Future Tense: Music Depreciation

Maximum PC Staff

Recently, a correspondent with more attitude than common sense excoriated me for having no taste. He could be right, but I doubt it.

I had mentioned in passing that I have thousands of CDs in my music collection, enough to fill a 3-terabyte hard drive. This particular adversary’s argument was that because taste is the product of a thousand distastes, obviously I had none because I had failed to winnow my collection. It doesn’t take a lot of smarts to realize that this is an inaccurate application of Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is crud.”) The inaccuracy arises from the assumption that little or no taste was applied in the original purchases. (The assumption that 5,000 CDs is too many, that there isn’t enough quality music in the world to fill 5,000 CDs is even more horrifying.)

But in one sense, the adversary was right that I have thousands of songs that I haven’t listened to in years. My Uncle Morrie was also right back in the 70s when he looked at my collection of vinyl disks and remarked that I had more music than I could listen to. Ironically, Uncle Morrie was his own kind of pack rat. Among other things, he collected jeans. After he died, we found more than 100 pairs in his closets, more jeans than any one person could wear. Right. I’d rather collect music.

Let’s assume I have at least 6,000 hours of music on the shelves. If I were to listen to ten hours of music a day, it would take 500 days to play every track. But nobody listens to their music collection that way. We pick and choose based on our changing moods. We have collections because we want to have choices.

A completist has to have every item in the set, regardless of the quality (or lack of) in any individual item—but a collector gathers items of value that he selects for specific qualities. With music (as with books, comics, movies, and TV shows) the collector wants to have a purposely selected repertoire of entertainment choices.

I should be grateful to the adversary because he reminded me I wanted to write about the history of music recording. Humanity’s relationship with music has fundamentally changed over the last hundred years. Music has become a much greater part of our lives—but at the same time, that convenience has reduced much of its impact and importance.

Before electricity, all music was live. We either created it ourselves or listened to someone else create it. The only distribution system was sheet music. Knowing how to play a piano, a guitar, a violin, was an important skill. A marching band was a delicious treat. A music hall was a cultural center. If you wanted to experience an epic performance of an opera, or hear a major symphony, you had to go to a concert hall. Music was an event. It was a performance. It was ephemeral, it existed only in the moment, and then it disappeared forever.

We have no recordings of any music prior to 1877, when Edison invented the phonograph. We have little idea what the music of ancient Greece or Rome actually sounded like. We have some hints of traditional Inca and African and Native American music. A great deal of the Chinese and Japanese musical traditions have survived over the centuries and we have European musical texts dating back almost a thousand years. But even the best recreations are still only recreations—filtered through contemporary experience and sensibilities. They are interpretations of what we think the original experiences might have been.

Electricity made it possible to record, store, and distribute music accurately and widely. The early days of records made it possible for a performer or an orchestra to reach people all over the world, a larger audience than a lifetime of live performances could reach. Records created a whole new kind of fame for performers.

When radio broadcasting began in the early '20s, it created a new kind of national identity. People everywhere could experience the same events in synchrony. The radio brought news and entertainment into homes everywhere, connecting even the most distant dwellers to their big-city neighbors. Music, both live and recorded, reached whole new audiences. People who might never have heard an opera or a symphony or even a simple song could now be a part of the developing urban culture.

Prior to the invention of radio, mother might read aloud to the family, usually a chapter of a book. On special occasions, someone in the family would play an instrument or sing. After the radio arrived in the parlor, the personal creation of entertainment declined. After dinner, the family would gather in the living room to listen to the evening’s news and entertainment, rescheduling itself to the various weekly programs. And as the radio became the focus of the family, the family identity gradually became homogenized to that role-models portrayed in the nightly dramas.

And radios were big in those days! They were cabinet-sized behemoths that filled a corner of the room, with huge tubes that doubled as space-heaters filling the top half, and a 12-inch speaker in a large enclosure on the bottom. The sound quality could be fairly impressive.

On Sundays, the network radio stations would play serious music—symphonies or operas, noteworthy pieces of classical importance. Listeners who had never had the chance before, now became familiar with the works of Beethoven and Mozart, Tchaikovsky and others. Additionally, classical music pieces were often used as themes for movies and radio programs. Franz Lizst’s Les Preludes was the theme for the Flash Gordon serials, Rossini’s William Tell Overture is practically synonymous with The Lone Ranger, and who doesn’t sing “kill the wabbit!” while listening to Wagner?

In the '40s, table radios (eventually clock radios) became commonplace. They could never match the big speakers for volume or impact, but they took up less room and could fit in kitchens and bedrooms for personal listening. In the '50s, television stole radio’s nighttime audiences, so radio had to reinvent itself. FM and FM stereo provided significantly better sound quality than AM—true high-fidelity—so it became the new home of classical music. Car radios became a standard feature on all new cars, no longer a pricey add-on, so drivers could listen to news and ball games on their AM stations. The invention of the transistor radio made AM an even more portable medium. The baby boomers took to it like puppies to kibble.

By the end of the '50s and the beginning of the '60s, teenage boomers were listening to rock and roll everywhere. Every major city had at least one, sometimes several competing, rock and roll stations. The DJs were the helmsmen of the burgeoning rock culture—elevating Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, and eventually that band from Liverpool into icons. On weekends, teens went to a dance concert to hear a live band or to a teen club where a DJ spun records, but even on school days, teens gathered to listen to 45rpm singles in their bedrooms. The portability of music was first a delicious novelty, a luxury, and finally a convenience—but that convenience changed everyone’s relationship with our music.

As the '60s turned into the '70s, car stereos and cassette players and boom boxes made music even more portable. The result was that as consumers became more and more accustomed to that convenience and portability, music stopped being an event. It became a kind of auditory wallpaper. Soon it was everywhere and often inescapable. Weird stuff dripped out of elevators and kitschy coffee shops, something called “easy listening.” That meant you didn’t have to pay attention to it.

The unintended consequence of all this convenience was that music began to lose much of its emotional impact. Part of it was that recording technology couldn’t handle the wide dynamic range of most music, so the music had to be compressed—the high peaks of drumbeats were audibly limited. The playback technology was even worse. Music played over most radios was small and tinny. Speaker systems were cheap, often dreadful, and almost always sonically mismatched for their environment.

There were some exceptions. One was the movie theater, where images were wedded to sound. Magnetic sound tracks provided significantly better quality, and theater owners had to invest in decent loudspeakers and amplifiers anyway. Turning up the volume often hides the lack of dynamic range, but if you listen to any MGM soundtrack from that era (Dr. Zhivago, for example) you can hear how compressed the sound really was.

Another exception was the enthusiasm of hi-fi hobbyists. In their near-fanatic pursuit of great sound they turned high end stereo gear into an industry. High-fidelity stereo freaks were dedicated to restoring both the physical and emotional impact to recorded music. The stereo magazines of that era often discussed how the home experience was different than the live experience and whether or not a recording should be judged by how well it recreated the live experience or whether the home experience should be weighed on its own merits.

Sony’s cassette-playing Walkman made music a personal experience. The sound quality of a properly calibrated set of earbuds or headphones could be remarkable and the sight of someone walking down a city street plugged into some unshared reverie became commonplace. In the glory days of cassettes, enthusiasts ripped their own music tapes from vinyl records. With a knapsack full of cassettes and extra batteries, you could be set for the day. But the Walkman was a mechanical device with a couple of miniature motors that had to withstand the rigors of portability. The lifespan of even the most rugged player was often less than a year.

The emergence of the MP3 player—the iPod and all the wannabes—is the current evolutionary phase of portable music. The first ones had hard drives, but now the music player is solid-state, nearly unbreakable, and with enough capacity that you can carry a whole library of listening in your pocket. (Not quite an entire collection of 5,000 CDs, but certainly your favorites.) Add video and maybe a few games and you have a complete personal entertainment device.
Where do we go from here?

We’re already seeing smartphones and tablets doubling as music and video players, and Amazon now lets you stream selections from your library direct to almost any device you own. It may be that portable music will disappear as a product and become instead a fungible (look it up) service.

What all of this history proves is that human beings have an enormous hunger for music. Recording and playback technology has evolved to meet that hunger. We seek out music everywhere, we bring it home, we take it with us, we tailor it, we use it and even abuse it. (Spike Jones, P.D.Q. Bach, Weird Al Yankovich.) But the continuing evolution of technology has also produced a profound shift in our personal relationship with music.

For many (most?) consumers, music has now become a completely individual experience. You design your listening to suit your own moods and tastes, you create a unique soundtrack for your life. Your relationship with music no longer depends on availability of performers or broadcasts. You no longer have to share your music with others. Your music is a personal event that you summon at will.

Depending on what you want it to be, music can be wallpaper, soundtrack, anthem, or epiphany. Depending on how you listen to it, music can be background or immersive. Our technology not only gives us a choice in what we listen to, but also how we listen to it. Music is now a mutable resource.

On the one hand, it can be argued that having music be so casually available produces a context of disrespect for all music. Because it’s so easily obtained, it’s no longer a special event. We can regard it as disposable, replaceable, even irrelevant.

But on the other hand, it is just as easy to argue that having access to so much music as a regular part of life makes it possible for all of us to enrich our lives with even more musical discoveries than ever before. It’s an opportunity to widen our menu of choices and expand our personal repertoires.

What do you think? What’s your experience?


David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com

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