Cause and Effect in the Music Industry

Every year we hear more and more about how CD sales are plummeting as more and more people are getting their music online (ethically or otherwise). It’s obvious that the way people listen to music has drastically changed in the last decade. Where listeners used to rely on vinyl records, they were then directed towards more compact cassettes and finally to slicker CD technology. Now it appears that CDs are on their way out as music fans move towards iPods and thing of that ilk. Not only that, but they have access to a far wider range of music than their local Target stores carry. This all seems like a great situation for music fans to be in and a bad one for the CD industry. But is that really the case? I see two major problems with road we’re traveling, beginning with bad listening habits that result in bad industry reactions.

Problem 1: The Endangered Art of the LP

Ever since Napster stormed college campuses back in the late 90’s/early 00’s, there has been a slow march away from listening to albums in full. Listeners now pick and choose their favorite songs from an album and download only those, leaving the body of work alone. This results in established bands being reduced to one-hit-wonders. One great song is played to death while all the other greats by that artist are forgotten. Cohesive albums are consumed piece-meal and the grandeur is completely lost.

How did the music industry react? First, they began churning out greatest hits compilations like mad! Take a look at the racks of your local record store and you’ll see dozens of these things. Even bands that have less than 3 full albums in the discography are getting compilation treatments! Albums are butchered almost as soon as they are born! Second, artists piece their albums together as they go. Records are released containing ten radio singles that have no relation to each other at all other than the artist. That way it doesn’t matter if it’s broken up, it doesn’t lose any meaning. After all, artistic merit is a distant second to marketability, right? Neither of these two reactions is very good on the part of the industry, but we as listeners must step up and support the artist by valuing whole albums.

Problem 2: The Decline in Sound Quality

With so many listeners using computer speakers or iPod ear-buds to listen to music, compression to mp3 is a forgone conclusion for most records. In order to get a song down to the more friendly size of a few megabytes, mp3 compression drops certain sounds that it deems less important. Usually, the lost ranges are the highs and lows, leaving behind a chunky midrange remnant. Most listeners probably don’t notice a difference, but listen to an mp3 of a song and then play the song on CD through a good stereo system and you’ll discover all sorts of layers you never knew were there. I’ve heard songs and realized that entire instrument lines were missing on
mp3, such as subtle xylophones or horns.

How is the industry reacting to this development? Rolling Stone has a great article examining this, found here. Basically, they are changing the way albums are recorded and mastered. Audio variance is being left behind in favor of overall loudness across a song’s running time. This is done to make the song sound better after compression because there is more sound crammed into the midrange that survives the process. Producers agree that albums these days are being mastered too loud because it has become a volume contest. There a quote in the RS article saying that music today is not designed to hold your attention, it’s designed to grab your attention over lots of other ambient noise. It’s made to be annoying, basically. Verses are just as loud as choruses and the barrage never lets up. Coupled with the fact that pop music has become more repetitive than ever and you have a lethal cocktail of neuron destroying mediocrity.

Waveform Examples (from Rolling Stone article):

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)

Arctic Monkeys – I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor (2005)

U2 – With or Without You (original version) (1987)

U2 – With or Without You (remastered version) (2007)

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