When the Music's Over

It's one of those good news/bad news stories: more people are listening to music than ever before, but the major record labels are in dire straits. Some of the reasons for the record industry's malaise are easy to spot—teenagers and grandmas grooving to music-streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and MOG, or ripping each other's CDs—but the music industry's problems run deeper than lost sales. Digital audio mortally wounded recorded music's creative mojo in 1982, and the record industry never fully recovered.

The arrival in that year of the Compact Disc at first brought booming sales and profits, so digital's negative effects weren't immediately obvious. Labels large and small reissued their back catalogs on CD as fast as pressing plants could pump out silver discs. The audiophile community split into pro- and anti-digital factions: Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holt, quickly embraced the new format, while The Abso!ute Sound's editor Harry Pearson remained staunchly anti-digital throughout the 1980s.

CD sales were so brisk that no one saw that digital was stifling creativity in rock and jazz—or was it just a twist of fate that the analog era coincided with rock's greatest creative leaps? From its beginnings in the early 1950s through the early 1980s, rock reinvented itself every few years. Bill Haley and the Comets' first hits, "Crazy Man Crazy" and "Rock Around the Clock," released in 1953 and '54, respectively, sounded dated by the time Chuck Berry released "Johnny B. Goode" in 1958. The times were changing fast; the early 1960s brought girl groups like the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, and the Supremes, and surf music had a good run. A couple of years later, the soul music of Motown and Stax had people dancing in the streets, and rock forever lost its roll when the Beatles landed in New York City in early '64, and Dylan went electric in '65.

By 1967, West Coast bands like the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, and Santana had raised the stakes again. The changes in the '70s weren't as fast or as furious, but the music transitioned to mellower singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Carole King and hard rock from Queen and Led Zeppelin. The era of new wave and punk in the late '70s crested with Elvis Costello and the Clash, after which rock hit a brick wall—digital recording. The party was over, and the creative leaps grew smaller and less frequent.

Michael Jackson's Thriller, released in 1982, was the biggest event of an otherwise musically pathetic decade, and while some were still saying that rock would never die, it was in a deep coma. Rap and hip-hop, born in the digital era, were the only new musical forms that had any real traction, but they initially thrived outside the rock establishment. The 1990s brought stirrings from Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but the decade was mostly unremarkable, and the 2000s were no better.

Most of the 1960s and '70s bands that are still together and making new music pack their concert set lists with their old, analog-era hits. The Rolling Stones, for example, can still sell out stadiums, but no one gives a hoot about the Jagger-Richards tunes from the six studio albums they've recorded since 1983. Stacked up against the Stones' analog efforts, their best digital-era albums look downright pathetic.

The analog trajectory of jazz had a much longer arc, starting with ragtime at the turn of the last century, then progressing from Dixieland through swing, big band, bebop, Afro-Cuban, free jazz, and fusion in the late 1970s, before digital stagnation brought evolution to a halt. Some might say that jazz never recovered its groove. Jazz schools turn out technically proficient players year after year, but the schooled generations have yet to produce a single talent on the level of a Coltrane, an Ellington, a Mingus, a Monk, or a Davis. Jazz still has terrific players, sure, but great composers? Not so much.

Don't get me wrong—a lot of excellent rock has been recorded since the dawn of the digital age. I love Arcade Fire, Avett Brothers, Bright Eyes, the Dirtbombs, Drive-By Truckers, Iron and Wine, My Morning Jacket, The National, and the White Stripes. But today's rock music scene is fragmented; it doesn't coalesce into a recognizable form or movement.

There were megasales chart successes in the digital age, but you no longer have to sell millions of CDs, downloads, or LPs to have a No.1 record on a Billboard chart. In early February 2011, Amos Lee scored a No.1 on the chart by selling 40,000 copies of his new album, Mission Bell, in a week, making it the poorest-selling No.1 album since 1991, when SoundScan began tracking record sales. I don't think today's bands are any less talented than they were before 1983, or that the record business's greed has thwarted creativity. But something went wrong, and the industry doesn't appear to be able to conjure new types of rock or jazz that connect with people on a mass level.

Is digital the cause of music's doldrums, or has it been the insatiable drive for technical perfection that has sapped music's spirit? No one can say for sure, but it's a fact that music's function has morphed so slowly from foreground to background listening that most people haven't noticed it happening. One thing is certain: Recorded music doesn't engage listeners the way it did in the analog days. Music now serves as a backdrop as people talk, read, drive, work, exercise, etc. Foreground listening is what audiophiles do—but other than us, very few people really listen to music anymore, even when attending live concerts. If recorded music isn't worth your undivided attention, it's not worth paying for.

I'm not claiming that digital has or will destroy music—just what's left of the record business. Musicians will continue to play music, and concerts won't disappear, but income from recorded music will continue to decline. Obviously, we can't turn back the clock and return to the analog era; I'm just not sure what it would take to get people listening again.—Steve Guttenberg

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Comments
MikeMaine's picture
Huh?    The format killed the

Huh?    The format killed the music?   Not an iota of support for the statement.   I assume the computer killed literature.

fricc's picture
It is not the "digital medium" that saps creativity

It is the absence of mind altering drugs and the mindset that goes with that.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating drugs here, but we live in an age of reasonability and consent/content. Nobody is dreaming about anything, no one is expecting anything big to enter their lives. We're doing OK just like that. No Creativity, that's it.

When I was a kid (late 70's - early 80's) I used to spend my evenings with my friends listening to music, gather around a turntable and listening to stuff and talking about it for hours. Music was integral part of our life and the way we tried to understand the world.

Would you imagine any contemporary teenager do that today?

With love,

 - Fabio

soulful.terrain's picture
cRAP "music"

 

 The mindless, crotch grabbing Rap (music), and I use the term music lightly, killed music along with the radio stations that recieve the payola from the industry thugs to play this vile crap at least 3 times on the hour, every hour to appeal to the lowest common denominator in society. Not to mention the culture surrounding this violent, demeaning to women crap.

With record labels like: Murder Incorporated.... well, draw your own conclusions.

We need a musical renaissance to bring back real, quality music.

goblineye's picture
"shut up Steve"

I used to have this friend whose only contribution to party conversation would be to say something ignorant, unfounded, and inflamatory - to which we would all reply "shut up Steve". (Really. his name was Steve.)

I understand that Steve Guttenberg makes posts like this to "get the conversation started", but really Steve? Digital did all this damage?

You don't think that record companies have been going for the low hanging fruit for so long that their arms have gotten short?

Do you remember something else that happened in the 80's? Namely MTV?

Suddenly all those cool rockers from the 70's looked fat and old.

But then all the "flavor of the month" bands that the label signed, flamed out and couldn't get any more label support because they had terrible contracts. Rappers fell into this trap the same way glam-rockers did. No label loyalty led to no fan loyalty. Who is going to be loyal to a band with one album?

Today's musician (and I mean symphony orchestras as well) don't need big labels. They have the tools to record and distribute for themselves - and that IS thanks to digital.

I for one am glad to see the labels reap what they sowed by their own shortsightedness.

 

 

 

 

WillWeber's picture
"digital" dribble

Dear Steve,

Absurd!

It was the industry that killed the industry. But creativity is only more enabled by the tools digital technology. And it provides access to much more music, some is bad, some great.

Well iPods can be blamed for a temporary lull in quality, and redbook CDs somewhat, these for being the immature first representatives. The early entries are the babies of the possibilities of any revolution. And a massive revolution is unfolding.

Digital is not inherently flawed, not anymore than atoms are. Analog is actually digital at the atomic level. So it's a matter of resolution, as new digital media is aptly demonstrating.

Creativity has not been killed, it's just that the past industry has squelched our access, and fed us their version of profiteering. But the broad access, along with more mature digital media, is changing all that. But along with all the available access, we will need to weed through the fields to reap the flowers.

My digital keyboard has taken my creative potentials to incredible new levels. My analog piano was fun, the new tech is inspiring and seemingly limitless. It's also easier to make a mess of things, but creativity is a journey of adventure and discovery. There is an ever unfolding landscape of unexplored territory from musicians everywhere. Imagine if Bach had this kind of technology!

If you can't embrace the new colors of the musical revolution, fine, your prerogative, and sadly your loss. But please don't make sweeping assertions with no basis in fact. As a "journalist" you have certain responsibilities.

Thanks,

WillW

WillWeber's picture
double "digital" dribble

Dear Steve,

Absurd!

It was the industry that killed the industry. But creativity is only more enabled by the tools digital technology. And it provides access to much more music, some is bad, some great.

Well iPods can be blamed for a temporary lull in quality, and redbook CDs somewhat, these for being the immature first representatives. The early entries are the babies of the possibilities of any revolution. And a massive revolution is unfolding.

Digital is not inherently flawed, not anymore than atoms are. Analog is actually digital at the atomic level. So it's a matter of resolution, as new digital media is aptly demonstrating.

Creativity has not been killed, it's just that the past industry has squelched our access, and fed us their version of profiteering. But the broad access, along with more mature digital media, is changing all that. But along with all the available access, we will need to weed through the fields to reap the flowers.

My digital keyboard has taken my creative potentials to incredible new levels. My analog piano was fun, the new tech is inspiring and seemingly limitless. It's also easier to make a mess of things, but creativity is a journey of adventure and discovery. There is an ever unfolding landscape of unexplored territory from musicians everywhere. Imagine if Bach had this kind of technology!

If you can't embrace the new colors of the musical revolution, fine, your prerogative, and sadly your loss. But please don't make sweeping assertions with no basis in fact. As a "journalist" you have certain responsibilities.

Thanks,

WillW

Glotz's picture
Hey, go to the Forum...

These are great responses, add to em at the Forum area!

adamdea's picture
No really, how dumb can you get, Steve?

There are so many non-sequiturs, banalities and idiocies in this article, so many tell tale signs of selection of "evidence" to match tiresome case,  that you would fall asleep before getting half way through listing them.

But in order to see how feeble it is you only have to run the opening sentence "It's one of those good news/bad news stories: more people are listening to music than ever before...." next to the last "...I'm just not sure what it would take to get people listening again" and miss out the drivel between.

volvic's picture
More choice

I think we have more choice than ever before, we just have to look for it.  Music stores started to close here in Montreal in the early 80's for what reason I do not know.  I know that the record industry has been crying over copyright infringement of its music from all sources for as long as I can remember; radio, tape, vcr, CD, hard drives etc.   That was not the reason for their demise rather the musical bottlenecks they created by pretending they were the only game in town for music distribution and the high prices they used to charge.  Remember when the same artist cost 24.99 in CD format and down the aisle the same artist in cassette format was 12.99? Thank God that has ended, I am not shedding a tear for companies that destroyed and cheated many an artist from what was rightly theirs.  I wish our politicians were a little more intelligent in seeing what they really are; greedy corporations that have built their business models on old antiquated practises.  Good riddance.

Repdetect's picture
You're dreaming

"Digital audio mortally wounded recorded music's creative mojo in 1982"

Please stop sleeping with Fremer the Deaf, it's savaging any credibility you have.

fork's picture
Partly Right About the Digital Age

First, how does Stereophile attract these people who post some of the comments above? You write an article to posit a theory and they can't think of any better response than to just call you an idiot. Go get a library card and build yourself some intellect (pick up a book on civility and manners while you're there), before wasting our time with your posts.

On the subject at hand. I agree with those who have said the record industry killed music by going for low-hanging fruit and a quick buck. The negative influence of MTV, mentioned above, cannot be underestimated. In the past 30 years, there are only a handful of groups (Radiohead comes to mind) that have done anything totally original and have endured. The Seattle bands of the 90s built a cult following locally, before going to the mass market and then dictated much of the terms of their music. In the 2000s I saw Jason Mraz play several times in a San Diego coffee house. Few other times in my life have I seen a singer/songwriter, up close, with such virtuosity and raw talent. His first major record release came out, produced by some Dave Matthews producer, and it was so dumbed down, compressed and sapped of that virtuosity that I couldn't listen to it; that album went Platinum.

Where I do agree with Steve, that the advent of the digital age played a role, is that CD material was of inferior sound quality, typically played on gear of inferior sound quality (boom boxes) and combined with the uniformly lousy garbage released by the record companies in the 1980s. Most kids who grew up after the 1970s have a very poor reference point for good music.

On the other hand, let's not forget that by 1982, everything about the 80s sucks, digital or not...Music, Movies, TV, Cars, Fashion, etc. Listen to anyone who's nostalgic about something from the 80's and I'll guarantee it's about something they encountered in their formative years. It's definitely not that Knight Rider or the A-Team weren't thoroughly crappy shows.

I think the future of music and audio is really bright. The gear is better than ever. Digital converters are now competitive, sound-wise, with turntables costing many times as much, with the functionality and power of the PC and the Internet. Master-quality 24/384 recordings are in-store for this decade. And the power of the Internet will make record companies somewhat irrelevant and transfer their power to the listener. All good things for the future of listening.

mavfan1's picture
so wrong, and so predictable

 Though there are exceptions, apparently many people believe that music "died" about the time they were in their early 20s.   The "best" time for music was from before their time up until they got out of college, started going to work and stopped listening to the radio as much.

There was plenty of absolute crap music made in the 50s 60s and 70s and lots of good music made in the 80s 90s and beyond.

We should all just wear that shirt The Onion sold that says "Your favorite band sucks" and get it over with.

"Michael Jackson's Thriller, released in 1982, was the biggest event of an otherwise musically pathetic decade"

The 70s were the true musically pathetic decade.  I'll take the 80s over the 70s and it's "great" songs like "Wildfire" & "You Light Up My Life" , groups like 1910 Fruitgum Company, The Bay City Rollers, and solo acts like Sean Cassidy.    Gah, the 70s, what crap!  

 

 

 

  

dalethorn's picture
Bad quality music - what went wrong?

We need some examples here, and who those examples are targeted to. For example, I tried some new remastered Sinatra CD's and also digital downloads, and compared to older copies I had, the newer ones were sonically "cleaner", but louder in the sense that the balance between singer and orchestra was altered by making the voice louder, which I found unpleasant. There is a wealth of info on Loudness Wars, so no more about that.

As to rap and hip-hop, they are *the* creative space for youth today, so as art I can't complain. But as a social issue, they have made society more primitive, and not for a worthy cause I think, as punk music was worthy in spite of (or because of) how primitive it was. As U.S. society becomes more primitive, it enables more young people for World Policing in an occupation that relieves some of the youth unemployment. I'll leave that for everyone else to decide its merits.

When it comes to Grammy type material, I ignore it.

But digital - digital is incredible freedom. There is absolutely no sane way to argue against me having an immense library of audio and video and documents .... all in my pocket 24/7 - no sane argument against that is even possible. As a society, we didn't get stupider because we started writing things down instead of keeping everything in our heads. We got stupider because we didn't write enough. People aren't ignorant because they have a bunch of 128 kbps tracks on their phone - they're ignorant because they haven't the time or educationally-enabled intelligence to open up to the other possibilities.

Digital, and particularly affordable high-quality digital recording gear has made music so democratic that even high school girls can record their own music without getting help from boys or adults. I have many examples of that thanks to the original Napster circa 2000. If there is a concern for the Music Industry, I can't think of why off the top of my head. Anything good being done today, even high quality vinyl discs of classic albums get only one thing from the Music Industry - the rights to produce and distribute the discs. Any actual material contribution by the industry is long passe.

roadster's picture
Who's at fault?

The problem is not the technology, rather how it is used.

Which looks better, your brand new flat screen, high definition, digital TV or that old cathode ray tube with a static tuner and rabbit ears?

bubblepuppy's picture
Recording Fantasy

Certainly something that changed in the creation of popular music coincident with the acceptance of digital recording:  less frequent random match-ups. I recall a story about Fantasy Studios in Berkeley during the Sixites and Seventies. At any particular time, you might find John Fogerty, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, various members of the Dead and Airplane in the hallways and lounges. This cross-pollination might result in spontaneous jam sessions, collaborations and guest spots on one another's projects. With digital, it's easy for a producer to simply load a project on to a removeable hard drive and fly to another studio for overdubs, or just send the file to a remote studio, where a session musician provides a part, often with no interaction with other musicians at all. (Think of the Bono/Sinatra sessions, where the two men never met.) 

stuffedspacedog's picture
Are we really having this conversation?

Music dies when people no longer listen.  People's love of music dies when they stop listening to anything new.  At that point they tend to blame other things for their own distress.

Yes there's an issue with artists making revenue in the new democratised world of getting their music heard but are those artists more or less exploited?  I'm one of them, I don't make much money from my music but at least people are able to hear it.

If you think that any technological development has killed music then I'm sorry, you're not very inquisitive.

Lack of revenue doesn't kill music, we're mostly quite retarded in our conviction to still make it and resigned to the fact that mostly it won't make us rich.

If you think music is dead, you've stopped listening.

I'm 46 (establishing age-based credentials) and I would like Steve to get off his arse and really listen to the incredible range of music that is happening right now.

The Beatles were not the best band in the world ever but if you hold onto that idea then you have nowhere to go.

Humbug I say!  This is conservative buffoonery worthy of Rick Santorum.

CDs killed music?  No people like Steve kill music when they no longer attempt to broaden their horizons.

Steve, tell us what recent music you've listened to?  If you didn't like the mainstream have you explored the margins?  If you haven't explored the margins, have you just given up on music?

Listen to my 3 hour album of music based on the Svalbard archipelago, you'll probably hate it but I do what I can to promote myself.  No label would have signed me to make this, I made it anyway and it is good

http://www.archive.org/details/Svalbard-2011

Ageing tends to make a lot of people close down in their tastes and interests.  There is a revenue issue for artists.  Most of those artists would have never got through the door in the old record company hegemony.

It's a newer world and we need to make sense of it, that's all.

benleo's picture
Steve Is Absolutely Right

Born 1956 I heard the end of BS white boy pop listening to my 1946 born  brother's records. (Mostly 45s.) We had a recordplayer; more a piece of liviing room furniture. We would put records on the turntable sit on the floor and listen to music.  We started listening to  FM radio in the mid to late 60s and went from Pop, Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits and the Beatles to Jimmy Hendrix, Blood Sweat and Tears, Cream, Traffic etc.  (First concert: Joe Cocker: Mad Dogs and Englishmen)

Saturdays spent going to record stores.  Pouring over cool album art. Listening to 8 minute songs on FM radio.  Smoking (you know what) and discovering girls.

There was no internet, there was no cable, there were three major networks and new music was a major event.  I wore out Tommy and several other albums. Concerts were major life events.

Digital allows much more music to be recorded and distributed and allows tastes to become disparate, segmented and particular.  The downside of this: no major musical movements.  Now a musicians discovers, invents, creates new music quickly, with little financial investment and can have it recorded and heard online. He doesn't need a major label to make money and our quirky idiosyncratic tastes can be indulged.  A musician doesn't have to find the next mega trend, he can make do ok selling 40,000 downloads by recording what strikes his fancy.

My prediction is fewer mega stars, lots of very diverse different music that appeals strongly to small collections of fans, vs. lots of culling by records companies, less music recorded and available but all of them were trying to find the next megatrend.

What is the positive? Something for anyone/everyone.  What is the negative? No more major mega trends.

There was a richness to having the physical album cover.  Reading album liner notes, looking at the photos on the albums, putting a large piece of vinyl on a platter, start the motor, putting down the tone arm and waiting for the magic to unfold before your very ears.  

I miss the physicality and my memories of buying, collecting and playing LPs. However, I can indulge my every musical whim online, from the comfort of my home, whenever I want, based on the present delivery of digital music.  

I am nostalgic like Steve. Those that didn't live through it cannot truly get what it was like.  

I think Steve's column is a challenge, but a good one and fun to read and consider.

Stop being so critical! Enjoy the discourse.

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