Quantcast

End of the Century | The Nation

  •  

End of the Century

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERSAdvertising the final days of the Virgin Megastore, NYC, June 2009

About the Author

J. Gabriel Boylan
J. Gabriel Boylan is a freelance writer on music and art.

Also by the Author

Video may have killed the radio star, but the vocoder liberates her voice.

Walker Evans's collection of picture postcards, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is an artistic project in its own right.

For $79.99, the Sansa slotRadio can be yours. Around the size of a compact, it's an MP3 player preloaded with 1,000 songs from Billboard's rock, country, hip-hop/r&b and oldies charts. Thematic mixes like "workout" and "chillout" are available too. There's no software to install or discs to rip. Just stuff in your earbuds, press play and listen.

At 8 cents a tune, slotRadio is a bargain compared with what Jammie Thomas-Rasset was ordered to pay for the twenty-four songs she downloaded and shared on Kazaa, a file-sharing network. In 2006 she was sued for copyright infringement by Capitol Records, with legal support from the Recording Industry Association of America; when a federal court handed down a guilty verdict in June, the damages amounted to $1.92 million. That's $80,000 per song, including Gloria Estefan's "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You." Quite.

Ours is a time of fundamental shifts in the way music is made, sold and experienced, and music's value--as art and commodity--has never seemed more arbitrary and harder to assign. Thanks to the upswing in file-sharing and other ways of obtaining music in digital formats, album sales are measly and unreliable in terms of profit margin. Ten years ago Britney Spears's sophomore album Oops!... I Did It Again hit No. 1 with a record 1,319,193 units sold in the first week. Last year she hit No. 1 with her comeback album Circus, but first-week sales topped out at 505,000 units, nearly twice as much as the No. 1 spot sells most weeks yet nowhere near the debut of Oops!. As Charles Blow recently noted in the New York Times, a study conducted by PRS for Music, a nonprofit royalty collection agency, "found that of the 13 million songs for sale online [in 2008], 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs. That's less than one percent of the songs." For slotRadio, the gold mine isn't the cache of songs on its MP3 player but the tiny device itself, a jumble of cheap wires and microchips that will inevitably need to be replaced. In this case, the music is advertising that draws ears to a piece of disposable technology.

Most of the artists and bands profiled by Greg Kot in Ripped earn their keep from touring, which seems to be the most trustworthy source of revenue available to small and even midlevel musicians now that file-sharing has decimated album sales. Kot's profiles range from the most newly minted stars of indie music (Dan Deacon) to the scene's elder statesmen and crossover successes (Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails). The more established bands he discusses are making creative use of the new marketplace--from Paul McCartney partnering with Starbucks to the direct-marketing and distribution models of Prince and, more recently, Radiohead and Trent Reznor. The latter two have embraced, to varying degrees, the practice of offering middling-quality downloads of songs at a low or even pay-what-you-want price and selling high-quality physical copies of albums later at set prices. Because Prince enjoys a massive and loyal fan base, he has been able to sever ties with major labels and corporate promotional networks, selling albums through his website and forging direct, albeit virtual, connections with fans. As for the fans Kot interviewed, many admitted to not paying for most of the music in their possession, with some wrestling with guilt and others proclaiming their defiance of "the man."

The pitch and scale of the tumult recalls the shift that occurred about a century ago when music was recorded for the first time, freed from its real-time shackles and engraved on wax cylinders. Yet over time, with this freedom came corporate control over popular recordings and corporate determination of what would be heard, and how, and on what sort of medium. There were fierce battles over what kind of music was worth recording and whether recording was killing musical "truth." Musicians, producers and fans quarreled over the value of "fidelity" and the exact reproduction of sounds in real time. Was it the zenith of recorded music or a distraction from improving sounds with studio modifications or fabricated new ones? Tape-recording technology simplified and democratized the capturing of sound, while advances in technology allowed for the fashioning of a whole new world of sounds unimaginable in the acoustic days. (In the past few decades, technological innovations have brought changes like pitch-correcting software that can make an American Idol reject sound blandly perfect.) But if abandoning the live performance was the big shift a century ago, and the move away from "fidelity" was the big shift fifty years later, the dramatic change of our time is the unmooring of music from the physical realm altogether. Music is now an ephemeral sequence of digitized information beamed about, played for a few seconds and then shuffled away into the ether of code.

Unlike the introduction of the compact disc, which was developed by major labels and music retailers, as well as Phillips and Sony, the current tumult was unplanned and unforeseen. Digital technology has put far more power in the hands of ordinary consumers to wrest music from its gatekeepers. But crashing the gates has caused the music economy to dip down between cheap and free; people are storing more music on their hard drives than they're likely to listen to in the next decade, yet major labels, music retailers and even jukebox manufacturers are spiraling toward obsolescence. Offbeat and invaluable aspects of the mass music experience are slipping away as well, from the cranky exclusivity of the niche record shop to the tastemaking role of college radio to the music press itself.

The conventional, romantic view of the history of popular music is one of pure eras and movements reaching a creative peak before being co-opted, oversold or otherwise spoiled by runaway commercialism. Ragtime enthusiasts, rockabilly fans and punk proselytizers all claim that the early days of their favorite pet sounds were the best, most revolutionary and purest. The only truly lucky genres are those nobody ever liked--at least they were able to fade away honorably. The history of the popular music industry is often told in the same way, from its quirky, tentative beginnings through its benign, if greedy, golden age, when big labels could be handmaiden to terrific music reaching the masses. The cause of the industry's demise, the story goes, was avarice: the labels prized dastardly strategies for persuading music fans to part with as much cash as possible. The result, then, is the current mess. The potential chaos of a future where music is unprotected and unsellable (that is, an unviable profit center for labels or artists) might be worrying, but it's a prospect the industry created. Kot, a music critic at the Chicago Tribune, is excited about the new ways that bands are selling their music and trying honorably not to fade away. He is pleased that digital technology allows music to live and breathe beyond the grip of the record industry, which he thinks doesn't deserve any sympathy, since its response to the digital revolution has been not bold ideas about marketing or distribution but lots of lawsuits.

With Selling Sounds, David Suisman kicks the legs out from the romantic account of the music industry's innocent start and slow move to commercial heartlessness. Suisman investigates the early decades of the popular music industry, from 1880 to 1930, and his descriptions of the upstart crews of scrappy entrepreneurs who hawked sheet music in the old days call to mind the corporate suits at major labels plugging the next Disney-spawned tween star or mall punk band. Put it in a pretty package and the kids will go ape for it. For Suisman popular music has always been heavily commercialized (songs, albums and artists are just more widgets to be peddled), and his book leaves one wondering whether the history of commercial music resembles the aesthetics of the pop song: the pattern has little variation but has proved to be endlessly repeatable, and mostly profitable. How did we get here? In some ways we've always been here.

Suisman begins his narrative with the birth of the popular song at the tail end of the minstrel era and then explains how the advent of Tin Pan Alley, that hive of songwriting and music publishing, allowed for the possibility of a truly popular--that is, portable--song. Dozens of companies hired songwriters to bash out potential hits, while printers, distributors and a fierce national marketing network moved copies of the sheet music from coast to coast. As would happen with radio and happens now with the Internet, jobbers fanned across the country, slipping song scores and money to bandleaders to boost songs. Meanwhile guerrilla marketing existed in the form of "pluggers," who, as Suisman explains, made "every gathering, from a football game to a prom, a potential commercial audience, and every space, from a commuter train to a prison, a potential site of commercial performance." Pluggers were charged with getting tunes into the hands of working bands, vaudeville theaters, community events, schools, department stores (which built elaborate and vast performance spaces and organs to draw their own customers, and provided counters selling the selfsame sheet music) and anyplace else where the grooves could turn infectious.

When music became reproducible and more portable, first with player pianos and later with cylinders and discs, the industry was no less calculating, carefully inventing brands, stars and new ways of enticing customers. The Victor company exploited the runaway fame of its top artist, Enrico Caruso, and touted the exclusivity, sophistication and value of its "Red Seal" line of recordings, which though of no higher quality than most discs, were pricier. The Red Seal records, Suisman explains, "consecrated a single and singular musical performance," transmitting that esteem to the consumer, though truly it was "an illusion of uniqueness based on mass-produced intimacy." Victor and the other companies manufactured need as much as they did albums. One industry magazine claimed, "Children are everywhere, and how they do talk!" and went on to suggest cultivating future consumers by selling them on the magic of the phonograph. Music was sent to troops fighting in World War I and played in factories to improve morale.

The Copyright Act of 1909 ensured the protection of profits for music publishers and, Suisman notes, defined music as "product, not process," by enshrining its commercial imperative. Suisman traces the act's impact with two divergent case studies: one is a consideration of changes in the landscape of popular entertainments like movie theaters, which snapped up phonographs and laid off thousands of musicians; the other, an account of the black-owned record label Black Swan. Suisman claims that the great artist and the profit motive are not separate, and the career of Irving Berlin epitomizes their union. An enormously respected artist, Berlin thought the most important of his nine rules for writing a hit song was the following: "The song writer must look upon his work as a business." Berlin was instrumental in the formation of ASCAP, an organization that still ensures and enshrines the moneymaking power of songwriters. As a high-level figure in the group, he was further responsible for helping along royalties legislation for recordings and the radio.

Suisman portrays Black Swan as an alternative commercial enterprise trying to compete with the established players in the label game. Founded by Harry Pace (a former protégé of W.E.B. Du Bois), and catering to African-American audiences, the label thrived for a time despite its tendency to promote classical works over blues and jazz. The choice of classical works was part of Black Swan's mandate to encourage black uplift and white tolerance through its vision of music and cultural refinement. (This ethos would later draw the ire of LeRoi Jones in Blues People.) The label relied on standard marketing ploys, from the establishment of a brand associated with quality to eye-catching ads, while also advocating a specific racial politics. Unable to withstand the initial surge of radio's popularity, Black Swan died a casualty of commerce. Suisman's portrait of Black Swan's history is an effective riposte to those who accused the label of selling out: the label succeeded, for a time, as a business that cared about more than business.

Whereas Suisman's materialist study of the record industry's beginnings focuses on market creation and slights artistic fruition, Greg Milner is on the side of the sensible audiophile, someone who cares most about what's lost in the way most people experience music today. In Perfecting Sound Forever, an exhaustive history of recorded sound, Milner is honest enough to admit that the "warm" sound of LPs that vinyl maniacs crave is not some Platonic quality but the product of the way sound is processed by the apparatus--the amp, turntable and speakers. Yet no amount of "warmth" can combat the more insidious developments of our age of Pro Tools and MP3s. Music now flows through various channels in digital form, often never hitting tape of any kind; scrunched into a tiny file containing a fraction of its original sonic information, it passes through tiny cubicle speakers or tinier earbuds blaring at dangerous volumes. Compression might indeed be killing pop music by flattening it out, lopping off its highs while boosting its lows to yield songs boiling over at a fever pitch every moment. Certain pop albums become so loud and distorted that choruses are at the same sonic level as verses, creating a feeling of unending blast and total boredom. Compression has certainly left serious listeners in a crummy cul-de-sac of insufficient quality and decreased dynamism.

For Milner, a longtime music journalist, the history of recorded sound is the story of the tension between verisimilitude and manipulation, authenticity and convenience. He begins with an investigation of Thomas Edison's famed "tone tests," produced to convince listeners that the sound of his phonograph was as genuine as the human voice. In auditoriums throughout the United States, Edison presented singers performing alongside his audio devices. Audiences had to play a guessing game--Is it live, or is it phonograph?--and were nearly always fooled into amazement. An operatic singer would launch into an aria, and suddenly the lights would be cut; when they came back on, the aria was still being belted out but by the phonograph.

The tests were hardly scientific. Most listeners, especially in more far-flung locales, had heard few phonograph recordings, and like the apocryphal crowds who panicked on seeing early silent films of approaching trains, they were dazzled enough by the new medium to suspend any disbelief about its verisimilitude. And the tests were flat-out rigged by Edison, who instructed vocalists to lower the volume and modulate the sound of their voices to match the output of the phonographs. But Edison's obsession with the quality of recordings proved to be his undoing as discs gained mass appeal. Though he had the upper hand in terms of audio quality, he could not compete with Victor, which focused mainly on branding and selling the quality and image of its artists (like the much-ballyhooed Caruso) rather than its products. The myths proved to be more alluring than sonic spectacle.

Throughout the century, tone tests (utilizing more or less spectacle and premeditated sleight of hand) would be staged to herald every new development in audio technology: microphones, tape, multi-track recording, digital recording, CDs and on into the present day's toys (think of a turtlenecked Steve Jobs presenting this year's latest magic to salivating geeks). Milner's account of his own private tone test conducted in a Canadian audio research center sounds like something out of The X-Files. Milner was asked to spot the differences between CD recordings and songs archived in lossless codecs, compressed data files that are said to match CD files to the human ear despite containing less audio information. The ear fills in the gaps--or at least that's the idea the tests aim to prove. Milner thought he could detect the difference immediately, but as he sat alone in the soundproof room he felt perplexed and befuddled. In keeping with the mysterious nature of the project, his lab coat-wearing hosts wouldn't divulge whether his final estimations were correct. In the end it didn't matter, since as Milner argues, the very idea of "fidelity," though a prime motivator for audio development, has always been slippery, its history one of fabrication, of deformed and reformed and unreal noises coming out of our stereos.

One of the most colorful innovators of unreal music profiled by Milner is Leopold Stokowski. The famed maestro became a household name thanks to his many popular recordings, his outsize personality and distinctive long hair. He conducted the score of Fantasia and appeared in the film, a project that yielded, among other joys, Surround Sound, which Stokowski produced by training thirty-three microphones on his orchestra. Yet while his propensity to engage in popular entertainments (albeit classically focused) earned him a somewhat déclassé reputation among symphony buffs, the energetic Stokowski was instrumental in developing the art of music amplification. Working with Bell Labs in the 1930s and '40s on experimental loudspeaker setups and the uses of multichannel broadcast technology for live and recorded performances, he helped to fashion sound that was louder, bigger and more brazen than any live experience ever could be. In his collaborations with Bell he also succeeded in selling the amplified and fabricated experience as a live experience. The famed "Carnegie Hall Blowout" of 1940 was a sort of updated tone test where multichanneled sound knocked over the audience with presence and terrific loudness, all without a live orchestra: the music had been pre-recorded. (Stokowski wasn't at Carnegie Hall either, but the lesson was that the performance could enthrall devoid of the performer.) The Blowout's sound approximated the loudness of 2,000 musicians, but it was also malleable; octaves and orchestra sections could be cut and solos amplified without any loss of clarity. Stokowski managed to turn recording and amplification into a form of sound entertainment divorced from music, to transform music into aural spectacle that could arouse excitement through volume, force and feeling.

From the amped-up stages of New York City, Milner travels to the lonesome stretches of Southern roads traversed by John Lomax and later his son Alan. Both men taped many of the greatest performers of American vernacular and folk music, from Lead Belly to Woody Guthrie to Muddy Waters, and Milner contends that even the Lomaxes' largely unfettered, "pure" field recordings fundamentally altered the music, largely as a result of their sociological and anthropological predilections. Alan Lomax toured alongside Lead Belly, discouraging the singer from playing some of his favorite tunes, which Lomax thought were too countrified to count as "authentic." Eventually the Lomaxes blamed themselves and recording technology in general for helping to erode and efface the traditions they were so keen to preserve. In his later years Lead Belly sought fame on his own; with the help of tape he was able to record as he wished, and it is on those recordings more than any of the ones produced by others, Milner says, that "the sound explodes out of the speakers."

Milner suggests that as tape became the standard (and far more flexible) recording medium in the '50s, part of its "promise was that 'real time' no longer mattered." Indeed, the continued unmooring of recorded sound from the limitations of live performance is greatly enhanced by tape's ability to yield layered, edited and otherwise worked recordings, from Les Paul's "sound on sound" techniques (in which he stacked multiple tracks for spacey, powerful effects) to the Beatles' experiments with multi-tracking and finally to the baroque and bloated analog recordings of the 1980s. Milner singles out Def Leppard for defying the laws of realism in recording by utilizing complex recording techniques and expansive editing and tinkering to turn the sound of a rock band into a studio-minted confection. The developments that yielded Def Leppard's wildly popular excesses ("Hysteria's explosive drums...suggest a vast space, but not one found on Earth") are alternately thrilling (Stereo! Feedback! Rock 'n' roll!) and dismal. Milner goes on to survey the last gasps of analog sensibility and the oncoming rush of the digital age, from the perfection of the CD, foisted upon the market in a premature form that many still decry as fundamentally inferior to analog sound, to the various unrealities (and potentially antimusical elements) of such latter-day toys as Auto-Tune, compression and clipping. A final chapter on sampling offers some glimmers of hope, at least for those creating new music and exploring new sounds, but in the end Milner decides that the obsession with perfecting sound was the root cause of the worst excesses. Yet he concedes that while MP3s and compressed files exist largely for convenience, not quality, great recorded sounds are still accessible.

A century of innovation, ingenuity and rampant greed drove the popular music industry to amazing heights, and also formed the circumstances for its own destruction. Past as prologue is nothing new, but Kot, Suisman and Milner contextualize developments in music production, sales and consumption in ways that can teach us about the seismic shifts defining the current world of pop and how it's being bought and sold (or ripped, as the case may be). While out-of-touch major labels continue to decline, seemingly unable to adapt, niche labels and online distributors are emerging, armed with aesthetic sense and marketing acumen. Black Swan couldn't compete with emergent corporate labels in its day, but boutique cultural venues (real and virtual) and artists interested in connecting directly with fans now have an opportunity to seize on the failure of mass marketing. And this may be one case where corporate giants can't simply co-opt or buy out their small-fry competitors.

While a boon to consumers, this shift defies at least a half-century of popular music culture, pop chart logic and platinum sales standards. How can popular music survive without a mass market, mass platforms or mass acceptance? Perhaps more to the point, how can it thrive without the drive of massive profits? Sheet music, radio, 45s, LPs, MTV: all these delivery formats have faded over time, and the platform that dominates now, the Internet, does so through its own decenteredness and, troublingly, through the common perception that everything it can deliver ought to be free. Once pop stars were groomed and coddled to greatness, and pop charts reflected the tastes of something like an informed, democratic music audience. Such institutions had their advantages and drawbacks, to be sure, but what sort of pop universe will exist when they've vanished? Will the pop song outlast the vast apparatus that created it, and can it remain a vital cultural touchstone when former temples of pop music like the vast, recently vacated Virgin Megastores are being converted into Nordstroms? Perhaps a return to the live experience--concert receipts have risen as record sales continue to slide--is the inevitable result of the radical unmooring of the experience of music from reality, verisimilitude and objecthood, a way of embracing the humanity behind music's transformative power. Maybe so, but when the music stops and the lights go up, you're back in a new century and floating free with more sounds than ever.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size