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 spotteenagers and grandmas grooving to music-streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and MOG, or ripping each other's CDsbut 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 jazzor 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 walldigital 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 wronga 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 dobut 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 musicjust 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