You will probably never again own a new album by Kanye West. But if it makes you feel better, you can rent his software.
You probably won’t be too upset, either, just like when people quickly forgave Bethesda Softworks last November when their blockbuster game, Fallout 4, shipped with a few glitches.
To address the bugs, Bethesda released an update (called a “patch”) that had to be installed to make the game work properly online. Even if you’re not a gamer, you’ve probably seen a so-called “day one patch.” Think about the day you bought your smartphone: odds are that as soon as you turned it on, you had to download a set of fixes that developers forgot to include with the original product.
Kanye West quietly introduced rap music to the “day one patch” when he uploaded “No More Parties in L.A.” to his website in January, only to quickly delete it. He then uploaded a new version, because as he said, there was “slight distortion in the main loop” of the first one.
Kanye took this a step further when he finally released “The Life of Pablo” on Tidal, but tweeted that he was going to “fix ‘Wolves’,” the 13th track on the album. Then, he said that the album would never be available for download, which essentially means that he is reserving his right to make any changes he wants – to “Wolves,” to “30 Hours,” whatever – tomorrow, next year, a decade from now.
And now, with his announcement yesterday that he will no longer produce CDs, but only streaming music, he’s pretty much abandoning the concept of the album as a snapshot of thoughts and emotions.
Instead, each album will be a living document. Tracks will be subject to additions, tweaks, and deletions. If someone asks you what you think of “Wolves,” you’ll have to ask: “which version? ‘Wolves’ v1.0, or v1.1?”
“Or wait, is v1.2 out now?”
If the idea of Kanye repeatedly “fixing" a song that has already been (sort of) released seems strange, it’s only because we don’t tend to think of most art as something that should be improved upon, ever. Art is created, we think, and then it immediately becomes an archive. A fossil that we can own.
But that’s a consumer-centered way of looking at art, driven by our own sense of comfort and convenience. For most artists, an artistic work is never complete. Instead, it’s “abandoned or it’s ripped out of your hands, and it’s thrown into the marketplace, never finished."
Those are words by the way, of the words of one of the artists most known for tinkering with his work after the fact: George Lucas.
Think of it like this: what if George Lucas had the power to really “patch” or “update” the original "Star Wars”? Near the beginning of the original film, Han Solo shoots and kills a green-skinned bounty hunter named Greedo. But later, George Lucas decided that this made Han Solo look too cold-blooded. So in 1997, the remastered version showed Greedo shooting at Han first. Hardcore fans were angry at what they thought was a watering-down of the original.
Among Star Wars fans, the phrase “Han Shot First” became a sort of rallying cry against revisionism by a fickle artist, a claim of fan ownership that is more valid than that of the creator. Because the original version had been released on VHS, we can still watch it as it was when it first appeared in theaters. But if there was a way to push a mass “update” to every existing copy of “Star Wars”, Lucas might well have done it, because to him, the original "doesn’t really exist anymore.”
We may already be there with television, actually. Last season on Fox’s “Empire,” a character was trying out to be in a Pepsi commercial. Later on in the series, the characters actually watch his Pepsi commercial in-show as part of the plot – a natural conclusion of the ever-disappearing gap between advertising and entertainment. But now, if you watch the episode with a Hulu subscription, the Pepsi sequence has been cut out. You can’t experience the original episode anymore (yes, there are DVDs, but that format is dying, too.)
So, what if Kanye is on to something here?
What if recorded music becomes, like software, a living, breathing, body of work? In a way, it would be a return to the essence of art. It wouldn’t be any different from a stage play on Broadway, which necessarily changes and evolves with each performance. It wouldn’t be any different from live music – the communal experience that the vinyl record was invented to (poorly) replace.
Strictly speaking, time-frozen snapshots of Kanye’s albums will always be available in the traditional sense, via illegal downloads. In fact, within a day of its Tidal debut, half a million people already owned the un-ownable “The Life of Pablo (v 1.0),” via torrents. Those people are thieves, but thievery is the backbone of hip-hop. Kanye’s no stranger to software piracy – hell, his early career was bolstered by a healthy culture of mixtape bootleggery.
Kanye’s move to streaming is still just a first step in the process of music catching up to software. As long as music-as-data remains a one-to-many medium, with one artist pushing out occasional updates or revisions, we'll always be able to use pirated copies to relive the nostalgia of past versions, like a middle-aged mom dusting off her old-school Game Boy for a quick game of Tetris.
But if music ever embraces the possibilities that modern software affords – namely, a truly interactive and collaborative experience (think online games like World of Warcraft or The Sims Online, which die if the company stops running the server) – the concept of “buying” an album will be effectively be null.
We won’t own the art. We’ll just pay for access to it.