A Digital Chaperone At the Halfway Home

beck offers new modes of digital culture.

Beck’s recently-revamped website offers an intriguing example of where musicians and artists might move as the commercial recording industry’s grip on production and distribution gives way to the Internet’s new possibilities (and challenges) for musical and artistic experience.

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The website is a torrent of sound, video, interviews, remixes, and more. It’s easy to navigate. It’s fun. Most intriguingly, it features Beck not only as artist, but as curator. In fact, it combines the two roles into one. One moment we’re hearing a new track Beck has released, such as “Harry Partch,” based on the American hobo composer’s 43 tone scale and powerfully-eccentric theories of composition; next we’re watching video of Beck’s collaborations with other artists in covering classic albums (“The Record Club”); next we’re listening to the “Planned Obsolescence” series of mixes Beck has assembled, each with written comments by listeners appended to the track; next we’re reading “Irrelevant Topics,” an interview series between Beck and fellow artist-entertainers such as Tom Waits; and soon we find ourselves exploring Beck’s discography and maybe, perhaps, even checking out his online store.

I find myself wanting to spend time on this website, checking back for updates, eager to follow Beck’s adventures through digital means. The layout is simple, the navigation logical, the graphic design distinctive, the flow of materials exciting, even captivating.

Of course, I know the website is not maintained directly by Beck. One needs a whole staff, or at least various kinds of collaborations, and certainly lots of expensive equipment, to make this sort of Internet venture work well. And one also has to, perhaps, already have a public presence to draw in a readership (though not necessarily). Most of all, one has to let go of older models of selling product and imagine a new, more public, less commercial vision of art. The economic underpinnings will be different than they used to be.

Nonetheless, beck.com offers an intriguing experiment in individual presentation in the emerging field of the digital arts and humanities: the website becomes a kind of living archive of musical and cultural exchange, a virtual nexus, a playspace, a gallery of expressive communication. The website is grounded in older modes of art-making: the song composition, the recording session, the video, the interview. But it combines these into a stream of humanized bytes and bytes that flows through the machine.

Mutations indeed.

X-posted to HASTAC Blog.

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