Rob Walker | Essays

Hearing Things

I have seen the future of rock and roll, and it’s merch. Of course, band-branded merchandise has been a major part of the music business, big and small, for years. The Ramones sold more T-shirts than albums (and you can buy a T-shirt that says so). And box sets for superfans have become increasingly elaborate and pricey artlike objects. But merchandise is gaining momentum, and it’s not hard to imagine a time when a fan buys a sculpture, home décor item or other tangible good and gets the music as a kind of free soundtrack accompaniment.

Over the summer, the vice president of Sub Pop Records told Seattle Weekly’s music blog, Reverb, that the shirts, caps, key chains and cozies that once served as promotional collateral may have greater value to potential customers than recorded songs. “We used to give many of these tchotchke items away for free in an effort to entice people to pay for the music,” Megan Jasper said. “But we’re considering flipping our strategy so that people pay for the toy and receive the music for free. Just a thought.”

Whether this was a serious suggestion or not, it was being debated right around the time that another label, Ghostly International, announced the latest release from the electronic artist and D.J. Matthew Dear. “Black City” is available on CD, vinyl and in the form of a $125 “sculptural representation of the themes explored” by Dear’s music. Ghostly International calls the object the MDBC Totem, and it looks like a spooky, monolithic building, about seven inches high and made of bonded aluminum finished with a “gun-metal patina.” Conceived by Dear and Will Calcutt, a Ghostly designer, and created by the New York design firm Boym Partners, it’s available in an edition of 100. Each is inscribed with a code giving buyers access to the music in digital form (download or stream), including a bonus track.

The totem is hardly a tchotchke, and the Ghostly founder, Samuel Valenti IV, isn’t making merchandise the centerpiece of his label. But this is one strategy, he argues, for “imbuing the aura of music onto an object.” He’s planning more such releases, and on some level the effort seems to be as much a statement about the future of music and value in general as it is about Dear’s work. Nine Inch Nails and Pixies, among others, sold lavish box sets that included DVDs and lush books in limited editions, and Valenti suggests the MDBC Totem takes another step toward responding to “the reality of a post-format world.” Ghostly’s site announces: “The totem is a physical format for cloud-based listening, an acknowledgment of two seemingly irreconcilable notions: the need for a tangible representation of music and a future in which music is utterly ethereal.”  

In a sense the market is already filled with various attempts to imbue objects with the aura of music (or musicians) as technologies make owning the music itself a less physical experience. Rap artists pioneered the strategy of extending a musician’s brand into the department store through clothing lines; more recently, Macy’s announced that the band Good Charlotte is curating an apparel collection for the store. Stones Throw Records sells a Madlib Espresso blend, connected to the rapper/producer of that name. DJ Irie from South Florida is putting out a line of jewelry. You can buy a Weezer Snuggie in one of three colors. The German metal band Rammstein even sold a set of sex toys.

In 2008, Of Montreal’s “Skeletal Lamping” was an early example of the multiobject format: aside from traditional packaging, you could buy a set of wall decals or a lamp and have a digital download of the music thrown in. Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes wrote a statement to accompany the “Skeletal Lamping Collection,” in which he laid out the band’s material motivations, albeit in a tone that suggested a wink as much as a declaration. “We hope this idea catches on,” he wrote, “and in the future, square CD packaging will be abandoned forever and only interesting art objects will fill record stores. We envision a time when you’ll be walking around your local record shop and be like, ‘What’s the new Radiohead album again? Oh yeah, a bonsai tree in the shape of a deformed goat, I see it over there.’ ” (Of Montreal’s album, “False Priest,” is available in a deluxe version including a T-shirt, eight buttons, four stickers, two posters and two magnets. )

Whatever this may say about the direct market value of recorded songs, all this merchandise creativity is probably nudged along by the (related) fact that past concerns about losing credibility by working with commercial entities have long since evaporated. John Lydon did a butter commercial, Lady Gaga fills her videos with paid product placements and every “indie” band in America knows the best place to break a song is in a TV ad for . . . well, for almost anything. In other words, the aura of music has been imbued in objects (and services, cruise lines, life insurance, etc.) for years. Artists know as well as anybody that music sells stuff, so why shouldn’t they sell the stuff too?     

This essay was originally published in
The New York Times Magazine, September 10, 2010.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Music

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