No one ever had to pay for recorded musicit was always "free" on the radioand the home taping of LPs, the copying of cassettes, and, later, burning CDs made buying music optional. Then Napster and other file-sharing sites kicked it up a notch and made it very easy to assemble a 10,000-song collection without spending a dime. Now, Spotify, BitTorrent, SoundCloud, MOG, and YouTube make music instantly accessible on demand. It raises the question: Will music lovers continue to buy music? Paying for recorded music is now, more than ever, a voluntary act.
I have a hunch that the overwhelming majority of Stereophile readers have pretty decent hi-fis, but they probably listen to a lot more music in their cars, or through computer speakers, or on the go with headphones. I'm in that last group, and log more hours listening to Jerry Harvey's astonishing JH13 Freqphase custom-molded in-ear 'phones than to my Magnepan MG3.7 speakersbut music moves me more through the 3.7s.
Before 1982, when the Compact Disc arrived, I didn't love LPs. Analog was already very old tech, and while every trick in the book had been applied to turntables and LPs, they still wowed & fluttered at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. Vinyl's deficiencies were legion: warped LPs were more common than truly flat ones; surface noise, clicks, and pops sang along with the tune; LPs rarely had perfectly centered spindle holes; inner-groove distortions popped up at inopportune moments; and each time an LP is played, its sound quality degrades, if only ever so slightly. The LP format? Imperfect sound forever.
Even when Loudon Wainwright III (left in photo with Ramblin' Jack Elliot) was a young man he was writing autobiographical songs, and his old themes of family, sex, and death resonate more deeply on his new record, Older Than My Old Man Now. He usually performs solo, armed with just an acoustic guitar or a banjo, but most of his recordings present more heavily produced versions of LWIII's music. When I chatted with LWIII in late April I wanted to explore that dichotomy and how those transformations take place.
There's an old Woody Allen bit about his mother running the family's food through a "deflavorizing machine" a couple of times, just to make sure dinner was completely tasteless. Well, that's what a lot of contemporary music sounds like to me. Booker T. Jones's recent album The Road from Memphis has some great tunes, but the sound of the album pales in comparison with his seriously funky work with Booker T. & the MG's in the 1960s. It's not just that the new CD is maximally compressed and processed to a fare-thee-wellit's a totally lifeless recording. But this isn't just another analog vs digital diatribe. The problems have little to do with the recording format; it's the way recordings are now made. Too many are assembled out of bits and pieces of sound to create technically perfect, Auto-Tuned, Pro Tooled music. It's not that great music can't be made that way, but it's sure as hell less likely to get my mojo workin'.
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.
I may have had 4000 LPs and a perfectly wonderful Linn LP12 turntable, but I could go for weeks on end without listening to a single LP. But I still thought of myself as one of the vinyl faithful, even as I rationalized my digital-centric listening tendencies. I loved analog in theoryI just couldn't bring myself to listen to it all that much.
I love two-channel stereo. A great stereo recording can produce such a full-bodied, three-dimensional soundstage that surround sound seems superfluous. Multichannel is just peachy for home theater, but good ol' stereo suits music just fine, thanks very much.