On September 29, an artist released an album inside a plaster box. If you want to listen to Bernholz's How Things Are Made, you must break the box open to salvage the SD card within. “Destruction is not obligatory,” reads the the object's description on Bandcamp. Just last week, Thom Yorke released his newest music via torrent. If you want to listen to Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, you can pay BitTorrent $6 to download a “bundle,” which includes eight songs and a music video.
In an era when illegal downloading ranks alongside “clicked on a deceptive pop-up ad” and “emailed the wrong person” as something just about everyone's done at least once, artists and distributors have found themselves in a compensation quagmire which can only be repaired by radically reconstructing of the music economy. While corporate entities like the RIAA are concerned with reclaiming funds lost to piracy, Thom Yorke and Bernholz represent a wide-scale effort among artists to eke out new values for new music, one not simply boiled down to the monetary cost of a CD. The question becomes: how do artists lend worth to digital files?
Thom Yorke's choice to release music through a tech platform well-known for its uses for illegal file sharing is part trust fall into his fans' arms, part invitation to an audience to defy mass perceptions of BitTorrent's purposes. Considering the fact that Moby recently released an album through BitTorrent for the simple cost of an email address, putting a price on a torrent is a risky move. Yorke called his devotees to arms through a technological proclamation, and in this sense, his efforts echo those of Aphex Twin, who also recently staked out a frontier edge of the internet.
In late August, Aphex Twin tweeted a link for an .onion domain, one that could only be accessed through the deep web portal, Tor. The address hosted the announcement of his long-awaited comeback album, Syro. Just as torrents have a bad rap for piracy, the deep web is touted as an online black market. Yet if we define Thom Yorke's and Aphex Twin's platforms by the negative attention they regularly receive, we are left with an incomplete picture of these artists' motivations.
Each, in fact, has a rich personal history with the computer as a medium. By leading fans down a breadcrumb trail of tools and tricks, including the hidden spectrogram portrait below, Aphex Twin has inspired a cultlike devotion on the 'net. Yorke's BitTorrent album, on the other hand, appears to be an attempt to come to terms with the same file sharing protocals which put him and the rest of Radiohead in a very public bind when the group's album, Hail To The Thief, was leaked in 2003.
Perhaps Yorke has been emboldened by an increasingly democratized digital distribution landscape. Bandcamp, in particular has become one such boon for artists, facilitating a direct valuation process for supporters, one that often boasts a a “name your price” tag reminiscent of Radiohead's experimental In Rainbows release. As group leader William Huston told me over Facebook chat, experimental rap group Clipping has parlayed enough support from NeedleDrop vlogger Anthony Fantano and Bandcamp message boards to fund “printing Clipping t-shirts. And the profits from those go toward gas on tour.” In both Yorke's and Clipping's cases, music is commodified in direct relation to artistic merit.
Bernholz released its plaster box through Bandcamp which, at first glance, seems to invert Clipping's value model. An SD card inside a plaster box implies that the songs are valued in relation to the physical object. If you value the music, you have to destroy the object—otherwise, it's a plaster paradox, an item which holds the potential of music, yet remains, on a pragmatic level, a high-concept gag rendered in three dimensions.
Upon closer inspection, however, the gag doesn't intrinsically undermine the value of the music at hand. As a number of inventive album releases over the past few decades prove, unique physical objects have major appeal for devoted fans. Seen through this lens, Bernholz's plaster box recalls another square container—the box set. Traditionally, multidisc collections have been the record industry's go-to high-price good. For such luxury releases, novelty value isn't a foreign concept; the anthology Girl Group Sounds: One Kiss Can Lead To Another is housed in a $269 faux hat box.
In certain circumstances, the more gratuitously novel the packaging, the more coveted the item becomes. Take the recent “box set” from Bay Area avant-gard musicians, The Residents. In late 2012, the band announced a $100,000 package that would contain original pressings of all of its albums, singles, and video material, as well as an authentic replica of the band's famous eyeball mask, housed safely inside a 28-cubic-foot refrigerator. Only 10 were produced—one went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and one went to a man named Tripmonster in Bloomington, Indiana. Perhaps the collected materials in the fridge cost close to six figures, but it's hard to imagine the box set being priced solely the merit of its contents.
A similarly extravagant packaing was allotted to a single copy of Merzbow's Noise Embryo. Merzbow, a hero amongst noise fans, is known in part for his immense catalog of esoteric, limited edition releases. The most infamous of these was known as the MerzCar, a Mercedes with a copy of Noise Embryo jammed into the CD player. When the car started, so did the album—which played until the car was turned off. The CD could not be ejected, the stereo could not be stopped, and the radio didn't play. Unfortunately, the MerzCar broke down before it could be sold.
There's something special about objects, a value which doesn't append the music, but is conjured in conjunction with it. It doesn't have to take the form of a fridge or a car, either. North Carolina-based cassette label Watery Starve makes sure that its releases bridge the gap between art object and music object. Citing the need to make individual pieces of music valuable in an over-saturated sonic landscape, label head Lynn Fister seeks to “make everything unique, and somewhat more special, for one individual.” In turn, Watery Starve's LPs and tapes arrive adorned with hand drawings, collaged bits from old books, and preserved flowers and insects.
When he recounts the different available editions of Clipping's album CLPPNG, William Huston alludes to a similar impulse. “Nobody has noticed yet, but the digital version of CLPPNG is different from the CD, which is different from the LP, which is different from the Japanese CD, which is different from the cassette version, etc. We really like tailoring an album to its delivery medium.” At the end of the day, this is what seems to give the music its worth, no matter the distribution medium. Perhaps in this way, it makes perfect sense that Thom Yorke's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes would be delivered via torrent, the most futuristic box of the day.