Thursday, June 6, 2013

Music in the 21st Century

Sorry for not putting up a post yesterday! I had to redo the program notes for our chamber music festival and that took up most of my time.

There are a couple of stories floating around today that give different perspectives on the music world as it seems to be evolving. First of all, pianist Krystian Zimerman noticed an audience member filming his performance on a mobile phone and walked off stage in protest. Here is the story. His view"The destruction of music because of YouTube is enormous." What he means is that videos of him playing a particular piece floating around on YouTube cause him to lose recording contracts and therefore, income. I wonder about this, because the quality of a smartphone video of a concert is pretty poor. Would it really compete with a professional recording?

But here is another story that might offer some more insight. Sophie Heawood, a serious music-lover and journalist, writes that she got rid of her stereo, her CDs, her tapes, everything and ended up just listening to music on her laptop:
Listening on my laptop wasn't so much making me think music shouldn't take up physical space – it was making me forget the aural space that music was supposed to take up. My ears stopped expecting so much from the sound. The songs were compressed; the quality decreased; the speakers just two little discreet areas on either side of my typing hands. The music sounded about as deep as an oatcake on there. There was no graphic equaliser or anything like that – if I wanted to experience the song with more dimension to it, I just turned the volume up. It's not so much that my laptop made all other physical forms redundant, it's that it made music so dull that I lost interest in music.
If you listen to music on your laptop--and it sounds as if she didn't even have any external speakers--you do indeed get a shallow experience. Laptop speakers don't deliver any bass! But if there are a lot of people out there like Sophie, then I can see the problem for Zimerman. They care less and less about the quality of the sound.

When recording companies held a meeting prior to launching the new CD format back in the 1980s, one of the big executives said "you realize that what we are doing by releasing digital versions of our product is just like releasing our masters?" What he meant was that if technology continued to develop it might become possible for consumers to duplicate their original recordings. At the time it wasn't because no-one had CD burners at home. But, of course, a decade or so later, it did become possible with CD drives being included on every home computer. The recording industry business model relied on their ability as gatekeepers to control access to good quality recordings--what used to be called "high fidelity". One imagines a serious Mahler audiophile listening at home to a playback system worth thousands of dollars. Of course, most listeners were probably listening to 45s on a cheap little box, but in both cases, if you wanted to hear music, you had to buy the vinyl record.

But moving to the CD format ultimately meant that everyone could simply copy CDs. No need to buy them from the record company. So their sales plummeted. The same thing happened to the music publishing industry back in the 1970s as the use of Xerox copy machines spread. Instead of buying a piano/vocal arrangement of the latest song, you could just copy it from a friend, or a library. There was a reason every library had a Xerox machine running full tilt. Music publishing used to be profitable. But now I think they are just hanging on by their fingernails. In Canada, the people that publish classical music are all supported by government subsidies.

But even if you could make copies of the CDs, you still needed a good stereo to play them on, right? Well, now this too seems to be changing. People like Sophie Heawood define their listening down until they end up listening to everything on tiny laptop speakers. At each stage there has been a loss of quality. Moving from vinyl to CDs, if you have a very good stereo, is a significant loss of quality. But CDs do sound clearer and punchier on cheap stereos. On good stereos you can hear that the sound is harsh and brittle compared to vinyl LPs. Then when we moved to MP3s, there was another loss of quality--again probably not noticeable on cheaper systems.

There is a whole aesthetic arena that I believe might also link into this. Yesterday I went to a restaurant I rarely visit. Twice waiters asked how my meal was, and I indicated it was ok. What was not ok, but I did not mention, was the music. The entire time I was there what sounded like a dance tape was playing. The entire time there was a single tempo backbeat drum track with various things over top. The kind of thing that, if you actually listen to it, is likely to drive you mad. If I was going to eat there more often, I would mention this to them. But have you noticed that in most public spaces these days there is horrible music playing? In places like this restaurant, the quality of the sound system is adequate, but in many other places the horribleness of the music is matched by the awful, distorted, sound system. And people grow up with this and live with this and seem to think it is normal!

We are at the point where even a music journalist ends up listening to music through bad laptop speakers. And where people who buy tickets to a recital by Krystian Zimerman don't seem to see anything wrong with filming the concert on their smartphone.

Now I am asking myself if I am an offender as well. I use clips from YouTube on this blog every day to provide musical examples. I put up ones that seem to have been approved by the artists and organizations, but it is hard to be sure. I know that some clips I have put up have been removed later on by YouTube, but I'm not always sure why. I know that some artists, like Bob Dylan, seem able to monitor YouTube to make sure that their copyrighted recordings are not available. But others don't seem to bother.

I know that I am wrestling right now with what to do with my new recording of my Suite No. 1 for guitar. Put it on YouTube?

There are two big sets of issues here: one is about aesthetic quality, which is what I talk about here most of the time. But the other has to do with the economics. If artists and recording companies cannot make a decent profit from what they do, then sooner or later they will stop doing it. We are in a tempestuous time right now when owners of copyright are trying every means, draconian or not, to control access to their work. We are also in a time when technology makes this more and more difficult. It also seems to be the case that technology is delivering a poorer and poorer product to us, though wrapped in ever more shiny and appealing packaging--this is how I would characterize music videos.

I hardly know how to end this post, so in recognition of Sophie Heawood's lament that all she seems to listen to these days is Rihanna on Spotify...

UPDATE: One solution to the filming of concerts occurs to me. Everyone is asked to turn off their personal digital devices before the concert and most comply. But would it be possible to ask concert-goers to leave their devices outside the hall? I guess not as those intent on filming would just deny that they even possessed a smartphone... Darn. Plus, sorting out whose phone is whose in a big concert hall would be a real headache. Darn, again.


Jared White said...

Above is a link to a TED Talk by Amanda Palmer. Her band distributes all of their music online for free but ask people to pay for it. They seem to be doing well with this strategy but it may not be viable for everyone, perhaps especially for classical musicians. But who knows?

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Jared,

Welcome to The Music Salon. And thanks for the tip. As I recall, Radiohead did something very similar with one of their recent albums. I'm just in talks with a couple of marketing people right now, so we will see what comes of it.