The Political Ecology of Music
- Winner of IASPM Canada Book Prize, 2020
- Winner of the Prose Award in the Music and the Performing Arts Category, 2020
- Honorable Mention, 2020 Woody Guthrie Award given by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, US branch
- 2021 IASPM Book Prize
328 pp., 5 x 8 in, 16 figures
- Published: October 15, 2019
- Published: September 20, 2019
The hidden material histories of music.
Music is seen as the most immaterial of the arts, and recorded music as a progress of dematerialization—an evolution from physical discs to invisible digits. In Decomposed, Kyle Devine offers another perspective. He shows that recorded music has always been a significant exploiter of both natural and human resources, and that its reliance on these resources is more problematic today than ever before. Devine uncovers the hidden history of recorded music—what recordings are made of and what happens to them when they are disposed of.
Devine's story focuses on three forms of materiality. Before 1950, 78 rpm records were made of shellac, a bug-based resin. Between 1950 and 2000, formats such as LPs, cassettes, and CDs were all made of petroleum-based plastic. Today, recordings exist as data-based audio files. Devine describes the people who harvest and process these materials, from women and children in the Global South to scientists and industrialists in the Global North. He reminds us that vinyl records are oil products, and that the so-called vinyl revival is part of petrocapitalism. The supposed immateriality of music as data is belied by the energy required to power the internet and the devices required to access music online. We tend to think of the recordings we buy as finished products. Devine offers an essential backstory. He reveals how a range of apparently peripheral people and processes are actually central to what music is, how it works, and why it matters.
Did you know that the CO2 equivalents generated by consumption of recorded music have not declined in the era of music streaming—supposedly an era of music dematerialized, rendered virtual—but instead have as much as doubled? Kyle Devine knows, and in Decomposed he teaches us about such things with intelligence, humaneness, and passion. His book is at once a history of materialities of recording, from lac beetle resins in the 1920s to today's energy-sump server farms, and a manifesto for ecological scrutiny of our musical behaviors.
Gary Tomlinson, John Hay Whitney Professor of Music and Humanities, Yale University; author of A Million Years of Music
Kyle Devine brilliantly excavates the political ecologies of sound reproduction, moving from nineteenth-century chemical labs and shellac harvests to Thai vinyl record plants and the infrastructures of streaming media. Decomposed is a highly original and wonderfully compelling book—a must-read for anyone interested in music or the materiality of media.
Nicole Starosielski, Associate Professor, NYU; author of The Undersea Network
Kyle Devine opens us to oil wells, studio albums, digital accessories, and much else —creative, horrible, and in between—on which music reproduction depends. Itself rendered with precision and elegance, Decomposed is fit for music lovers, social scientists, and all citizens of a tremulous earth.
Harvey Molotch, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, NYU and UCSB; author of Where Stuff Comes From: How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers and Many Other Things Come to Be as They Are
Decomposed is a superbly lucid study that places recording in the broad human history of industrialization, globalization, resource extraction, labor exploitation, and ecological damage, debunking ideas of music's inherent goodness or intangibility. An immensely rigorous and compelling study, an absolute must-read, this book paves the way for a new ethics of music consumption.
Anna Morcom, Mohindar Brar Sambhi Chair of Indian Music, University of California, Los Angeles
“This is an important and brilliant book.”
"Devine's critical history of recording formats throws a necessary wrench into [the] mythology of musical purity."
The New Yorker