All That Is Solid Melts Into Digits

The first time I opened my Kindle “library” on a browser I was surprised: There, next to several titles, was an indication that there is an “Update Available.”

This was the case for books written by authors no longer existent. For books of a recent vintage.

These updates are for the most part invisible to the reader.

There are several reasons why a given book might need an update.

For example, typos could have been identified and of need of fixing. Sometimes the conversion from the page plates to the digital format results in seriously bad breaks that require adjustments.

It could be that a given author who has published a hardcover version of, say, a biography has obtained additional information and so the paperback edition of the book includes that. Consequently, that information might be rolled into the Kindle version of the book.

But there are conceivably other things that could happen that are less benign, especially in this age where we seem to be reverting to book banning: Might someone who is so politically inclined not go into the digital file for a book or several and take a metaphoric ax to the content that she or he feels is in some way inappropriate? For a physical book on a shelf that is something that cannot be done in a way that doesn’t leave the paper in tatters. For the digital book that is something that could go without much notice. This would give a whole new notion to the concept of an “abridged edition.”

The question this raises is when is something “done”? When is it complete?

Should there be updates to things like Kindle books? While it is necessary to select the update (or not), how am I to know that there aren’t modifications being made to the texts in the so-called library unbeknownst to me or to the author, assuming said author is still around?

While this might seem to be a trivial thing, it really has much greater potential ramifications as more and more information exists largely in digital form.

Which brings me to music. (About 200 words ago you were likely wondering if you somehow stumbled on “” or something.)

Someone records a song. The song is processed, pressed and released. That middle step—the pressing or otherwise turning the bits into atoms—is likely to be skipped.

When it is an artifact, like an LP, it exists such that the song always remains the same in that particular instantiation. Of course, the artist (or the company the artist works for) can make modifications.

Take, for example, the song “Layla,” which was originally released in 1970 on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos. That track runs 7:04. Back then terrestrial radio was the primary means by which people heard music and unless it was an FM station playing contemporary music, which was generally a college station or something similarly vaguely commercial a seven-minute song was just too long. So Atco, the label, came out several months later with an AM-radio “friendly” version of “Layla” that runs 2:43. In the case of that song the division (or, to put it less friendly, mangling) was comparatively easy to do as there is a piano portion that the song plays out on, known as the “Piano Exit,” which was excised. There was probably some argued justification put forth by those who wanted to move the 45 RPM versions of the vinyl that the Piano Exit was recorded separately from the “main” portion of “Layla” and spliced in, therefore it could be spliced out.

Clapton, of course, came out in 1992 with “Layla (Acoustic).” 4:46. The same song, but different.

But say that “Layla” never had a vinyl form circa 1970. Let’s say that “Layla” existed only on a master tape and copies of that tape have been made but never in a form that was made commercially available. It only existed as digital files.

Let’s say that some provider of streamed music decided that for purposes of efficiency, while the 7:04 “Layla” is certainly nice, and the Duane Allman notes at the very end are entirely engaging, the 2:43 version is the one. And it becomes the One. The only One.

Does this matter?

For music enthusiasts, for those who have heard and appreciate (and probably own) the full double album, as well as the triple The Layla Sessions: 20th Anniversary Edition, the elision is an outrage.

But music enthusiasts are few and far between.

There is certainly a massive convenience that being able to access almost anything with a few taps on the screen of a phone.

But the convenience does come with something of a cost in terms of fidelity: not fidelity in the sense of sound, but fidelity in terms of the artist’s original work.

Of course, outside of a few, who would know?

Were someone to read, “To be, or not: that is the question” would the lack of a verb matter?

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Ed note: And Mac hasn’t even mentioned the recent trend of artists going back and “updating” releases to make changes after initial critical blowback. Both Beyonce and Lizzo recently removed offensive words from their new releases.

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Audio: Derek & The Dominos – “Layla”

From Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs (Atco, 1970).

One thought on “All That Is Solid Melts Into Digits”

  1. I didn’t know that Duane Allman played on the unabridged version of “Layla.” You learn something new every…

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