It looks better on a desktop.
When you work in a creative field, people tend to ask you one question again and again:
When that question is directed to musicians, we think it normally means something like:
This question implies that a song can emerge from nothing. But nothing comes into the world fully-formed. Like any piece of art, a song is like a snowball: it begins as something small, even inconsequential. The real work is in rolling that small thing down the hill, through the world, gathering substance and weight as you go. This is a process that can go on forever.
Let us give you an example. In August of last year, we started working on a new song. At the very beginning, it was just a bassline, which throughout history has proven to be the foundation of cool. We want to talk to you about the process that transforms a bassline into a song, and then into something even bigger than that.
We sat with the bassline for a while, but it needed a hook. So we rifled through our notebooks and found a line scribbled in the margins: “Where Does This Disco?” We laid down a scratch vocal. It clicked immediately.
As we looped these two elements and listened to them over and over again in our studio, they began to evoke a very specific interest of ours: the decaying role of physical media in the buying and selling of music. We began to think about the boxes and boxes of vinyl LPs and compact discs silently hitching a ride around the world with us on tour.
When the compact disc was first commercially introduced in the early 80s, it was marketed as a more durable, higher-fidelity, and more portable alternative to the vinyl record. Advertisements produced by Sony and Phillips, who created the technology in tandem, extolled the virtues of the laser playhead, which wouldn’t damage the CD the way a needle wears down into the grooves of a record. It was even called unbreakable.
One of the original commercial tag lines for the compact disc was “Pure, Perfect Sound Forever.” The CD is inherently futuristic, and future-proof, or so we were told.
Of course, as we all know, that’s not true. For one, technology eventually outpaced the allegedly perfect fidelity of the format. And compact discs are physically delicate objects, easily marred by minor scuffs and scratches.
A little over 30 years after its initial release, the compact disc now exists in a precarious position: it remains the most commercial medium for the wholesale buying and selling of music in physical form. In some countries, like Japan, 85% of people buy music on the CD format. And yet, despite its ubiquity, it feels obsolete. There is no cultural cachet for CD collectors. This is a subjective assessment, of course, but it feels true to our experience. Although we design and sell CDs of our own music, we very rarely buy them for ourselves.
In fact, like a lot of consumers, we’ve switched to streaming services, which are devaluing music to its lowest point in history. Instead of ten dollars for a piece of plastic containing a dozen songs, we now pay ten dollars a month for access to nearly every song ever recorded. The advantage is so great as to be undeniable.
As a consequence, to many people, a CD is no longer an object of value in itself. Instead, it’s a place where digital music is temporarily imprisoned. Once the songs are freed and encoded to the cloud, the CD itself becomes nothing more than an empty vessel.
All of this is to say: we suddenly found ourselves writing a song about compact discs. But before we were anywhere near finishing the song, we began to design the physical release and its accompanying materials. We usually consider how a song will look before we’ve settled on how it sounds. The processes of design and composition inform one another. This was especially true with "Where Does This Disco?" Making a CD about CDs, in a landscape where CDs are growing obsolete, was an interesting design challenge.
Selling physical copies of music is not an impossible pursuit. As you may know, there’s been a huge resurgence in the popularity of vinyl. In an age of ineffable media, people respond to the tactility of records. And that even more maligned medium, the cassette tape, has hit a nerve with DIY artists and labels looking for cheap ways to copy and distribute music. In 2012, the indie cassette label Burger Records had sold more than 100,000 tapes. Perhaps the CD could experience a similar revival in coming generations, becoming a fetish object for kids far enough removed from the technology’s initial dominance to find it retro.
With this in mind, when we set out to design the “Where Does This Disco” packaging, we started by searching for rare and interesting varieties of compact disc. What’s known as a “Mini-Max" caught our eye: a 3” disc suspended in a normal-sized clear platter. We saw these discs as a perfect opportunity for a visual joke about the medium itself, and designed the CD single to look like a tiny vinyl LP being pulled from a white label sleeve.
The tiny strip on the inner ring of a CD is called a mirror band. It’s usually etched with serial numbers, but we saw it as another fragment of compact disc arcana, and the ideal spot to hide a secret message.
Working closely with the manufacturer during the design of “Where Does This Disco,” we realized we didn’t really know how compact discs are made. As it turns out, this seemingly mundane, disposable, nearly obsolete object emerges from a fascinating process. Every mass-produced CD begins with a “glass master,” a round plate of glass about containing the disc’s master data. A glass master is only used in the manufacturing process, and usually stored or destroyed after the discs have been printed, but we thought it was such an interesting object that we convinced the CD manufacturing plant to make us an extra one.
This is the “Where Does This Disco?” glass master—a process object, brought out from the shadows.
We also learned that the foil coating on the back of a CD doesn’t store any data—it simply reflects back the laser beam, allowing the data on the disc to be read. The music is in the plastic. And so we also entreated the manufacturing plant to create a run of CDs without their mirrored foil: clear unplayable discs containing the entirety of our musical catalogue.
In a sense, this useless object allows the CD to retain its integrity. There’s no way to listen to the songs etched into it, but there’s also no way (that we know of) to release the digital files from their prison. We hope fans go to the effort of proving us wrong.
Part of what determines a piece of art’s value is its limited accessibility, what the cultural critic Walter Benjamin called its “aura,” its unique existence in time and space. But CDs are mass-produced objects by definition. Every CD is a mechanical reproduction of the “original” recording. There are ways, however, to make this reproduction feel like it has an aura of specialness by orchestrating an experience surrounding its consumption.
On our 2014 "Where Does This Disco?" tour, we made fans believe that the “Where Does This Disco” CD package, which we produced in an edition of 500, was the only medium in which the songs could be experienced. Of course, this was ultimately a losing battle, but the game is in the experience: so we created a run of carbonless copy non-disclosure agreements, which demanded that merch-buying concert attendees promise, under penalty of law, to “keep a secret” before they could purchase the CD itself. The effect was completed by a dummy CCTV camera and signs, pasted all around the venue, expressing that a secret was being disseminated on the premises and that attendees’ presence bound them to a legal agreement to share in the keeping of this secret.
Admittedly, this is an extreme (and largely symbolic) way of countering the growing obsolescence of physical media in our industry. But the question which became interesting to us, over the course of this project, was: could we use this song, and its accompanying multimedia treatment, to suggest pre-emptive nostalgia for the compact disc? And by suggesting this nostalgia, could we modify people’s perceptions of where these objects—and their makers—live in the continuum of technological history?
Thing is, we have a lot in common with the compact disc. After all, where does our music live? Does it live in an encoded file of a song, or in the performance of those songs in a live setting? Perhaps it’s somewhere else, in between, in the ineffable space where “music,” as an idea, exists. In any case, we’re just a couple of physical containers that serve to transmit ideas from creator to consumer, from cloud to cloud. As artists and as people, we’re no more future-proof than a foil-plated plastic disc.
We have made a point, in the 12 years of our band’s existence, to perpetually extend the boundaries of what we do with design experiments like this one. YACHT is never just music. It’s text, video, weird internet projects, ideas. This keep us from becoming bored.
So to return to our original question:
It turns out, that’s not the interesting question.
It’s where the song ends that’s interesting.
As a piece of information, a song is finite. It has an opening note and a final note. It has a file size. But if it can speak to a moment in time, a subcultural trend, if it can tap into a shared (or manufactured) nostalgia, its boundaries can be expanded dramatically. It can grow beyond its finite temporal existence and its crummy plastic jewel case.
If you think of a song as something much more than music—if you think of a song as a point of departure for a process of design—it never has to end at all.