The Airdropped Album: What Digital Can Learn from Vinyl
Stories we tell about songs we find (Part I)
A flexi disk is a thin slip of vinyl. It’s a record so light that if you grab it by one end and shake, or if a breeze catches it, it wobbles. Some of the first flexis came from old X-rays. They were cheap, easy to produce, and given away as magazine inserts, shoved in the pages like samples of perfume. In 1964, The Beatles sent flexi presses of Christmas songs to their fan clubs. One of these can sell for more than $200 today.
People do not buy flexis because their sound quality is very good. Flexi disks are prone to scratches and bends. They warp over time. Just getting them to play can be tricky. There is too little substance to them, the grooves aren’t deep, and a record player’s needle bounces all over it, so the turntable must be a perfect plane. Even then it helps to throw a thick LP underneath. Someone willing to spend $200 on a scrap of vinyl isn’t buying it for its sound, anyway. He’s buying the object for the thing itself. It holds value. It’s scarce. But there is something more. Something about what it represents. The story the object tells, and the stories we tell ourselves about it.
A flexi disk tale from not so long ago — Nashville, April 1, 2012: Jack White and Third Man Records, his locally based company, release his newest single by air.
Imagine a thousand balloons, each one two feet wide and bluer than the Tennessee sky in spring, which is what you’re seeing them float into. Dangling from each, tied to it with twine, is a plastic pouch. (The twine is all natural; the latex balloon is biodegradable — the people behind the balloon launch have been very explicit about these details.) Inside the pouch is a custom postcard “with instructions for the finders to submit photos, discovery location and the date on which the record was found.” Next to the postcard is the record. The record, of course, is a flexi.
The flexi is a recording of “Freedom At 21,” a song from Jack White’s new album, Blunderbuss. It’s the first time Jack White has released an album as Jack White — not as the White Stripes or the Raconteurs or the Dead Weather. White said in a press release that it felt like the songs “could only be presented under my name. These songs…had nothing to do with anyone or anything else but my own expression, my own colors on my own canvas.” Third Man Records described the balloon release as “an experiment exploring non-traditional forms of record distribution and a way to get records in the hands of people who don’t visit record shops.”
The balloons drift, and with them, the flexis. Some don’t make it far — the closest lands within spitting distance of the curb near Third Man’s front door. Others travel more than 200 miles south of Nashville, down into Alabama. A couple in Coker, Alabama, not ten miles west of Tuscaloosa, find five. They write back on the custom postcard:
Today, April 2nd, we found a bunch of balloons caught in a tree on the edge of our property in Coker, Alabama. The balloons were launched on April 1st. In order to arrive in our field, they had to have passed through Tuscaloosa Air Space only a few miles away. Amazing because we held the 2012 Tuscaloosa Regional Air Show March 31-April 1st. The balloons flew with both the Blue Angels and the Army’s Golden Knights!!!
Blunderbuss was released on April 23. The balloons weren’t White’s only marketing trick, just the most viral. On March 3, he was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, where he played two songs from the album with two different bands, one all women, one all men. Ten days later White posted an official video of “Sixteen Saltines,” the lead single, on YouTube. A week before the album went up, after the balloon launch, Third Man streamed all of it for free on iTunes. The album costs $10.99 to download. “Freedom At 21,” the song carried into the Tennessee sky, costs $1.29 on iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon. On April 17, Third Man Records announced that one of the balloon-dropped singles had sold for $4,238.88 on eBay, the highest price ever fetched for a flexi disk.
Do you want to hear the song? It’s not White’s best work by a long shot, but he is consistently interesting. Here: It’s free on YouTube. Or here’s apretty good remix on Soundcloud, also free. You could also try Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, Amazon, or Google. Maybe there’s a subscription fee; maybe you’re already paying it, renting access to servers that house “Freedom At 21” along with millions of other songs — so many ones and zeros turned into pulses of light, traveling through tubes of glass, then flying through the air in radio waves and landing inside the device you’re listening to now. Maybe not as whimsical as a wobbly record airlifted by balloon. Still — an incredible journey of convenience happening billions of times each second. Does it cheapen the song for it to travel this way?
The Nihilist Spasm Band did not make easy music. In 1967, Arts Canada described the Ontario-based group as a “proto-dada assault.” Ryan Foley, author of an essay on flexi disks, describes the Nihilist Spasm’s sound as “music akin to a clutch of femur-rattling Neanderthals first discovering the orgasmic pleasures of pure noise.” Tucked between the pages of that 1967 Arts Canada was a flexi of the Nihilist Spasm track “The Sweetest Country This Side of Heaven.” I couldn’t find an MP3 of it online, but the flexi can fetch more than one hundred dollars on eBay.
The modern fascination with flexis, as Foley sees it, is akin to collecting potsherds or old beer bottles: We’re gathering junk. “The consecration of the trashy, disposable, and mass-produced constructs of capitalist culture has put flexis in a new light: once regarded as throwaway, they’re now venerated pop antiquity,” he writes.
There’s something else though, too. It has to do with owning a thin scrap of rare vinyl with grooves carved into so that, when you put a needle down in the grooves and amplify it, sound happens. For a long time, archaeoacousticians thought that ancient pottery eventually might be played this way, too, so that they might overhear old conversation trapped in the ceramic grooves. But that turned out not to be true, or anyway, playing pottery sounds like nothing more than pure noise — not too far off from Nihilist Spasm’s femur rattling. The fact that each flexi was at one point distributed by mail, directly to homes, in the pages of magazines, and was cheap enough to be junked makes the flexi all the more fascinating and modern. You owned it, but trashing it was easy. And certainly for the first few years it wasn’t worth even a dollar. Flexis were the cheapest and easiest way to distribute recorded music before the Internet. They peaked in the 1980s. But they were a kind of bridge to digital music today: abundant, cheap, often free, easily and frequently thrown away. Is there a market for rare MP3s, or could there be, and what would that even look like?
Put more broadly: What gives digital music its value? Is it scarcity? Convenience? Or something else?
Like a flexi, a digital recording has a physical presence — bits are, after all, finite. They can be counted; they carry a weight. You can own a digital recording and store it on your hard drive. It takes up space. You bought it and own it. But you can’t sell it. So what are you paying for, if you’re paying at all? Even if you aren’t paying, even if you listen to all of your music for free on YouTube or download it illegally, someone, or some company, is paying. Moving all those zeros and ones, as light, through glass tubes and into waves across air may be incredibly cheap, but it ain’t free.
Imagine a perfect spring morning. It’s April, and you’re in Tennessee or Alabama. Against a patchwork of green you spot a deflated blue balloon with a record tied to it. You pick it up, take it home, and play it. What a novel thing you’ve discovered. When new sounds reach your brain they activate its reward centers, making that thin slip of vinyl all the more valuable to you. It’s a manufactured experience — as meticulously orchestrated as White’s prepared statement or his songs or style of dress — with just the right amount of chance thrown in. Digital music can work this way, too. It’s not as precious as an airborne flexi found in a field, but there still are ways to engineer digital music, and the discovery of it, such that our brains light up and we listen raptly and pay willingly.
Just how that is managed — how we create and assign value to digital music today — will be the focus of this series, starting with the thing that is most abundant and seems the cheapest: all the music that is free. And why, in fact, it isn’t.
Part II in this series, “You Want a Hit? Then Give It Away,” explores building an audience.