kind of dig that in a sense. I like when bands take their visual persona into consideration. But I like drama. I like when there’s some drama introduced, a character or whatever. Queen had this glam operatic thing. But it was genuine too… Radiohead has a visual landscape to accompany. Yeah, maybe artists just need to take the visual thing farther. Lately though it seems ironically there’s LESS variation with artists. If the focus is on personality, where’s the personality? I think we’re really focused on this weird cultural set of rules, these memes, the mob voice… it’s gross. We’re in 1950 but with Facebook.

    I guess I got thinking about how we’re these creatures who experience reality (which is an amazing thing) through touch and sound and light and we’re these dynamic beings…. but the ‘net tends to be kind of static, kind of visual-perverted, kind of one-dimensional but thinks it’s all-dimensional. I’d love to see more innovation or variation with networked technology. We have the technology! Huge record-listening parties (without by-the-minute tweets… let’s keep it say, between songs??) I dunno. That’s a dumb idea but you know, something that allows us to be more…. human. We’ve been taken over by our most nerd-like, visual leanings. Binary and bi-polar, black and white and obsessed with the crowd. This is not taking full advantage of the fun of being human…

  4. Chris Merritt on March 11, 2014 at 2:31 pm said:

    Oh, and in case it comes across wrong, I was agreeing with you fine gentlemen. Also if it comes across wrong, I have optimism for our world and our people – I think our best music and art are ahead…

  5. Good to have you back in the land of living. Waiting for your new releases! I’m a huge fan of Queen. Awesome music. You say you imagine things when you hear music. But you do that because you’re not an average listener. I think 99% of the people have been “programmed” to just want (and expect) a musical snack, not a meal and not just an ordinary snack- one where the flashy wrapper is as important or even more important than the actual product. In other words- people want junk food they’re familiar with instead of something new that has different flavors and will challenge their system (in other words, food for thought).

    I hope that you’re right and that the best music and art are ahead of us. But there would have to be a major shift in the standards for what’s considered good music and what ends up getting to people’s ears and it’s sort of hard to imagine it happening anytime soon when people are overall pleased with what they’re getting or don’t care or know better because they’re too young to be familiar with better music. Promoting more intelligent music is totally opposite to what the mainstream music industry stands for (familiar tunes + simplistic lyrics + good looking singer + PR= $$$). But who knows? Stranger things have happened.

  6. Super sexy hot female with 2 x chromosomes on March 13, 2014 at 1:10 pm said:

    Totally agree. Nice posts, Chris et al. I find it hard myself to just listen to music. I like it as a background to conversation, which helps inspire conversation. When I’m just enjoying music, I’ll often pull up games of solitare. I like having something visual that requires just the tiniest focus on my part. And usually when a song is grand, I have to pull away from the game or conversation, put my head down, and let the majesty sweep into me through my headphones. So great.

    Speaking of musical parties, Zaireeka by the Flaming Lips is a great record to get people together. People love that bizarre 4-sound musical experience. I do it every year for a bunch of 17-year-old students in the summer and they eat it up. We turn the lights off and just listen, for once. I’m going to end my musings with a short poem by the savvy Major Jackson, titled “How to Listen”.

    How to Listen

    Major Jackson

    I am going to cock my head tonight like a dog
    in front of McGlinchy’s Tavern on Locust;
    I am going to stand beside the man who works all day combing
    his thatch of gray hair corkscrewed in every direction.
    I am going to pay attention to our lives
    unraveling between the forks of his fine-tooth comb.
    For once, we won’t talk about the end of the world
    or Vietnam or his exquisite paper shoes.
    For once, I am going to ignore the profanity and
    the dancing and the jukebox so I can hear his head crackle
    beneath the sky’s stretch of faint stars.

  7. Assaf on April 15, 2014 at 2:14 pm said:

    Very interesting. I wonder how your thoughts translate to things other than music. The internet discourages linear experiences, so music and books and anything that requires a continuous, prolonged thought suffers.

    Another related thing I’ve noticed is that the creative process itself has been changed profoundly by the visual workspace. Writing music in Protools is a very different experience from writing music on a guitar or piano – people tend to compose very “visually” by looking at the screen, and the music they create is different, too. How many recording engineers can’t apply EQ these days without opening a spectrum analyzer plugin instead of just listening with their ears? …

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