This is the second part of a four part journey through the entire history of music and technology. In Part Two, I wonder if our musical technology has gotten so good that we
have stripped the humanity from our music.
When is the last time all of your technology devices did exactly what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to? Without making your anger just a little more pronounced?
We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
Okay, that quote might be a bit heavy but stick with me for a moment. I believe Sagan was pretty much spot on: Our tools and technology are distancing us from the human experience on a lot of levels, and if we allow something we created but don’t understand to distance ourselves from ourselves what then is the recourse?
A few years ago I interviewed Leland Sklar, a world-renowned studio musician who has worked with pretty much everyone, and he had this to say about what the music-listening experience was once like:
I loved the process of making records from the standpoint of there was so many times where we would be doing records and be thinking about order. How do you want the A side to end? How do you want the B side to begin? We would be in the Mastering Room sitting there and the first track would fade out and we’d all look at each other and then just snap our fingers as to when we’d want the next track to begin. And then when you’d be listening to the music that first side would end and you’d take the record off and you’d wipe it, it was like a Japanese Tea Ceremony. It was a very spiritual experience to have records.
In the mid-1970s Sony and Phillips began working on what would eventually become the CD, and by the early 21st Century the digitization of music was in tsunami mode as mp3 technology allowed music-lovers to carry their music around in their pockets. This was a life changing event for all of us, and the after shock are still shaking every facet of the music industry.
Before the mp3 player, the Walkman portable cassette followed by the Discman portable CD player made music portable – and personal. With the exception of late nights spent under the covers listening to far-off AM radio broadcasts from faraway exotic cities (in my case St. Louis and Memphis when the sky was right) music was never really a personal experience more than it was a shared experience. Sure there was the radio in the car and listening alone to records, but that was more a sign that your social life was in disarray than a preferred way to experience music.
It seems somewhat obvious that most of mankind’s technological and societal progress has been centered on a push to move away from group living and thinking to a highly-personal way of living, but the technology that has allowed us to listen to music in our own extreme personal orbits, wherever and whenever we want, has also had some ill effects on the art form.
Now, I’m not attempting to posit that the only way to enjoy music is in a communal setting. In fact, I am very likely the least social person I have ever met, but even though I prefer small to non-existent groups of people, the times of shared experience of music are among the fondest musical memories I have.
When tape machines that allowed regular people to tape music from another source like the radio or the kid-down-the-street’s T. Rex album first became available, record labels were up-in-arms over the lost revenues they saw in the future. I’m sure some revenue was lost, but that was nothing compared to what happened when file-sharing services like Napster hit in the late 90s. For the very first time the concept of what music was worth and what an artist should be paid for it came into question – not to mention the fact that the mp3’s sheer lack of sonic quality became the accepted norm.
By the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, music was everywhere. Aging rock stars in need of a little extra cash sold former generational anthems to car companies, television audiences in the tens of millions viewed music as nothing more than a contest to be won by some aspiring kid with a good backstory, and people had thousands of crappy sounding songs on their iTunes accounts and could listen to them through the crappy sounding speakers on their computers whenever they wanted.
Technology succeeded in making music just as valuable as technology made food in the 1960s and 70s: It was plentiful and cheap, but not very nutritious and not very enjoyable.
Technology succeeded in making music just as valuable as technology made food in the 1960s and 70s: It was plentiful and cheap, but not very nutritious and not very enjoyable. You know that crush who started crushing you back – with constant phone calls, time-demands and endless commands like no, you hang up first!? Yeah, that’s what music became: It was cute and intriguing on the surface but then it just become relentless and boring.
Music also became mainstream. As if his 1974 re-arrangement of Midnight Rider wasn’t bad enough, in 1977, Gregg Allman put out an album with Cher. This was a horrifying event in my life, (and I guess a lot of others as the album only sold 550,000 copies to Allman and Cher’s collective audiences). Other than a brief flirtation when Enlightened Rogues came out in 1979 and a few concerts over the next few decades, I went from being the biggest Peachhead I knew to someone who could take or leave the Allman Brothers. This is what happens when music goes mainstream and loses its soul. Mr. Allman’s unfortunate foray into the world of Cher had nothing to do with technology, but it had everything to do with what happens when art gets watered down for the masses. And this is exactly what technology is doing to music on a scale so large we can’t get our heads around it anymore.
There are two rules in life – once your mom makes the same fashion statements as you, your fashion sucks, and once your mom likes the same music as you, your music sucks. As soon as Fall Out Boy and Fifty Cent started schmoozing with the Today Show crowd, and that guy from Maroon 5 started doing commercials for zit cream, an entire generation of people started to feel like I had felt as a disillusioned teenager all of those years before. The only difference is, they no longer had anywhere to turn – technology saw to that.
Fast forward to 2017. Technology made music so ubiquitous and attainable that it actually stopped speaking to people on a large scale and no one really cared anymore. That’s not to say we all didn’t have our personal favorites in the 20-aughts, or that Millennials didn’t find bands and artists that still spoke to them, but the value of the relationship had changed. For the worse. Remember how cool Facebook was when you first signed up? But now you do so much Facebook it’s just annoying. Too much of all those people who disliked you in high school pretending to be your closest virtual friends because to them it’s all about the quantity, not the quality, of friendship, is not a good thing.
By the dawn ot the 21st Century everybody argued about what format sounded better, or if music today was better than music forty years ago, but no one really cared anymore. In the wake of all of our technology, the human essence was disappearing – we were entranced by the platform; the art form was secondary.
Truly, we had lost control of our technology.
We were left to asking the question: Just because we have the technology to do something (like ruin music with ubiquity), are we compelled to use that technology? Or, is there an alternative that allows us to put the Genie back in the bottle?
Then the hipster made a discovery.