Music, can you stop being so ‘square’?

The art work that has gone hand in hand with the consumption of commercial and contemporary music has long been an industry standard and necessity, ultimately effecting the way we format and experience music, image and their combined aesthetic. In this hyper/post/modern/headfuck era of viral culture in the Internet generation there are many questions of how the accompanying visual art formats to digital music will alter (or… remain the same).

For a while now we've been listening to digital music on the web without it’s full embodiment of the conjoined sonic and visual experience. Since the physical need of format in terms of vinyl/tape/CDs has become somewhat redundant (even a hindrance in terms of instant distribution & accessibility), the art work too has regressed in ways. We can all understand the tangible luxury of a 12" LP, looking at the album cover up close and exploring the surrounding art work of the packaging as well as reading along with the page of lyrics all within the visual paring that’s in your hands to the music you’re listening to. However these artworks have been watered down to just small 2D thumbnails, digital and miniature reproductions of the same image to an album’s vinyl and/or CD counterparts.

To paraphrase one of the panellists on the above pod-cast (William E. Wright) ‘the square is the legacy shape of music’, the question is how music art work of the digital age can transform the ‘square’ or abandon it all together to develop music’s aesthetic experience.

Whilst the music video gave an entertainment and sometimes narrative quality to listening experiences, it more often than not lacked a definitive image to relate to the overall sound of an album or a piece of music. The viral nature of shared content and ‘meme’ culture that has been established on the internet can also influence art work created and distributed on-line. Certain web image/player formats (such as GIFs) are being incorporated to produce multimedia art covers that remain within the somewhat alluded to physicality of a framed image, from the subtly animated emoji-style icons of Iglooghost’s EP release (Chinese Nü Yr) and and the GIF art pieces by Leif Podhajsky, known for his cover & video works for bands including Tame Impala and Foals.

This modern ‘meme’ culture offers a unique dichotomy, images that are personalised and shared yet oddly universal, often due to the humour behind them that is usually considered relatable. A re-appropriation of recognisable content that is seemingly original is by no means a new phenomenon, yet it’s only recently, in this modern format, that it has made a dent into music art works & by who else but Kanye West.

Ever innovative whilst never letting us forget about it, Kanye’s 2016 release TOLP wasn't too much to brag about, but it was the formats it took after and during the build up to and promotion of its release that makes this work unique and something significant to think about. The album cover itself took on alterations, from both artists and fans alike. An on-line meme generator allowed individuals to write their own messages or titles on the cover image, Kanye himself using the trend to ‘Blame Chance [the Rapper]’ for the delayed release of the album. This could allow for a movement of individually personalised album art works, an image(s) unique for each listener to have their own visual relation to the music. Perhaps this is just a fad, but it has already spawned a few individualised ‘imaginings’ of the album’s music itself, again an experimentally meme’d appropriation of Kanye’s most recent album… (another example is this daftside project)

印象III : なんとなく、パブロ (Imagining “The Life of Pablo”)
by TOYOMU 
 decided to make this album for the reason of #NoTIDALinJapan 
I have not listened to a whole “TLOP” yet 
Dedicated to 
WhoSampled (www.whosampled.com
Genius (genius.com)

An album’s on-line streaming (tidal or Apple music exclusivity) also has potential to alter the format music takes in the digital age, allowing an album to be a living piece of work as there’s less need for a physical completion or final product. Artists have the ability to, as Kanye puts ‘fix tracks’, reworking/recontextualising their work either in terms of its structure and/or content, possibly shaping the way on-line albums exist as a living/changing art work… but this is a whole other discussion.

The next natural step is to think outside the box, literally. In what ways can and already is the visual side of music’s aesthetic going beyond a definitive image, framed in square packaging or its digital remake. As music perhaps no longer requires a physical function, other products or people can conceptually take on this role.

DrinkQT/HeyQT is the primary example of this as an interesting entity in itself. Conceptualised and portrayed by performance artist Haydn Dunham, she released a corresponding music video and commercial product as QT (Quinn Thomas), a pop singer who promotes and is the living embodiment of the semi-fictitious DrinkQT energy drink. The music and drink are intended to be two manifestations of the same product, both being described as ‘fizzy’ & ‘bouncy’, the taste of it (according to a critic) is somewhat rather crudely likened to ‘Red Bull, only a little more tart’, reflective of the acute sweet/cute/girlish aesthetic QT is presented as. So even if you dislike the song (or drink for that matter) you can’t argue that the visual component to the music is lacking.

We’re still in fairly early stages of a digitalised culture, norms of how music and art are experienced and created for & on the web are still in processes of development. We can only imagine where music’s art work will go, either keeping within the framed boundaries but evolving the image for the digital audience, or escaping these confines and conceptualising other physical manifestations of its musical counterpart as we no longer need the CD cases to protect them from damage.

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