[12 min read + 7 min media]
It is rather common to assume that musical fruition is solely an aural experience. Well, it isn’t – and it never was.
Before the invention of sound recording, musical fruition always implied the co-presence of both performer and audience. From the body percussions of Pliocene anthropoids and the recitations of Greek bards to the lyrical singing of Italian opera soloists or the laments of Mississippi Delta bluesmen, the visual dimension has incessantly been a key and inseparable component of musical fruition: listening to music has always implied watching the gestures, expressions and stage performance of these singers and players.
The rise of musical notation, the origin of which can be traced back to the cuneiform inscriptions of Ancient Mesopotamia, only remediated this intimate relation, since the purpose of these handwritten or printed media was to be read during a musical interpretation before a live audience. Even in the hypothetical cases where the interpretation was conducted without an audience or the spectators had their eyes closed, musical perception has a way of stimulating a synesthetic experience due to the undeniable ability of music to evoke and fire up memories and images in the listeners mind.
With the invention of sound recording in the late nineteenth century and of radio broadcasting in the beginning of the twentieth, a deferred musical fruition, which discards the physical presence of its performers, became possible. If the beginning of the commercialization of music sheets by the end of the seventeenth century and of phonographs by the beginning of the twentieth are considered the two most important milestones of popular music, it is because both triggered a process of mass distribution of musical experience as a commodity to large and often socioculturally heterogeneous groups of consumers. While live shows accentuated the importance of the visual component through the growing presence and complexity of props, wardrobes, lighting shows and video projections, the commercialization of electric (phonograph cylinders, gramophone records and vinyl) and electromagnetic (tapes and audio cassettes) supports quickly addressed the shortcoming of its visual dimension with the introduction of new media. Album covers, inlays, promotional photos, posters, flyers, T-shirts and all kind of popular music merchandising became not only highly codified canvases – in which graphic and fashion designers, photographers, painters and illustrators extended musical identities in a visual format – but also key components of musical fruition that also allowed the tribal definition of fans, musical genres (think of the influence of Hipgnosis’ art and graphic design in progressive rock or ECM’s in jazz) and record labels (from 4AD to Sacred Bones Records).
Before the invention of sound recording, listening to music has always implied watching the gestures, expressions and stage performance of singers and players.
Simultaneously, the visual dimension of musical recordings started a fascinating journey through moving images. Besides the fact that the sound era of cinema included a synchronized musical performance (1927’s The Jazz Singer), Soundies (in the 40s) and Scopitones (in the 50s and 60s) were the first media to be deliberately created to add an audiovisual dimension to popular music in places like nightclubs, bars, restaurants, factory lounges, or amusement centers. The short life of these ephemeral video jukeboxes is related to the furious invasion of TV sets in consumer’s homes. By the mid-fifties, youth culture, and rock’n’roll by extension, had become too powerful for TV to ignore it, if only to keep up the market forces beyond its ken. Twenty five years separate the first appearance of Elvis Presley in the The Ed Sullivan Show from the first MTV broadcast, a relatively short period of time in which popular music consolidated its relation with the small screen via live or playbacked music shows and a rather elusive medium that was slowly building its own identity: music videos.
One year after a TV channel was created to broadcast exclusively music videos, the commercialization of the first digital records represented the first setback in the growing importance of the visual dimension of musical fruition. If the dramatic reduction of the size of album covers and artwork from vinyl to CDs (25x25cm vs. 12x12cm) didn’t resonate with some consumers as one might have expected, it’s because, in the 80s and the 90s, music videos lived their golden era, attracting hundreds of millions of fans and dollars. Nevertheless, with the progressive dematerialization of music records in bits and bytes initiated in the mid-90s, things changed dramatically. The imminent collapse of the music industry forced MTV to discard a format that ceased to be profitable. Album sleeves and inlays, which used to be omnipresent in recorded music, simply vanished or were relegated to tiny and low-resolution jpeg files. Though musical fruition never lost its visual component, one can’t deny that its growing importance suffered a sudden and unexpected setback.
Album covers, inlays, promotional photos, posters, flyers, T-shirts and all kind of popular music merchandising became not only highly codified canvases, but also key components of musical fruition that also allowed the tribal definition of fans, musical genres and record labels.
Which didn’t last long. By the turn of the century, and when most scholars, businessmen, musicians and fans were proclaiming the death of music videos, the medium starts to slowly migrate from television to the web. With the rise of social media and audiovisual vortexes such as YouTube and Vimeo, music video quickly becomes the most consumed and disseminated medium by digital users. This rebirth is greatly due to the fact that users elected music videos as the digital format that can provide them, at zero cost and with increasing audio and video bitrate, a transmediatic musical experience that was once delivered by a heterogeneous and often costly set of media devices. Nowadays, music videos tend to be the most used medium by digital natives on both online and offline music fruition, dethroning the past hegemony of radio and CDs. It comes as no surprise that Nielsen started, on February 2013, to add (at long last) U.S. YouTube music video streaming data to its measurement platforms with immediate consequences on the ranking methodology used on the influential Billboard Hot 100 singles charts: some digital native users may ignore what a “single” is, but all of them know too well what is a “music video”. In an era where on-demand music services are, at long last, starting to acknowledge the importance of lossless or hi-fi streaming, one can finally hope that the market will finally offer both users and players platforms that can also offer high-quality and high-definition for the visual dimension of musical fruition. If digital platforms and social media have somehow surprisingly boosted an increase of the demand and offer of live music performances (mostly small and intimate ones such as the secretive pop-up concerts of Sofar Sounds), it’s mostly because of digital marketing strategies anchored in high-resolution images and high-definition videos that managed to tease the irreplaceable magic of a live music experience.
From the alleged murder of a radio star to the unfounded accusation of hosting a “viral” symptomatology, it is today undeniable that music videos have become the most consumed, disseminated and spreadable genre in today’s digital media landscape.
From the alleged murder of a radio star (whose body remains to be found) to the unfounded accusation of hosting a “viral” symptomatology, it is today undeniable that music videos have not only survived the shift of MTV from music television to reality shows, but has also become the most consumed, disseminated and spreadable genre in today’s digital media landscape. Want some eloquent stats about YouTube in 2015? Music videos represented 35% of the streamed content, which means that 120 hours of music videos were uploaded and the equivalent of 2 years of music videos were streamed per minute).
Art, movies, video games, literature, politics and advertising are all clearly under the impact of music videos, namely in their aesthetics, technical procedures, visual worlds and narrative strategies, thus proving that the format continues to do what it has done for decades: to look for all kinds of possible inspirations, to try to do something new with it and to consequently inspire itself as well as other media forms. This is why New York’s prestigious Museum of the Moving Image held, between April and June 2013, a massive exhibition that celebrated for the first time the art and history of music video: for those who had the chance to see it, Spectacle was an eloquent and historical demonstration of the enormous influence of still and moving images about music had on contemporary culture over the past four decades.
In 2015, 120 hours of music videos were uploaded and 2 years of music videos were streamed per minute on YouTube.
Therefore, to address the convergence of music to digital platforms is, first of all, to articulate the inklings of this fascinating human odyssey through musical fruition, which, from the beginning, has always been and will always be both a aural and visual experience, and to contribute to the writing of its latest chapter.
These are the main goals of beats per image, your brand new musical and visual online magazine powered by Musikki and Exclusiph platforms. Our goal is to publish original essays, features and interviews that somehow address or problematize the visual dimension of music consumption in the emerging digital media landscape. The work and voice of musicians, photographers, filmmakers, fashion and graphic designers, dancers, producers, sound and light engineers, roadies, scholars, entrepreneurs and other players in the music industry will be a recurrent presence on our magazine in order to offer not only food for thought but also practical guidance to our creative readers and community.
We count on your input on what we’re sure will be a fascinating journey.