When it comes to music and the storytelling that happens around it, a lot of times I like to think about artifacts that contribute to an artist or song’s narrative.
These are little bits of ephemera. Lyric sheets. Session notes. Instruments used. Gear recorded on. Receipts. Invoices. Contracts. Perhaps a clothing item.
The point is, these are private things — it’s not like everyone gets access to the the notebook Axl Rose jotted down the lyrics to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” in.
This stuff has serious value. Heck, a lock of David Bowie’s hair sold for more than $18,000 in June. Elvis Presley memorabilia is constantly getting sold and resold. The second hand market is filled with things that musicians once owned.
Lately, however, I get the feeling that future generations won’t really have much memorabilia to sift through. So much music now gets made digitally that there isn’t any part of the song-making process that actually exists in the physical world.
Beats are composed with digital samples and software instruments in programs running on hard drives. Lyrics are jotted down in phones and on laptops; that software, too, runs on hard drives or is accessible through the cloud.
This may sound trivial, and in some ways it is, but when you think about it, because these things are digital, they are in some ways all kind of the same. Whether lyrics are written by Drake or by Taylor Swift, once they’re in a google doc, the only thing that makes them uniquely belong to the author is the audience knowing that they are the ones who wrote them.
But there aren’t any physical characteristics that tell any kind of deeper, individualistic stories. You’d probably have to look at an artist’s phone or computer in totality to really get that granular level of understanding about them.
Which is completely opposite than how things are when they’re physical. Even something like a sheet of paper could tell you a lot about an artist. In a notebook of lyrics, you might see lines crossed out, rewritten, crossed out again — in effect, you can see the artist working out their material. The mistakes still exist. You can contextualize the process.
A couple years ago I went to an exhibit at the Whitney Museum on Edward Hopper’s drawings. Hopper is most famously known for his 1942 painting “Nighthawks” — you know it, the one with the people sitting at the counter in a quiet restaurant.
One of the coolest things about the exhibit was seeing Hopper’s drawings, which were essentially sketches that became the paintings. Some of these sketches could be done six, seven, eight times before they were painted, and even then, the final painting did not always look exactly like the sketch.
The point is that, through this paper trail, you could piece together how Hopper might have been thinking about his art. You could see the progression. That, in turn, might influence how you actually felt about the art and artist himself.
I worry now that future generations won’t really have much ability to understand the art that is being made these days. Perhaps they won’t want to either, but that’s a separate concern.
The downside to me, at least from what I see in mainstream media and the little exposure I get to academia, is that there’s this sort of endless regurgitation and analysis of the same people, same art, same eras in time, over and over and over again.
I can’t help but wonder if that’s because material from those artists and those time periods was better preserved at one point, if everyone is actually interested in these things, or if the establishment just has its collective head up its ass.
But I don’t think artists these days are helping much either. They are not leaving big enough breadcrumbs for people to latch on to, and maybe things being digital is to blame. That isn’t to suggest that they should go back to writing with pen and paper.
I’m just saying that in twenty years, when we look back on 2016 and we have nothing physical from our artists to hold on to, we might wonder whether they actually mattered at all.