Thursday, 18 August 2011

Recorded Music in the Digital Age

For me, much of the joy in listening to recorded music, particularly acoustic music, has to do with hearing the recording process itself, acknowledging - celebrating even - its artifice, self-referentially incorporating this process into the finished product. This is why records are such a rich medium: the noise of needle on vinyl is inescapable and intrinsic to vinyl playback.

The Hi-Fi phenomenon of the twentieth century was obsessed with noise reduction, a 'problem' which seems to have been largely mastered (pardon the pun) by the advent of digital recording and CDs. Or, more likely, no one cares anymore in the frenzied everything-for-free fileshare deluge, heard as low bitrate MP3s through little white earbuds or computer speakers. I'll moan about some of the other issues with MP3s at another time, but the sound quality alone is enough to champion vinyl, or CDs even. Since we've gone all-vinyl at home I find even CDs sound shit, and now view digital files purely as the 'reviewing tools' argued by music giveaway blogs. I'm a prolific 'previewer' of digital files, I'll admit, but I feel less guilty about it now.

This hot issue has kicked off a regular series in The Wire featuring various arguments on digital music and quality, value, storage, listening habits, etc, and its been interesting to follow. I feel strongly that musicians need to get paid, but I also feel that policing the ceaseless flow of stolen music on giveaway blogs is an impossible task and one that now its too late to start trying to enforce. As one side of the argument has articulated, the landscape has irrevocably changed and the past cannot be recaptured. Given this, that the initial shock over music freely available everywhere online has passed, we've reached a kind of plateau and something has been realised: there exists a demand for quality music releases on physical formats, and that some people are willing to pay for music in these forms.

The issues here lie around the idea of 'quality', and the volume of music that people are willing to pay for versus the volume of music they want to acquire and listen to. The quality argument came up at mnmlssgs and by Stefan Goldmann at LWE, and touched on in varied forms by countless others, and cannot be overstated - given the saturated market we find ourselves in, and the lack of financial reward available to most music producers, its more difficult than ever to create original music work of high quality and have it recorded and released to a high standard. I'd argue that this is less of a problem in certain genres, particularly classical (and I'll post about that soon), but in most areas of music there's complacency and tedium from the many issues that digital music has raised.

As for how much people are prepared to pay for music, this area will continue to be defined as time passes within this situation, ie as those listeners prepared to pay AT ALL for music begin to cement their spending habits in this age. I still buy far more music on vinyl than I need/ought to, but never as much as I'd like to. I also trawl charity shops for bargain records, something no one aside the charities benefits financially from, but given that most of the people involved in the production of the record are long dead, who cares?

I also download a lot of music, scan, promptly forget and/or abandon in search of the next new cheap hit. This seems symptomatic of current music consumption habits, that given the lack of investment, in all senses, in music downloaded and skimmed through portable devices, music consumed in this way can only be heard cursorily. This practice is wearying, causing exhaustion and depression (and guilt), but can be corrected. Sit back in your listening space, turn on the stereo, dust off some records, have some people over, play whole albums, talk about them, let them lead you to other records, study the covers, read the notes, buy some more ...


  1. went through a phase of listening to so much new (downloaded) music that i would skip through them to get a sense of the song til the play count was 1 and it would slip into the uncharted depths of my itunes never to be heard again. shit wasn't cool.

  2. At least that's a system, of sorts. I generally fail at the limits I introduce. I have a monthly playlist for new music acquired each month and try to listen to it in its entirety before moving to the next month, but something new always lures me forward. Then there's no going back. The physical limitation of listening only to vinyl at home has been successful however, and joyous.

    This blog from last year was good on this, I wonder where he's at now:

    And reading Simon Reynolds' 'Retromania' currently, much on this issue