a minidisc autopsy report (and other musings on format failure)
Gescom's "MiniDisc" release
When dealing with technologies that have run their course, it’s easy to forget how quickly and resolutely we became absorbed in utopian hopes upon their arrival. In the throes of full-blown tech mania, we anthropomorphize the beloved instruments and view them as regular companions rather than as extensions. Yet, once these instruments are supplanted by something yet more alluring in its promises, we can spend all day rationalizing away how we “always knew” the former technology would come up short in the end. It was, after all, just another time-devouring diversion that the military-industrial complex designed with the purpose of quelling dissent. Or, at the very least, it provided a sad substitute for “authentic social experience” while “mediating relationships” in a way that proved detrimental to all but the shadowy design and marketing squads who brought it into the world.
If there were a hell for technologies, I imagine it would reverberate day and night with the sneering condemnations of such retrospective ‘experts,’ who would appear as talking heads on one of those VH1 programs designed to instill a false sense of our having progressed from the pop culture fascinations and technological raptures of prior decades. Inconveniently for these experts, though, enough evidence points back to their having as much of a stake in technological infatuation as anyone. Like old love letters unearthed during a routine search for some less emotionally resonant object, such pieces of evidence occasionally surface to remind us of the starring role we played in initiating and sustaining this state of techno-rapture: as much as we would like to see ourselves as the passive, blameless targets of mass hypnosis, things were never this simple in reality. Like any wild love affair, we became swept up in it to the point where boundaries between subject and object melted away, and each partner managed to deeply influence and alter the other’s daily functioning. And like any wild love affair to have ended with some degree of dissatisfaction, we violently deny believing that this time utopia would be realized through this joyful dissolution.
A fine example of an exhumed love letter is the first Japanese print ad for the Sony Walkman, introduced in 1979 (at the time, it was pitched as a “walking stereo with hotline”.)1 In the ad, both a twig-thin young dancing queen of Western origin and an older Japanese traditionalist (he sports a monk’s tonsure and white yukata) share a TPS-L2 Walkman on a nondescript public thoroughfare. In a typical bit of humorous self-effacement, the older Walkman enthusiast is saddled with the bulkier pair of headphones, and appears as if he's straining not to pass judgment on the ecstatically hip-swaying youngster clad in tube top and animal-print scarf. It must be a difficult task, since the girl’s vivacity borders on militancy, especially in the way she grips the Walkman unit and thrusts it towards the camera, while opening her mouth in an expression somewhere between a manic laugh and a scream of defiance. While the older gentleman takes care to not be defined by his listening apparatus, it’s hard to imagine the younger spokes-model without one; removing it from her would be like a bloody amputation rather than just a ‘taking away’ of the object. It would be Jimi Hendrix appearing on stage sans guitar, or a habitual roller skater switching into a pair of loafers (and, as the story goes, the Walkman was partially inspired by observations of Californian roller skaters.2)
The image is overlaid by a comparatively bland text about how you can now take your home stereo outside with you, which is a kind of redundancy when the striking image has already stated this much- yet that doesn’t appreciably dilute its utopian excitement. All the ingredients for the vaunted "better world through technology" are there: there is the solution of a previously irresolvable problem (the problem of sharing music in public without disrupting others routines, solved via the multiple headphone outputs of the TPS-L2.) There's the suggestion of harmonious coexistence between clashing traditions and aesthetic inclinations, made possible by a clearly demarcated zone of non-competitive play and discovery- after all, as Johan Huizinga notes, "play is older than culture"3 and can still be fallen back upon in times where it seems culture is erecting its own formidable barriers to interaction. Sony's advertising schemes would export these utopian potentialities all around the world, with a variety of similar campaigns- for a while, it seemed the ads' utopian fiction would provide a strong enough counterweight to the more cynical fiction proposed by 'nanny state' functionaries (e.g. that the Walkman would cause people to retreat into isolated, anti-social tech-cocoons.)
But then, just as easily as we baby new technologies, wrapping them in swaddling clothes and bestowing achingly cute nicknames upon them, we kill them like unwanted pets. Of course, the word "kill" is never used with great frequency when we are dealing with the termination of things we once loved: in the case of pets, we “put down” a deliberately drowned kitten or a lethally-injected old dog, in the case of technologies we “discontinue” or “retire” them. And at this point a harsh light is cast on our disingenuousness: all throughout the other stages of the tech-companion’s “life cycle” it has been treated as a human equal (or even a superior), being talked to or coaxed or cajoled as if its lack of verbal response was just the tech’s way of playing “hard-to-get” rather than evidence that it lacked consciousness. Now, in the "retirement" stage, the original rush to anthropomorphize these devices can be explained away, in a way that Bruno Latour expertly describes: “the word anthropomorphism always implies that such a projection remains inappropriate, as if it were clear to everyone that actants on which feelings are projected were actually acting in terms of different competences.”4
Learning To Love The MD
“I like pizza pie, I like macaroni / but what I love is My First Sony”
-‘My First Sony’ advertising jingle, circa mid-1980s
Upon relocating to Japan for the first time, one of my first notable purchases was a ridiculous-looking orange compact bicycle with wheels 14 inches in diameter (purchased with parking issues in mind, a thorny problem familiar to just about anyone who commutes to a major Japanese train station by bicycle.) My first non-essential purchase worth noting (which long outlasted the soon-to-be-stolen bike), was a Sony MZ-R900 MiniDisc Walkman / recorder. Unlike the bicycle, it came in a variety of sophisticated color schemes, of which I chose a deep, metallic red. Although the ‘MD’ hardware and blank recording media was still virtually nonexistent in the U.S. (ditto for pre-recorded MDs), I was now thrust into a world where blank MDs could be bought at virtually any supermarket or convenience store across the country, and high-end playback or recording equipment could likewise be found in the most modest department store’s electronics section. This was still a couple years before the practice of mp3 downloading would produce its well-documented effects (documented even further in this volume, of course), and so the possession of an MD player still conferred certain advantages upon its owner that weren’t enjoyed by the rank-and-file of compact disc listeners. For one, the ability to record sound at different bit rates meant that a single MiniDisc could record or play back a few albums’ worth of material before any kind of reloading took place. The MD’s attractiveness also owed itself, admittedly, to its clandestine nature when compared to the other then-popular forms of music transport. For live music enthusiasts, a palm-sized MD recorder could fit inside of an empty 'wide' pack of clove cigarettes, and could then be safely smuggled inside a concert venue, where a tiny microphone snapped into its 1/8” analog line input produced a satisfactory document of the evening’s entertainment. The same input could also accommodate any electronic instrument, providing a fine way to record rough sketches of musical ideas before they evaporated.
Other noteworthy features abounded. A slim, rechargable NiMH [nickel metal hydride] battery powered the unit for up to 21 hours of playback time or 8 hours of recording time, and an extra AA battery could still be plugged into a pair of contact points on the bottom of the player. A ‘track program’ mode allowed for re-programming the sequence in which you heard tracks on a pre-recorded MD. A ‘melody timer’ interrupted the listener’s music program with an alarm at a pre-determined time (which seems like a fairly trivial addition until you’ve experienced the sleep-inducing effects of a longer-than-average Japanese train commute.) A wand-like remote control unit, connected to a pair of stock Sony headphones and capable of being clipped to a piece of clothing, was also equipped with a backlit display on which the user-programmed titles of songs would scroll by. And, for the particularly active listener, a skip-resistant "G Protection" caused the reading laser to, when dislodged, regain its position some 10 times faster than previous designs of portable disc players, making the inevitable bumps and jostles on the street (and, once again, the train) easier to deal with.
The MiniDisc itself was, whether this was the intent or not, a handsome hybridization of the two most popular recording media to precede it: the cassette (the MD also featured a plastic outer shell or cartridge) and compact disc (a 64mm, magneto-optical disc sealed within the cartridge.) The design therefore suggested a marriage of practical concerns, like longevity and security, with fashion sense- the reflective gleam of the small disc was nicely complemented by shells of different opacity, color, and texture. It was emphatically present even though it was close to being nothing at all, and so - even during its protracted death - it still bore the physical appearance of an "emerging" technology.
With all of these things working in its favor, the question has to be asked- why did “MiniDisc Culture" not succeed “Cassette Culture” as a means of music networking? Why was there no insanely prolific R. Stevie Moore or Merzbow of the MiniDisc, or, why, in fact, didn’t the original artists ever consider adding a MiniDisc release or two to their vast catalogs (which already seemed to span every other conceivable home audio format?) Especially in the ‘avant’ end of the culture, where the critique of new media and the unlocking of its hidden potentiality are such going concerns, it would seem the MiniDisc would be adopted more than it really was. On that score, there is really just one title that is still a talking point to this day: the MD simply titled MiniDisc by Gescom, which did, admittedly, make clever use of the medium’s “shuffle” or randomized playback function. The radically synthetic music itself induced an uncanny, hallucinatory feeling that the MD player was inventing the sound in real time rather than playing back the "fixed" contents of a recording. The mid-late 90s crop of new, street-smart 'computer music' was notable for its high-velocity transmission of discreet audio events, which coalesced or self-organized in a way that seemed to escape the intent of the programmers. Gescom's MD was an occasionally frustrating, but mostly rewarding example of this tendency, a rich new vocabulary that a number of other artists could have applied to their own releases. Just as the slow-spreading dread clouds of Maurizio Bianchi's music complemented the kinesthetic effect of watching the slowly, steadily turning spools of a cassette, Gescom's fleeting and chimerical sound particles seemed tailor-made for the MD (and vice versa.)
Other experiments with the medium abounded, but next to nothing materialized as a commercially available or even "underground" product. More commonly, MD technology was employed in the making of a final product but hardly ever was that final product. The sound artist Paul Dickinson (as well as the author) made use of both the MD recorder’s generous battery life and, more importantly, its motion sensitive recording function, to make recordings of themselves talking in their sleep. As hinted at above, the shock-resistant features and featherweight portability of MD players were also very useful for professionally recording concert performances (not just "bootlegging" them.) For similar reasons, MDs could be utilized in live performances which relied partially on a pre-recorded 'backing track' as part of the performance, with little worry about magnetic tape suddenly getting devoured or a disc skipping (a la the nightmare scenario that effectively ended the lip-syncing careers of Milli Vanilli.) And, speaking of Merzbow and Gescom, the membership of both units5 used an MD recorder to lay the tracks for a scathing noise LP entitled Satanstornade, still one of the more compelling documents of that non-genre.
One thing may help to give some closure to those fretting over the death of the MD, and that is the medium’s inability to ever become a truly international phenomenon. As we’ve already seen with the Cassette Culture of old, its robustness owed itself in part to its international character. Audiocassettes in the 1980s were widely available throughout Europe, the Americas, and Asia, and were thus not seen in these countries as a ‘specialty’ or even ‘novelty’ medium. The initial fears over introducing radical new playback equipment turned out to be unjustified (audio outlets in the U.S. reportedly “…thought the [Sony] company was crazy trying to sell a $200 stereo that didn’t even record.”)6 It is necessary, for the purposes of this investigation, to return to the MiniDisc's conceptual birthplace in order to determine the exact causes of its failure on foreign soil.
this is an excerpt; full chapter is available in Unofficial Release: Self-Released And Handmade Audio In Post-Industrial Society.
1 The ‘hot-line switch’ was so named because it would instantly suppress the volume of the music being played through the headphones, and make it easier to hold conversations.
2 Admittedly, this is only one of the anecdotal ‘origins’ of the Walkman design: others have suggested Sony co-founder Akio Morita’s dislike of trans-Atlantic flights, or have ascribed its creation to a totally spontaneous revelation accorded to original Sony founder Masaru Ibuka.
3 "Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing." Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study Of The Play Element In Culture, p. 1. Beacon Press, Boston, 1955.
6 Thomas A. Harvey, “How Sony Corporation Became First With Kids.” Doing Cultural Studies: The Story Of The Sony Walkman, p. 133, ed. Paul DuGay, Stuart Hall Et. Al. SAGE Publications Ltd., London, 1997.