A Chunk of History: The Medieval Roots of Digital Publishing

One of the wonderful paradoxes of the digital era of media is its retrograde quality. We tend to think of inventions like the internet and peer-to-peer digital networks as apotheoses of modern communication, but their economic impact on many media industries has been to unravel their modern industrial structures and to resurrect many of their pre-industrial, folk foundations.

Nowhere has that been more true than in the case of music. MP3 files, P2P networks, and now streaming have blown up the multi-song bundle we called the album — and the profit margins that came with it — and restored the single to prominence, as it was in the days before the invention of the long-playing record (LP).

The much-derided phenomenon of unlicensed “sharing” of music over P2P networks also carries echoes of music’s past. Until the Gramophone and the Phonograph made private performances of music practical, music was almost always shared, in the sense that it was usually experienced as part of a public performance. While the industrial technologies of recording and playback made private performances lucrative the instinct to share music never really went away. Read More »

Early Stones

The Media Wonk was away from this post recently while pursuing actual paid employment. But now that that’s behind me, it’s time to clear out the folder of stuff-I-meant-to-get-to-when-I-have-the-time. Here’s one item:

Last month, a group of archaeologists announced the discovery, made last fall, of a 35-40,000 year old, five-hole flute made from a vulture bone, along with  fragments of two ivory flutes in a cave in southern Germany. The find pushed back the date for the earliest confirmed evidence of instrumental music-making by humans by at least 5,000 years.

stone-venusAs it happens, the instruments were discovered a few feet away from where a carved figurine of a nude, and extremely busty woman was previously found, and which was also about 5,000 years older than the earliest known stone venus.

What can these finds tell us about music today? For one thing, they tell that as far back as 40,000 years ago, guys were already thinking about girls and making music–more or less the same instinct we see at work today when a guy takes up the guitar and starts a band. Music, in other words, has been an integral and consistent aspect of human society and culture for as long as we can see evidence of human society and culture.

The difference is that for the first 39,900 years of that span, people made music despite having no hope of landing a record contract. They just did it: to have something to dance to, as part of religious ceremonies, to get girls, or simply for the shared experience of making and listening to it. It’s only in the last 100 years or so, since the invention of mechanical recording, that those things have become heavily commercialized, and that making music and listening to it became distinct activities mediated by record companies.

So the next time you hear a record company executive warn that the loss of profits from recordings threatens to stop the music and impoverish the culture, it’s worth remembering that nearly 40,000 years of cultural history suggests the groove is a little deeper than that.