The history of music in the 20th century can’t be told without the history of the recording industry. Changes in technology have shaped how music sounds, how it is consumed by audiences, and how musicians make a living. For many listeners, recorded music is the norm–most people who proclaim their love for music consume it exclusively in a recorded format, as opposed to making music themselves or seeing it performed live (both of these have added benefits for the brain that recorded music doesn’t, however).
The proliferation of recording technology has not been met by everyone with enthusiasm. The American composer John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) foresaw extreme negative repercussions of the new phonograph (invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison), which was quickly becoming a common feature in American homes. In his article “The Menace of Mechanical Music” in Appleton’s Magazine, Vol. 8 (1906), Sousa outlines the threat that recorded music posed to home music making. At the turn of the 20th century, a large majority of Americans learned to play an instrument or make music themselves, and the US far exceeded other countries in this regard. But Sousa feared, and rightly so as history has proven, that with increased easy access to recorded music, there would be less incentive for non-professional musicians to make music themselves:
This wide love [in America] for the art [of music] springs from the singing school, secular or sacred; from the village band, and from the study of those instruments that are nearest the people. There are more pianos, violins, guitars, mandolins, and banjos among the working classes of America than in all the rest of the world, and the presence of these instruments in the homes has given employment to enormous numbers of teachers who have patiently taught the children and inculcated a love for music throughout the various communities.
Right here is the menace in machine-made music!… The cheaper of these instruments of the home are no longer being purchased as formerly, and all because the automatic music devices are usurping their places.
And what is the result? The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a technic [i.e., technical skill], it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely, and with him a host of vocal and instrumental teachers, who will be without field or calling.
Sousa feared the (inevitable) future of music making by living, live humans being supplanted by pre-recorded music because he believed that recorded music captured none of the human essence or “soul” of music. He described the phonograph as “a mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul.” He also worried about the potential effect on children, the next generation of whom would grow up surrounded almost exclusively by recorded music rather than music being made by live people:
Children are naturally imitative, and if, in their infancy, they hear only phonographs, will they not sing, if they sing at all, in imitation and finally become simply human phonographs – without soul or expression?
He concludes his essay with a final appeal to the humanity of music:
Music teaches all that is beautiful in this world. Let us not hamper it with a machine that tells the story day by day, without variation, without soul, barren of the joy, the passion, the ardor that is the inheritance of man alone.
Perfectionism and listener expectations
The ascendancy and primacy of recorded music in the 20th century has changed how music is heard as well as how it is made. Improvements in microphones, mixers, and the advent of digital recording processes and editing software have all made it much easier to produce music that sounds excellent: rich, clear, enticing, and beautiful. Compare these two recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 (1826): the first was recorded by the Léner String Quartet in 1924 — in addition to the omnipresent hiss of the recording technology itself, the sound is tinny, thin, and far-away, with very little audible dynamic or timbral contrast:
On the other hand, a live performance by the American String Quartet in 2013 is clear, conveys all the nuances and subtleties of the players, and has an overall rich or round sound quality:
The ubiquity of recorded music has two major effects on how we consume music and what we expect from it as listeners:
- Music should sound perfect; and
- Music should sound perfect all the time.
When a classical musician makes an album (except for recordings of live performances), the goal is a product that is worth listening to multiple times, one without glaring flaws and that is thoughtful and interesting to listen to. The process is comprised of obsessing over details: it is a painstaking marathon of recording every sound over and over again, sometimes playing the same 15 seconds of music (called a “take”) dozens of times to make sure that all aspects of the performance match with what the musician intended (timing, vibrato, intonation, coordination, tone quality). Then, the musician(s) will select the best takes, and the sound engineer will digitally stitch all these patchwork pieces of the performance together so that every single sound is as “perfect” as it can be. I recorded an album in September, and we took 55 takes of one nine-minute piece of music (this is quite a small number for most classical recordings); then I listened all the takes and told the engineer that I wanted the first 3 notes from take 4, followed by two measures from take 15, then two beats from take 1, etc. all the way through the piece. All the takes are my playing, but I’m essentially creating a Frankenstein performance of it, choosing the mini-performances in which I best executed my intentions. (We’re in the first round of edits right now, will do a final mixing in January or so, then we will spend the next 4-5 months writing the liner notes, taking publicity photos, and shopping the album to record labels, and we’ll release the album mid-summer–the entire recording musicprocess takes about a year).
A shift in the way that music is released has allowed for an even-higher degree of perfectionism to creep into the pop music industry, as well. In the past when physical CDs were the primary form of music distribution, the process of releasing music took much longer than it does now. After writing music, recording it in the studio, mixing, and editing, it would take around 6 weeks for the audio to be encoded onto CDs, CD jackets and booklets to be printed, and the product to be physically shipped to record stores. During this time, there would be a press tour to amp up excitement for the release, followed by a release party and scheduled date that consumers could purchase the album in stores. Audiences had to be patient, and artists couldn’t go back an alter their work once the marketing timeline had begun. However, most artists today rely much more heavily (or even exclusively) on digital releases of their work: uploading music to SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Apple Music, Pandora, Spotify, or YouTube. This means that the lead time between finishing a recording and making it available to the public can be reduced to a few hours rather than weeks. It also means that artists don’t necessarily have to adhere to firm deadlines and can instead continue to alter their music as long as they like–if they push back the drop date by a few hours, a couple days, or a year, there isn’t an expensive pre-scheduled marketing campaign or tour that is thrown out of whack. An article by Joe Coscarelli in The New York Times (August 5, 2016) outlines the ways in which established and new artists use the Internet to release their music (and have the flexibility to continue to tweak their tracks to meet their perfectionist creative standards). He discusses primarily Frank Ocean but also Kanye West, Beyonce, and independent artists: Coscarelli, the Sudden Digital Drop – The New York Times
So what does this perfectionism do to the live music experience? On the classical side, there is a general expectation that the live performance will be as flawless as the studio version. It’s an impossibly high standard! Some audiophiles (people who love recorded sound) find live performances frustrating because the sound is imperfect: musicians make mistakes in live performances, people in the audience cough or shuffle their papers, or the sound in the hall might not be as pure as it is on their home speaker system.
Because most audience members come into contact with pieces of music first through recordings (perfect recordings!), their ears are primed to expect that every time they hear a given piece it will sound as perfect as their favorite recording. In turn, performers try to give the audience what they want: a flawless performance that matches a great recording. The problem with a flawless performance is that in order to play flawlessly, you must practice flawlessly–over and over and over again, until every sound comes out exactly the same way every single time and matches audience’s expectations. Performers are far less likely today to try something new or unprecedented on stage than they were in the 19th century or first half of the 20th century. This modern performance style is not creative and this is not soulful–it’s the very thing Sousa feared in 1906.
The expectation that a live performance will match the crisp, coordinated, and sumptuous sound of a recorded album affects how many non-classical musicians perform, as well. Since the 1960s, the use of pre-recorded backing tracks for all or some of the sounds that comprise a “live” performance has become nearly ubiquitous (including vocals, backing vocals, instrumental tracks). There are many possible permutations of this, described here and here. To some degree this makes sense, since performers can’t dance and sing well simultaneously (think about what happens to your voice when you try to talk while jogging or doing jumping jacks). Sometimes “live” performances are completely fake, as with this list of examples from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beyonce, Eminem, Nirvana, Milli Vanilli, Ashlee Simpson, and Jay-Z. And “Lip Sync Battle” was so popular on Jimmy Fallon that it’s now its own spin-off show hosted by LL Cool J–it’s as if we love the energy and illusion of performance but not necessarily the music making.
Smoke and mirrors
So much happens behind the scenes in pop music that comprises an artist’s public identity or image: making them sound the way they do by writing lyrics and producing tracks, making them look the way they do through fashion and styling, making them have a particular persona through interview coaching, scheduling appearances at certain events, creating beefs with other artists, or selling photographs to tabloids. An “artist” is oftentimes actually an army of several dozen people working together to create a coherent marketing product (that happens to include music). For example, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, Kesha, Pink, Nicki Minaj, David Guetta, The Weeknd, Fifth Harmony, Maroon 5, Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears are all pop artists who present distinctly different personas and musical identities to the public, but much of their music is all written by the handful of song writers: Max Martin and Dr. Luke, often working together, or Karl Martin Sandberg. Max Martin’s writing credit discography ranges from Bon Jovi to Ariana Grande; Dr. Luke’s is similarly prolific, including Three 6 Mafia and Weezer. Other ubiquitous songwriters who have created the musical identities of headlining artists over the last 30 years include Babyface, Pharrell Williams, RedOne, Rick Rubin, and Sia.
When musician’s recordings are played on various digital platforms, we as consumers generally pay little or nothing for the experience. YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora all include advertising on their basic levels of service (free for the consumer); it seems like artists are probably compensated for their work through ad revenue and that popular artists make significant money for their efforts because so many people are listening to their music. However, these business models pay musicians very little: Spotify pays between $0.006 to $o.0084 per play; Pandora pays either $0.0014 (non-subscribers) or $0.0025 (subscribers) per play–and depending on an artist’s contract with their record label, they’ll receive only around 40% of that money. The songwriter for “All About that Bass,” sung by Meghan Trainor, is Kevin Kadish. The song was unequivocally popular in 2014 and was played 178 million times on Pandora, but for this Kadish received a check for $5,679; another songwriter whose work was played just over one million times was paid $16.89. The less-popular but still successful band La Roux earns approximately £100 for three months of streaming. Taylor Swift doesn’t include her music in Spotify’s streaming catalogue for this very reason–it devalues the art:
Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free.
(It’s also worth noting that Swift is in a position of considerable privilege–she can reject the means by which less-established or less well-known artists connect with new listeners because she is already successful and also because she makes money via other avenues, such as ticket sales for her live shows.)
A non-class discussion blog post this semester already touched on the consumer psychology of not wanting to pay for music. The irony of recorded music being ubiquitous in our lives (meaning that we can’t imagine our daily activities without it and that we prize its perfection) is that it seems we value it–the soul of it, Sousa would argue–less than ever.
Recorded music is democratizing in a way: access to music is unprecedented. Even 10 years ago it would have been unthinkable to call up a piece of music on demand on the Internet — Pandora was launched in 2000, YouTube in 2005, and Spotify in 2008 — and until 2012 record labels clung to the notion that they would always be releasing music in a physical format, such as CDs. At the same time, access to seemingly any recording (not true, but it feels that way) has created an even deeper division between creators and consumers. There are professionals who make music (including hidden behind-the-scenes musicians who do most of the heavy lifting in terms of musical creation), and there are passive consumers who receive it, which is an entirely undemocratic relationship.
Some discussion questions to get the conversation going:
- How do you prefer to experience music: recorded (videos are recordings, too!), performed live, making it yourself? Why?
- What parallels do you see between the recording industry’s effect on music making and the way other industries have had (unintended) effects on how consumers behave, their expectations, or the product itself?