The Beauty of Music in the Ear of the Beholder

I was a child of the 70’s and 80’s with a father who was a former DJ and an avid music enthusiast. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t see four to six albums propped up next to the turntable stand ready to be listened to and carefully dissected. Before an album played, Dad allowed one of us kids to gently brush off the dust with a cleaner while he set the turntable in motion. Our household grooved to The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke on Saturday mornings as we went about our chores. We sang along with James Taylor, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, and John Cougar Mellencamp while dinner was being made and I personally longed for the day I could belt out a song like Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston. I fell in love with The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Boz Scaggs while wearing headphones far too large for my head and at the age of two, I went running through a record shop yelling, “Elvis, Elvis, Elvis” when I heard the voices of adults mourning him in the August of 1977. As time progressed however, new records came into the house in the form of a cassette after Dad purchased our first JVC cassette deck in 1980. It allowed for us to make mixtapes for road trips and for passing along to friends. The Christmas of 1984, I received my first Panasonic boom box and spent hours recording songs from the radio. In 1988, Dad blew out his speakers while trying out our new CD player for the first time. He was unprepared for the level at which the CD’s had been recorded at and was forced to purchase new speakers. We still had a cassette deck in the car, but the days of having to use a pencil to rewind a tape when the deck went out were fading fast as new and improved technology came onto the scene.

Music technology has had to move and keep up with a generation of people who desire instant gratification. A generation who seems to have lost the desire to peruse a music bin for that gem, that CD that will become a part of their life’s soundtrack. Today, we have MP3 downloading straight to our cell phones, computers, and satellite radio. How far we have come from Thomas Edison’s phonograph. Though technology has certainly changed how we listen to music, is all of it good? Are we losing a battle to hold onto the past? Or, is there a way to hang onto some of our past technologies and move into the future at the same time? Can we have our cake and eat it too?

In the 1940’s Columbia introduced the 331/3 rpm long-playing record. ( LP’s were able to hold a total of sixty minutes of music which was unheard of. It’s predecessor, the 78 rpm album could only hold up to three minutes on each side and were more fragile. 45’s were single play records that held up to five minutes on each side and were popular in jukeboxes because they took up less space. ( By the time cassettes came around we were blessed with up to ninety minutes of tunes, but anyone that ever made a mixtape on one of those, found out very quickly how easily the tape got tangled. CD’s allowed for entire live concerts to be listened to and they didn’t get tangled up like cassettes did. Today, an Apple iPod Classic holds up to 40,000 songs, 200 hours of video, or 25,000 photos all in a little device that fits in the pocket of a pair of skinny jeans. ( Technology has progressed quickly and based upon the decline in the selection of CD’s when shopping a brick and mortar store, progress is waiting for no one to catch up. It is moving forward whether we like it or not.

In the video Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music, Mark Katz, speaks of his study of the progression of how we listen to recorded music. In his presentation he speaks not only of his book by the same title, but of his findings while writing the book. He has developed what he calls the Phonograph Effect, which is “any change in musical behavior, whether listening, performing or composing, that has arisen in response to sound recording technology”. In a study done by Ipsos Reid, a Canadian company specializing in market research, Katz found that 29% of American respondents reported that their favorite genre of music changed after they started downloading music and 21% indicated that they developed new radio listening habits. The freedom of being able to explore new music became more accessible and people loved the control they gained over their musical listening experience. However, he also touches on the subject of nostalgia when he spoke to a young college woman about her excitement on her fifteenth birthday when she purchased a Flaming Lips CD, but with file sharing all she remembers is sitting in front of her computer. The video was recorded in 2009, so although most of what Katz says is quite relevant, we have already progressed further in our desire and capabilities to access new music. At the time of his findings, file sharing sites like Napster had already been under fire for copyright infringement.

In the article Survival of the Fittest in the New Music Industry, author David Browne covers some of the pros and cons of the direction in which the music industry is going. Shirley Manson of the band Garbage mentions how after leaving their previous label Geffen, the band now has more creative freedom. Shirley had gone to the label with a solo album that she cut, only to be turned down because it didn’t have any pop songs on it. Browne also goes on to say that in the past, cash advances were given to the bands by the labels to cut the records and make videos and those days are gone. With more people downloading their music, CD sales have hit bottom and in order to make up for the loss, artists are touring longer and even asking fans to contribute to their recording costs through companies like Kickstarter, “a crowd-funding service that lets musicians pay for recording costs by way of contributions from fans”. Artists like Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls were able to raise more than $1 million in contributions from fans, ranging from $25 to $10,000. When asked whether she felt guilty for asking fans for money, she responded that she’s just doing her job as a “working-class musician”. Browne gives a great perspective of what some of the artists think about where the industry is going. He wraps up the article by mentioning the benefits to bands and managers for becoming more savvy and open to working with social media. Not only to sell the music itself, but also sell the tickets to the shows.

We now have listening services like Pandora and Spotify, both of which have free options and if the short commercials drive you batty, for a small fee the listener can upgrade to a premium account. With these services, all you have to do is type in an artist that you like and they will give you multiple other artists that sound similar. On Spotify, you can customize your own playlists, listen to others, and share your findings. On Spotify Radio, the service will customize a “station” based upon a listener’s personal playlist. The possibilities for a music lover is endless. The question that I often battle with though is for every artist that a listener may like, there are fifty more artists that sound just like them. This may be great for an artist that in the past may never have received recognition, but at the same time, the industry has become so oversaturated that it’s difficult to remember particular artists. However, this does make the search for that “diamond in the rough” that much more enjoyable when you find them.

For all the advances that technology has made, there are things that were also taken away. The one on one commadre that could be established when speaking to another music fan. While working in a music department, I found the stories of how a person was moved by a particular song or album, fascinating. A song became a memory, a scent, an emotion. It had the power to bring a person back to the first time they heard it. My Dad has told me stories of how he and his buddies would spend hours in the local record shop pouring over the new releases. Devouring them, arguing over what each song meant, and gambling about the outcome of it’s success. New releases forced people to get out into their community and face one another. Gone are the days of having to get up early to be the first person to purchase the new David Bowie or Radiohead CD. Instead, with just one click you can have it downloaded to your favorite listening device. Although the new technologies are outstanding with what they’re are capable of, I can’t help but feel a bit of remorse for what we have lost.

For the girl that grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, no matter how much I love technology and how it spoils us, I’m still a huge fan of vinyl. With a record, the listener is forced to sit down and truly listen. You must have patience and the ability to slow down. Pushing a button to skip to the next song is not an option. The first time I heard Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue I was bewitched by the beauty of it and thrilled to hear the crackle of the vinyl as the needle hit the wax. It’s a comfort sound equal to the taste of a warm peanut butter and jelly sandwich after it’s been sitting in your lunch pail for hours. I was in a record shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the headphones tuned out all other sounds. I couldn’t believe that I had gone my whole life without hearing the magic of this man. Since that fateful day, I’ve listened to Kind of Blue on cassette, CD, and currently I’m listening to it through Spotify, but on a rainy day, I’ll take my vinyl copy off the shelf, turn on my refurbished 1968 Pioneer Pro turntable, let the needle down, close my eyes and let the magic of the man take me back in time where technology was built to last.