Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Admonishing the admonishers

I read my fair share of musician interviews, and I'd like to go on record for one thing I think must come to a stop: artists wagging their fingers at their own fans because they listen to mp3s. The first (of many) that comes to mind is Neil Young. I love Young's music--and, as I'll concede later, he redeems himself a bit--but he's taken his hectoring directly to his fans by whining about this trend in song. [A few lyrics in the epic Drifting Back, which kicks off his latest, Psychedelic Pill.] I've seen it across the spectrum, though, from such august classic rockers to abstract musicians like Robert Hampson and (most recently) Jim O'Rourke.

Don't get me wrong: I (kind of) get it. These artists work hard to get their music just so, then any schmuck with a computer runs it through an algorithm designed to 'remove extraneous audio data' and then play them back on cheap, factory issue earbuds. It must seem a crying shame. What they mean by extraneous data is often something like reducing any sound that seems identical in both stereo fields to mono and then only publishing the difference of those channels in stereo. When you think about it, that's a bold choice for your computer to be making over the artists and professional engineers. Of course it's also why you can fit 10,000 songs on your iPhone.

Personally, I think many artists time would be better spent, say, demanding approval of their final master. That would probably put a much more rapid end to the so-called 'loudness wars' than the few audiophiles bemoaning such things. There are a handful of records I can think of that were so viciously compressed in mastering they have been rendered nearly unlistenable--the most shocking being the gentle folk of Beth Orton's Sugaring Season.

The entire argument ignores at least one key fact about mass-produced music: once it hits the market, it's out of your hands. Coming back to the scene in interviews to tell people (who paid money for your music in the digital store of their choosing) that "You're doing it wrong," just seems like biting the hand that feeds you. (Yes, before you go there, I know there are major issues about digital download or streaming sales producing any tangible payment to the artist, and that is a valuable conversation to be had--just not this one) You've put this product into the ether and it will be consumed as the consumer sees fit.

Although it only resulted in novelty papp, I think the best example of this argument was the mash-up trend that happened--peaking (maybe) in the mid-early-aughties. Mash-ups drew a fat double-underline beneath the fact that artists--even labels--have no say over what the end-user does with their product. Some of those users had evolved enough to buy mixing and editing software powerful enough to manipulate their favorite songs, wholesale, for their own entertainment ends. There was little--really, nothing--anyone could do to stop them.

Really, though, hasn't sound quality been a problem throughout the history of music. 78s have a certain sonic-appeal, aesthetically, but their sound quality is for shit. I don't know for certain, but did Glenn Miller go around giving interviews telling people who bought his scratchy records they were duped--enjoying an inferior product--and the only way to hear the music for real was to see it live. Maybe a bad example: even if Glenn thought it, he was way too classy to give into such pettiness. The Beach Boys made some of the most exquisitely beautiful records of their (or any other) day, only to have them pressed onto cheap 45s and played back on portable, Califone record players, in the out-of-doors. I once had a vintage Califone; it was fun, but it sounded like utter crap. Leave off the fact that cheap, monaural radios and jukeboxes were the major delivery vehicles for decades.

Of course there's hope: the history of the internet, so far, is one of exponential increase in transfer speeds. The rise of mobile connectivity as a primary method of surfing the net has certainly set things back a bit, but we have a reasonable expectation that it will improve--catch up, even. Neil Young has supposedly been working with Apple to both increase the quality of the compressed files delivered to consumers and explore possible new formats / devices for delivering full-spectrum audio to users. At some point, maybe not in the too distant future, we will have the speed to wirelessly stream true DVD-quality sound on our phones while in subway tunnels. Won't that be swell? When that day comes, we'll probably all set about buying our entire record collections--that we've bought before on vinyl, then cd, then mp3 (then sometimes vinyl, again, as that came back into vogue) and--again, now, in FLAC or whatever this future format is called.

The problem is simply perennial. I suspect artists' gripe is less with the fact that the user isn't getting the 'full experience' (since, really, they never have), and more that digital music sales are taking over the industry--booming even--but not paying out for shit. Some savior the great mp3 revolution turned out to be. If, on the other hand, the axe you have to grind really is with the format, wagging your finger at the fans for enjoying your music--that they (hopefully) paid for--in the way they see fit for themselves, does not seem like a reasonable solution to that problem.


NOTE: The musicians selected to accompany this post have not, to my knowledge lodged these exact complaints. I was instead trying to select music that even as layman, I feel could have been audibly and adversely effected by its conversion to mp3.

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