When The Music Stops Larry Archibald

Larry Archibald expanded on this issue in September 1997 (Vol.20 No.9):

I read in the August 1997 issue of Stereo Review—"the world's #1 A/V magazine" (gee, that's funny, I thought it was about stereo)—that their renowned digital writer, Ken Pohlmann, won't be buying any more music until a new format comes out. He strongly recommends DVD-Video for the quality of the soundtracks, and is holding off on music until there's a DVD-Audio format with 5.1 tracks recorded at 96kHz/24 bits.

Ken admits that "some of our listeners may not immediately hear the improvement in sound quality over the CD." Gee, that's funny—I hadn't been hearing too much from Ken of late about any possible improvement in CD sound quality. If I'm not mistaken, his general point of view has been that CDs, played on just about any player, sound absolutely fabulous.

So why is Ken disgruntled with the music on the racks today? He thinks it's fallen technologically behind all the other entertainment media out there: DTS in theaters. Dolby Digital at home. All the whiz-bang stuff you get off the Internet. Big-screen TV.

This blows my mind. His magazine says "stereo" on the cover, but one of its principal columnists is out of the music business, for now. I was privileged to be present last night at Stereophile's latest recording project, here in Santa Fe at the summer Chamber Music Festival, and I obviously couldn't have been enjoying myself. Bach's Fourth Brandenburg Concerto was played with the same complement of old instruments as usual—no synthesizers, sound reinforcement, or flashing lights. The surround-sound was just the kind you get with live music: a little reverberation off the walls, plus a fair amount of audience noise. And the music was fabulous, a particularly difficult trick when you're performing an audience favorite. (You can never live up to their memory of their favorite performance—but these guys did.)

I'm sure that Ken's point was that the companies who sell music should get off their duffs and make good use of the media they have available to them—a point being debated in these pages continuously. And I agree that this is what record companies should do. But I completely disagree that music sales, which everyone has been moaning about for the last year, are driven by technology. Half the CDs that people buy (or more) are heard on Walkmans, Discmans, or car stereos. A technologically spectacular 5.1 recording would actually be dangerous in a properly equipped car, just as car phones are. What if your head were to swivel in response to a trumpet entrance from the rear window at an unpropitious traffic moment?

Music is, I think, driven by much stronger imperatives than number of channels or frequency response—by sex, for instance, or identification with a particular part of your (or someone else's) culture, or re-creation of a mood from earlier in one's life. Even movies, the showplace for all the latest digital effects, aren't always driven by technological advance alone. Plot matters. Otherwise, Last Action Hero would have walked all over Babe, which it decidedly didn't—Schwarzenegger was defeated by a refugee from Charlotte's Web.

And where would the Godfather series be if technology was all that mattered? They've been showing Godfathers I and II over and over on cable this last week, and I've seen no falloff in the quantity of commercials to sponsor them, despite their low-tech Sicilian brass bands.

Perhaps Ken Pohlmann's boycott of music purchases comes from standard old-person angst. It's true, as mentioned by John Atkinson in this issue's "As We See It," that we at this magazine often look around at one another and wonder if we're the last generation of music listeners. We're worried that kids don't seem to actually listen anymore, but just hear music in the background. And what are they listening to? Noise plus rhythmic talking? You call that music?

Sounds a lot like the comments of my parents' generation when faced with rock'n'roll. The one unifying factor is the bafflement of elders when faced with the practices of a new generation.

And the constant is music. Not that music remains constant, but that it's constantly important. Music sales, which are up 5% so far this year, after a flat 1995 and 1996, have never been better. In fact, the size of the music industry when "we" were growing up, measured any way you want, was tiny compared to now. Fewer musicians, far fewer record companies, astoundingly fewer records in print, infinitesimally smaller number of dollars being spent.

Do I think that's all it takes to indicate that music is in fine shape? No. I don't feel that recent developments in popular music will dominate the culture of the future the way the music of the 1950s and '60s has dominated the '70s and '80s. I feel a lot of musical ennui. I see everyone having a hard time discerning the signal through the noise, whether that signal is music, knowledge, clarity of thought, physical beauty, or even just understanding between two people. The number of signals, and concomitant noise, is a huge liability of the modern world.

And I'd be silly to blithely reassure everyone in this business that, 10 years down the road, high-end audio is going to be twice as big as it is today. But I wouldn't be surprised. More people, particularly Stereophile readers, are listening to more music than ever before. (People spent 26% more time listening to music in 1996 than in 1990.) The equipment they're listening on is way better than it used to be, and in many cases much less expensive.

Music is not dying, and it's not coming close to going away. As a business, it's 72% bigger than video rentals (though 16% smaller than video rentals and purchases combined), 36% bigger than consumer-electronics purchases for music playback (even including factory car stereos), and 58% bigger than the market for TVs.

Ken Pohlmann may indeed wait until a big technological advance before buying his next "record." But my guess is that he's just waiting for the next great song. It's what we all respond to.—Larry Archibald