Updated: Aug 22
Picasso once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned”. More recently Kanye West said, “I was thinking about not making CDs ever again…only streaming”, apparently because he wants the option to endlessly amend and remix his music just like George Lucas has been doing to the original Star Wars trilogy for decades. So, is the future of content unfinished?
Every time I look at my phone or open my laptop it seems some needy piece of software is pleading with me to update it. It’s annoying and it didn’t happen before broadband. Once, we installed programmes (apps in the modern parlance) from discs of varying rigidity. Everything that programme required to operate was contained within said disk and once it was installed that was that. Now we don’t use discs, my laptop doesn’t even have a drive for one. We download via broadband from the mythical “cloud” but thanks to our "always on" technological culture the story doesn’t end there. Software manufacturers can constantly update, upgrade, fiddle and fuss with our apps. This seems like a good thing, it means we’re always up to date with the latest version and get new functionality for free. But, sometimes, this means that software and apps are released before they’re ready, replete with ticks and bugs that are at best annoying and at worst security threats. It’s a double edged sword and now, it seems, the same is happening with content.
Content, be it in the form of words, pictures, moving pictures or music is an incredible time capsule. Take an album like The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, generally agreed to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded. Not only does it provide an insight into the musical trends of the time but also the fashion, design and even technology as the band were limited by the instruments and studio kit available in 1967. When someone listens to Sergeant Pepper, no matter who they are, when they are or where they are they’re all listening to more or less the same version of the album (give or take mono, stereo and digitally remastered releases). As such we can all enjoy, analyse and discuss the same album. But what if there were multiple versions of Sgt. Pepper, not just in mono or stereo, but with different lyrics, instruments, arrangements or even band members? Would that lessen the musical and cultural impact of this milestone album? Would it devalue it as a piece of art? Or would it give fans of The Beatles, who split up in 1970, more to enjoy?
There is some evidence that it would. Let It Be was the only Beatles album not produced by the late, great George Martin. Instead, knob-twiddling duties went to Wall Of Sound pioneer Phil Spector who many people feel did the impossible by managing to balls up a Beatles album. So, in 2003 the Beatles released Let It Be…Naked, a remixed and remastered version of the album as it, maybe, should have been. This was a great gift for fans, the first new release since 1996’s Free As A Bird and Real Love singles, though whether or not the new version is definitively better or worse than the original is a click-hole you don’t want to go down. However, at least you can find and listen to the old and new versions. That might not be true in the future - anyone remember what the original Facebook app looked like?
Kanye’s view is that the music he creates is his to control, which is why the first version of Life of Pablo was available on streaming service Tidal for just seven days before being replaced with a remixed version featuring different artists on some songs. This model of creation would bring some much needed justification to subscription entertainment services which essentially charge you every month to access mostly the same content again and again. Be honest with yourself, do you use Spotify or Apple Music to find and listen to new music or is it just a more convenient way to listen to albums you’ve already bought on vinyl, tape and CD? I know that for every Jessica Jones I watch on Netflix I watch several episode of Friends, 30 Rock and The Office, all series that I already own on DVD but which are too much effort to uncase and enter into my dusty DVD player. But if those albums or shows were continually updated then maybe my monthly payments to watch the same old stuff are justified. On the other hand how many albums, films and TV series might be released before they’re ready, with incomplete sound mixes or special effects? And what happens if they ruin a classic or eradicate a version altogether as George Lucas has done with his various Star Wars “special editions”?
The latter scenario is already happening, which is why The Internet Archive are trying to record every web page, book, audio and video file that has ever existed for the general public to access via their Wayback Machine at https://archive.org. Hopefully that means that somewhere out there the original Star Wars trilogy is preserved in all its analog glory. But that also means so are those awful Facebook pics from your best mate’s buck’s party in Belarus - do you really want to see them strike back?