World history has come to a unique and remarkable point of convergence. With each new moment, current events are literally recreating, rewiring and redirecting the course of civilization. Technology is playing a tremendous role in all of this change. The capability to distribute information and to communicate with others is unprecedented. Data flows through the air in an invisible stream, reaching everywhere in microseconds. There is no information which can’t be assessed or assimilated- it is all ours for the taking.
Music is now assimilated mainly as data and, as a product, is barely viable anymore in/ as a medium which can be held or touched. Perhaps it is fitting that music ultimately becomes data, since it is initially born as data in the mind of it’s creator.
When music is acquired digitally (generally, from the internet), it is often compressed to a smaller file size in order to be assimilated expediently. Since expediency and convenience have become essential components in the consumption of music (as in every aspect of contemporary existence), audio files are commonly reduced to their smallest possible size for acquisition. In this way, a listener can download multiple music files and gradually build a large music library.
When an audio file is compressed, the audio file loses a good deal of it’s original sonic quality. In downloading large quantities of music, the sonic quality of the audio files being acquired is generally sacrificed in order to do so. Conveniently and expediently.
Compression is a component of various file formats into which digital music gets encoded for convenient/ expedient assimilation. These formats (MP3, MP4 and WMA, etc) tend to introduce other forms of sonic degradation, such as digital artifacts, aliasing noise, etc. The effect on an audio file (from being converted into one of these formats) is occasionally so extreme that the tonality of a familiar piece of music can become virtually unrecognizable to someone who has heard it many times.
Because a majority of people listen to music, either through tiny iPod headphones or through tinny speakers in their computers (and encoded into one of these compressed formats), it has been suggested by music business professionals (some of whom actually have the authority to enact these decisions) that making recordings sound good is no longer a necessity. Their argument is that no one will ever again hear all the details in any recording (due to the present modus operandi of how the majority of people choose to listen to music). With this in mind, it has become pointless (as well as illogical) to waste time and money on making recordings sound good. Besides, (these authorities continue) consumers don’t care about what they’re listening to- they just want more music files on their computers.
I have heard music industry professionals state this perspective repeatedly. They become quite emphatic about it- so much so, that one would think they had reinvented the wheel or discovered a cure for cancer. They consider a point of view such as this to be a futuristic (as well as practical) means by which the recording industry will be rescued from it’s impending doom.
It is interesting to note that up until the last 10-15 years, the point of recording was to actually make the subject of the recording sound as good as possible. (It is also interesting to consider that the art of recording has developed over more than a hundred years, through the refinement of recording techniques and new technology- only to end up in such a convoluted, de-evolved state.)
Naturally, this perspective is also apologia to encourage and to solicit recordings of extremely poor quality into the marketplace. The primary reason this perception has become viable is that those individuals, who are underwriting the creation of these recordings, want to make them as cheaply as possible. Their intention is simply to turn a profit without creating anything of value. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. (As another pertinent saying goes, you get what you give.)
The result of this perspective is now heard all over the radio and on nearly every contemporary commercially available recording in creation. The digital hardness and harshness, the technical inconsistencies, the deficit of care or interest and the lack of attention to quality that went into each and every one of these recordings is thoroughly apparent.
More than a few contemporary recordings are supervised by individuals who, at some point, romanticized the idea of working in music (or being a record producer), purchased a Pro Tools rig, started recording at home and eventually, networked their way into some real recording projects.
These people (who understand the practical applications of digital recording, but not the technical aspects) tend to inadvertently incorporate into their recordings, many of the pitfalls which coincidentally plague compressed file formats for downloaded music. Aliasing, digital artifacts, etc. have all become part of the milieu of the modern recordist as a result of his lack of knowledge and apparent disinterest in his craft.
The mindset behind this de-evolution (and, the resultant shoddy workmanship) is so widespread that the entire world is slowly becoming acclimated to what it sounds like.
A manager friend of mine recently told me that he encountered a strange anomaly regarding a recording one of his bands had released. He was glancing at a social networking site and noticed that some random kids had complained to one another about the sound of his bands’ recording. Apparently, their problem was that it sounded too “natural”. They were missing the artifice of digital sounding guitars and processed, autotuned voices. They had become so used to the harsh, ugly quality of contemporary recordings that they were discombobulated and registered distaste with a recording that actually sounded good and full. (Hearing this, somehow reminded me of the time I read about new strains of marine life which have been discovered thriving around underwater dumping sites for toxic chemical waste.)
On the other hand, a different friend who also works with music, had lost complete interest in listening to it for the past ten years. He felt that his passion for music had cooled and he could relate to it only as content- nothing more.
He recently bought an expensive turntable, speakers, and some high-end amplifiers for his office. He also brought in some old vinyl records. He began playing a few of his records and immediately noticed that something strange was happening to him. He realized that as he was playing his records, he began to relax. He felt his heart rate drop and he started to draw deep, calm breaths of air. His perception started to change- it was as if someone had switched on a light bulb in his brain. The harsh, abrasive texture of digitized music was gone and he could suddenly hear what his recordings were originally intended to sound like. After ten years of disinterest, he began to love music again.
What ultimately determines the quality of digitally delivered music is the amount of storage available to house it as data. Data storage capability is growing exponentially (as is all related technology). As we have gradual access to larger amounts of storage, the resolution of audio files will improve dramatically, as will sonic quality.
These changes will also affect the quality of what consumers are able to hear, and to experience. When they are eventually exposed en masse to music at much higher sonic quality, (and bandwidth) many people will experience what my friend with the turntable experienced- a sensation like having a light bulb switched on in their brains. They will be exposed to the full range of sound that they were unable to hear when they were listening to their compressed audio files (as well as their CD’s, WAV files, AIFF’s, etc).
Hearing the difference between a low-bandwidth, low resolution audio format and a high bandwidth/ resolution audio format is like opening a door and walking into a new world. Suddenly, there is color everywhere. Everything which was previously dull and uninteresting, becomes vibrant and pulses with life.
When the time comes that everyone has the opportunity to hear high resolution audio, (and it will come, as all technology is developed firmly upon the twin pillars of progress and planned obsolescence) it will be interesting to listen to recordings which were made in this period- the early part of the twenty-first century. Those harsh sounding recordings with digital artifacts. Recordings, many of which were made by people with little or no technical skills, at the request of other people who wanted to make them as cheaply as possible, for still other people listening to the final product as MP3 or MP4 files through computer speakers and on iPods.
Myopia and terror can swallow people whole. Especially those people who still think the old music business can/ will/ should be reinvented. The same people who believe that poor sounding recordings are acceptable to the general public and, that compressed, low bandwidth file formats are going to be playback standards forever. Their logic is that cheapening the quality of music (on many levels) will give consumers what they want (and somehow make music more appealing to a mass of people who supposedly don’t care about what they are listening to).
This commerce- driven “pragmatism” reminds of a quote from “The Godfather”.
The Dons of the Five Families have come together for a meeting. Much of their discussion focuses on incorporating the sale of heroin into their business. One of the Dons- Don Zaluchi insists that he doesn’t want heroin to be sold in any neighborhoods which are under the jurisdiction of any of the Families, or to children. He then goes on to state that, he has no issue with keeping heroin in communities which are primarily black. His reasoning is, “They’re animals, anyway- let them lose their souls.”
What difference does it make if we sell disposable music that sounds bad? The consumers don’t care- they’ll listen to any garbage we sling at them. They’re animals anyway- let them lose their souls.
You get what you give.
From a retrospective/ comparative standpoint, popular music from this period will probably come across as almost comical to a listener in the future. It won’t merely be amusing in how disposable the music actually was, but in how poorly and amateurishly it was presented. How badly it was recorded. How bad it sounds.
Sonically comparing recorded music from this era to how music will be presented in the future, could be a similar juxtaposition to how a random recording on an Edison Cylinder might be compared to Dark Side of the Moon in DSD.
When people discuss the future of popular music and pontificate on methods to make it more accessible, simpler, smaller and easier, they don’t realize that they are participating in dumbing popular music down. By finding methods to make music more appealing and palatable as a commodity, they are actually making it far less appealing to everyone.
If they really want (or anyone really wants) to make music more viable, they should start by trying to make it better. Or even amazing. As in, brilliant, classic. Mindboggling. And, not merely sonically.
One day, there will no longer be compressed file formats to mask bad sounding, poorly recorded music and everything that was ever recorded is going to be heard in all it’s raging glory. Warts and all. New technology (which will wind up having an ironically karmic role in this instance) will see to that- it’s only a matter of time. And when that happens, anyone who was ever a recording dilettante will have something to answer for.
Somewhat germane to this, is what a potential popular music historian in the future (or someone in a potential future looking back nostalgically on the past) might select as defining musical moments and high points from the present era.
Each age has music which defines it perfectly. Everyone has songs which bring up a myriad of emotions and underscore special moments for them. Everyone knows where they were when a specific song which is meaningful to them might have been playing. What songs will we have to look back on, which will inform us of where we were, or what we were doing at these distinct points in time? What, in the lexicon of modern popular song, will cause us to reminisce over the lyrical, distant music of a first love or unforgettable moments of triumph or sadness from one’s youth?
Perhaps “My Humps” will be the “Paradise By The Dashboard Lights” of it’s era.