The very nature of what constitutes music has changed drastically during my lifetime, a shift so radical the business has, in a sense, come full-circle. During my earliest years listening to music, the radio was the only source of finding out about new bands, other than digging through the vapid prose of underground magazines. It was through the radio that we discovered what music could be, and we were rewarded by programmers who still felt an obligation to play music of a certain quality.
Singles existed as more than a way to generate video plays, they were a business unto themselves. My first experiences buying music were going down to the record store to buy the single I had heard and loved twice an hour, every hour, for as long as it was still popular. This was back in the days before CDs became ubiquitous. Those early purchases were on cassette tapes, an important, yet utterly horrible, medium. The rectangular boxes they came in still sit on a shelf, reminders of a simpler time.
Bands were, in essence, machines designed to sell singles at that point. The album, as a format, was the profit driver, but those sales were dependent on the lead single to hook people into buying an unknown product. We walked into every experience blind, with no way of knowing whether that shiny new record was going to be the next revelation in our lives, or another notch in the long lineup of crushing disappointments.
There is a sense of nostalgia that resonates for those days, though it seems to mainly come from artists themselves. They yearn for a day when people weren’t able to pre-judge their music, when they couldn’t dismiss a band on the basis of thirty second clips that might be missing the best parts of the songs. What they’re really doing, though, is pining for a day when they were able to sucker listeners into buying records of questionable quality through the promise of that first single.
Countless times, I remember hearing a single that amazed me, only to find out that the band was nothing at all like that teaser. The digital revolution may not have started because of people of my generation feeling betrayed by the label executives playing us for fools, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case. Nevertheless, the album was the lesser product.
It would not stay that way for long, as the democratization of music that came along with the digital revolution would change the way we, as fans, experienced our music. Being able to absorb entire albums with a few clicks of a mouse, we found ourselves inundated with more music than we could have ever dreamed of. I went from being a casual fan who thought of music as pleasant entertainment to someone who became obsessed with seeking out as much music as I possibly could, because there was an entire world now at my fingertips. When I heard about an artist, I was no longer resigned to reading descriptions of what they had done, all the while waiting for the chance to pick up one album to find out for myself. I could experience an artist’s entire discography in relatively short order, soaking up enough music to forever alter my brain chemistry.
It was by digging through the digital swamp that I became acquainted with many of my favorite bands, a phenomenon that has greatly shaped the way I think. While I can understand the reticence of artists as they watched the world around them change, it was the the greatest thing that could have ever happened for music. The business suffered greatly, of that there is no doubt, but music has never been stronger or more vibrant.
The amount of music that is released with each passing year is staggering. I listen to as much as I think I humanly can, while still saving time for my cherished favorites, and even then I am barely able to scratch the surface of the limited scope of my interest. There is an inhuman amount of music out there, constantly being thrown my way. It is impossible to catch it all, and though it saddens me to think about how many great records I must be missing out on, I resign myself to knowing I’m doing the best I can.
Through this process, where music has become decentralized, democratized, and available to anyone who wants to make or listen to it, we have in a way moved back to the beginning. If file-sharing opened the flood gates for albums to regain their prominence, it would ultimately collapse under the weight of its own hubris. Music became so easy, and so plentiful, that there is no longer the collective attention span for all but a few bands to become noticed.
In that sense, the single has regained its foothold as the driving force. Knowing there are thousands of other bands waiting in line for their chance to impress me, every band is in some respect reduced to a three minute audition; the single.
In my role as a critic, I try to spend as much of my time as possible writing about good bands and great music. Doing that means having to sort through the endless stacks of albums, paring them down without investing the time necessary to fully judge their relative quality. I have to, though I am loathe to admit it, use the chosen single as a barometer. With each new album’s release approaching, the single is inevitable, and it gives me a framework of an opinion that holds true more often than I would have believed in my younger days.
In my youth, singles were designed to sell records. They catered to the mainstream sound, doing everything in their power to hook listeners, to convince them the rest of the album would follow suit. Today, singles (especially in the metal world) are about showing the essence of who a band is, and what they’re all about. They don’t pander to trends to the same degree as in the past, which has turned them into a solid vehicle for making snap decisions as to which albums to invest time in.
In a long, roundabout way, the shift towards digital music refined the old way of doing business, leaving us with the same format, but done in a more honest and effective manner. The days of feeling ripped of because a band’s hit song on the radio was a lie are over, but the importance of making that first impression is as strong as ever.
The digital revolution changed everything in another manner; the medium through which we listen.
I grew up at the tail end of the age of cassettes, a time when music was portable, though highly inconvenient. Cassettes were a better alternative than vinyl, at the time, although they were a rudimentary solution to a problem that deserved much better. The task of scanning through the black filament in search of the song you wanted to hear was frustrating, all the while accompanied by the drone and hiss of the tape rubbing against the heads. We lived with it, because it was all we knew.
CDs brought digital music to the world, and installed a set of problems and beliefs that have yet to be discarded, even after all these years. By all estimation, the switch to a digital format should have been the answer everyone was looking for. Such thinking is laughably naïve, which time has borne out.
The era of the CD was a boom for both the industry and the fans. We were able to get music in a convenient package, one that for the first time removed the obstacle of avoiding the songs we knew weren’t worth listening to. Getting past them took one press of a button, a task we had previously only wished for. The industry was happy as well, having an audience more than eager to snatch up as many of the wonderful plastic discs as they could make. What no one noticed was that faulty thinking was built into the equation.
That period of time didn’t just feature new albums selling by the boatload. Collectors who had amassed towering piles of vinyl and cassettes were repurchasing their favorites, artificially inflating the numbers. Later, when the music industry started to spiral down, it was those bloated statistics from which the death march was started. It was a dishonest argument that didn’t ring true for many who lived through the days when record companies could get away with anything, and as such sympathy was not free-flowing.
Along the way, the actual product, and not the business behind it, took a turn for the controversial. A legion of audiophiles popped up, all of whom swore we were being sold an inferior product. An argument for quality is one I appreciate, but this crusade was quixotic.
Fans of vinyl have always sworn analog audio is superior to digital, but they do so without a full understanding of what it is they’re hearing. The initial comparisons were indeed skewed in vinyl’s favor. The first generation of CDs were thin, brittle, and generally of less than ideal sonic quality. At the time, technology had yet to catch up to possibility, so engineers hadn’t yet figured out the optimal way of producing music for the new medium. Taking the vinyl master and throwing it onto a CD was never going to sound as rich and full as it did on vinyl, because frequencies had to be cut out to prevent the needle from skipping out of the groove. Without the inherent coloring of vinyl, the master was thin, brittle, and lacking in depth and low end. It was the nature of the medium.
Over time, producers adapted to the format, and CDs began to sound better, deeper, and richer than every before. Without the limitations of a needle and groove, CDs were able to utilize more of the original sound than ever before. Unfortunately, the seemingly limitless ability of CDs moved producers too far in the opposite direction. The envelope was pushed year after year, with bands trying to outdo one another by making the loudest record possible, thereby garnering the most attention.
What happened was that a breaking point was found, a phenomenon known as the loudness war. The loudness war is not just a battle over the fidelity of the music we listen to, it’s a fundamental shift in the balance between art and commerce. Recordings were pushed so far that the actual sound began to bend and distort, the lush sonic landscapes so carefully recorded crumbling under the weight of poor decision making.
Culminating in the most high-profile example, Metallica’s “Death Magnetic”1, the loudness war has been a blight on music as an entity. Bands and producers spent inordinate sums of money to make records that even they knew didn’t sound as good as they could. Despite a growing outcry from a small percentage of listeners, the trend could not be stopped. Year after year, more and more albums were crushed to the point of being painful to listen to, some to the point where it became torturous to endure the whole record in a single sitting.
Artistry was thrown out the door. Making an album with beautiful sounds was no longer a possibility. Even bands that took pride in their compositions as something beyond crass commercialism were victim to the shifting tide, their albums stripped of the vibrancy and dynamics that were built into the songs. Some, like Rush’s “Vapor Trails” would later be completely remixed to fix the problems that were baked into the original version. That such a drastic step needed to be taken should have sent a message, but has not. The average record today is far too loud, and less pleasing to the ear than they ever should be.
It is in this light that the resurgence of vinyl makes sense. Those who can hear the mutilation of music that is pervasive in every genre today harken back to a time when music was made to sound its best, not to compete when broken down to a waveform.
The uptick in vinyl sales is predicated on the belief that vinyl sounds inherently better than its digital cousin. The argument is flawed, because the entities being compared are not equals. Vinyl from the classic days sounded better than the first CDs, because the music was made to be pressed to vinyl. Music today sounds better on vinyl, in some cases, not because of the superiority of the format, but because separate mixes are made specifically to be pressed to acetate. In the majority of modern vinyl records, the exact same music that is on the CD version is filling the groove, and the listener’s preconceptions are what make it sound better.
Our minds are better equipped to trick ourselves than we would like to admit. Our senses are not reliable recorders of the information we take in, which leads us into wrongly formed assumptions. If we already have the idea that vinyl sound better in our heads, we will be inclined to agree with that thought, regardless of what we hear. It is a phenomenon called bias reinforcement, which occurs throughout life. Whether in a political argument, or here with music, we want our beliefs reinforced, whether they are true or not.
The truth of the situation is that CDs and digital files are capable of being superior to the old formats. They do not have built in limitations the way that vinyl did, meaning that a properly produced record can be more faithfully translated through digital channels. That they aren’t is not an indictment of the format, but a black stain on the bands and producers who have allowed their art to become subservient to the whims of the marketplace. Louder music may get attention on the radio, but it slanders music as an art form, and has the same effect as colorizing a classic black-and-white movie.
We must add to the decision the hipster fetishism of all that is inconvenient. The subset of people who drive trends are the people who are most concerned with being ahead of the curve, of being the first to arrive at the next big thing. They believe that once something becomes popular, it is their duty to shun it. There is a race to embrace the past, to romanticize the simpler time they never knew as not being as different from today as we would like to think. These are the people who most embrace vinyl, a collection of the misguided who prefer being cool to being right.
There exists an even smaller group who worship at the alter of cassettes, and even those who prefer 8-tracks, but their numbers are minute enough to be invisible. Even they realize the idea of simplicity they have in their minds is incompatible with the sub-standard quality of those formats. Vinyl, however, carries enough cache, through the misguided beliefs about fidelity that permeate, to make the needle move. No amount of technical evidence, or even blind listening tests, will ever be enough to sway them from their convictions. Vinyl, for them, is more a lifestyle than an actual musical choice.
What digital music cannot do is recreate the fanaticism that comes with being a collector. Through several generations of media, music fans have been collectors, amassing stacks of albums that are a visible representation of who we are.
A record collection is not just a pile of vinyl and plastic, it represents a lifetime of memories captured through sound. Songs and albums trap our emotions, intertwining with the events that shape who we are. By pulling out an album and looking through the liner notes, we can transport ourselves back to an earlier time, and dive into the memories that are sometimes fuzzy. Listening to those songs again can stir up feelings that are hard to recreate any other way.
All of that is lost in the digital world. A hard drive filled with portable music may be convenient, and certainly has its place, but it divorces us from a fundamental part of loving music. The connection between artist and listener is only as strong as the handle by which we hold on, one that is non-existent in a digital file. Existing as bits of data and a list of file names is not the same thing as picking up a physical record and being able to feel it in your hands. We don’t really own the music, and everything that comes along with it, if it can disappear at any moment.
For all the benefits of digital music, the drawbacks are nearly cataclysmic. As easy as it is o find and acquire music, it’s just as easy to lose it forever. One mistimed crash, and an entire life’s worth of music has to be gathered once again from scratch. Such a loss should strike fear into the heart of a true music fan. No matter how vast the collection, the idea of being separated from my favorite records is one that I could not fathom. While it is easier than ever before to reacquire the music, it’s impossible to remember every song and every album that means something. There are too many emotions and memories tied up in music for me to have to rely on my mind to keep an accurate list. Physical records are the great reminder, an ever-present stack of catalysts ready to take me on a trip back in time.
Furthermore, digital music erases the pride of being a fan. It used to mean something to be a fan of a band, to have all their albums. It showed dedication, because keeping those albums near you is an act of intimacy. When thousands of bands can fit on a device and exist to you only as names on a digital screen, being a fan means nothing. The effort it used to take to buy a record, take it off the shelf, and play it, was a sign of dedication. Today, music is so easy we lose sight of what it used to mean. It has become a disposable part of our lives, a sad state of affairs I try my best to avoid being a part of.
Maybe it sounds old-fashioned to say, but there was an elegance to the old standard of being a fan. Times change, norms shift, and I can’t say I blame anyone for taking the easy route. What worries me is that when we, as fans, treat the music as disposable, what incentive is there for the artists to pour their hearts and souls into their music? That we could be responsible for lowering the quality of the music available to us is my greatest fear, one I can’t write off as paranoid. It is becoming more and more real with each passing year, and though I will continue to love music as I always have, I sense I am soon to be one of the few.