Total [Music] Revolution

Total [Music] Revolution

Revolution looks like this

Throughout the few short years of the 21st century thus far, the term revolution has been tossed around rather a lot, and colloquially at that. The iPhone has revolutionized mobile communication. Spotify: the revolutionary music service. And so on.

The applicable definition of the word, from Apple’s own dictionary, is “a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people’s ideas about it.” I guess you could say the touch-screen is a wide-reaching change but beneath that is a bunch of GUI and apps that do stuff that we’ve been doing for years, if not decades.

In that light, the smartphone pales in comparison to, say, the telephone. The telephone basically replaced the telegraph, a textual means of communication that limited one to brief snatches of text, transmitted by wire (the telegraph is probably more directly a precursor to the internet, but that’s a fine point; the telephone intervened). To go from that to being able to pick up a device and talk? Now, that’s a revolution. And one that launched dozens of other revolutions.

But what do I know? I know music, that’s what. Over the past few years, as anybody who reads my musings will know, I’ve been grappling with two sides of the digital music issue. Those being Side A: what digital music format is going to “replace” CDs/records, etc. and energize both music-makers and listeners to the point where we, the artists, are delivering something of real-world applicable value and they, the listeners, are happily engaged with the fact that paying for creative works on a reasonable scale is a fine and decent thing to do, something that will perpetuate their enjoyment for decades to come? And Side B: what do I want from my own listening/music-buying experience?

Forces on the development side tend to trumpet a digital music revolution. But, again, what does that really mean? When it comes to music, I prefer to think in terms of revolutions per minute. Look it up, youngsters.

Star Wars

The first record I bought

As a kid, I caught the record-buying bug via the designed-to-infect Columbia Record Club. Music was ever-present in my house growing up, but we didn’t have a ton of records. I didn’t grow up in frontier town but it’s not an exaggeration to say that we made a majority of the music ourselves. But there were the ubiquitous Beatles Red & Blue albums, a bunch of classical stuff, my beloved Pete Seeger Children’s Concert LP. I may not have listened widely, but I early on developed into an avid listener. Then the Record Club mailers started showing up. 12 records for 1¢? Amazing! I resisted for a while, fearing some kind of scheme. (It was a scheme1). But finally I took the bait. Being an ambitious youth, I gamed the system to the best of my ability, only honoring my commitment to purchase full-price albums when they offered 2-for-1 deals and the like. I quickly completed my course and prized my little collection of 12” discs and their alluring, colorful sleeves.

Shortly thereafter, I discovered the records section at Jordan Marsh. I remember picking up a 7” single of “Turning Japanese” there. Next discovery: used record shops. When I learned that I could trade in my copy of Manilow Live (from my initial Columbia Record Club shipment) for Def Leppard’s High & Dry the game changed. Entirely.

I’d take the bus to Harvard Square every weekend and blow half my measly paycheck on records. So many records. I turned into a collector, a completist. There was a real thrill to not settling on the single-jacket 3rd printing of Deep Purple’s Fireball. I had to have the gatefold sleeve with the lyrics insert and I could wait to hear it until that requirement was met.

But there’s a funny thing about records.  Once you get out on your own and find yourself moving every couple of years, the word collection is gradually replaced by the word burden. I sold a lot of records in my 20s. I don’t have many regrets but it was a shift, for sure.

CDs had long since been around and it was only a matter of time before they replaced LPs for new purchases, more out of necessity than admiration for the format. In fact, I was so much less impressed by CDs than LPs that for years, I limited myself to the amount of CDs that would fit in my one unfinished wooden tower.  If I wanted more, I had to sell some.  Additionally, as I was deeply into making music at the time, rehearsing and playing clubs in Boston 5-6 nights a week, my appetite for new music went way down.

Help I'm stepping into the Twilight Zone

Help, I’m stepping into the Twilight Zone

Time passes. CDs became ubiquitous. But almost just as soon as I accept CDs as the way it’s gonna be, MP3s and, later, the iTunes Store comes along. I took a while to get on board with it and I still don’t buy much music digitally.2

iTunes reigned supreme for a good number of years but the shift to digital music in those early years was marred by too much litigation, too much desperation. This, combined with the end of grunge and the realization by the industry that they had been losing their (flannel) shirts on an elusive zeitgeist moment, indicated the bottom falling out. Music started to take a back seat in people’s lives.

As for me, in the mid-2000s I finally embraced the digital thing and ripped our entire 25,000-song library of music and, when we moved from Boston to Los Angeles, carted our music along on nothing but a single hard drive.

Now here we are in what might be called the post-iTunes era. The current phase of the digital music revolution is streaming. Pandora and Rhapsody have been at this for years but it took Spotify to really get the conversation going in the mainstream. Again, no revolution here. They have ported one concept to a different platform, that is all. Spotify takes iTunes and puts it in the cloud. You don’t own the music, you listen. To whatever you want, anytime, anywhere. There’s also Rdio, Songza, 8tracks, and a seemingly daily host of new competitors. You know all this.

So what we have now is an embarrassment of riches on two fronts. There is an abundance of content – the average listener only wants to hear a handful of songs, though sepcific tracks may differ from user to user – and an abundance of competing platforms. End result is that, in a way, nobody is actually succeeding. Yet. And as long as FM/AM radio exists, it’s hard to see the streaming services winning. But as bandwidth increases, the landscape will continue to change. It will be interesting to see how it pans out.

Maybe we’ll look back on this time as the golden age of digital audio, where listeners revel in the choice, can use barebones or ad-supported versions of multiple platforms for free, and creative approaches keep turning up.

But it’s also starting to feel like we’re in a place that is roughly analogous to the late 1970s, with VHS, BetaMax and LaserDisc competing to reign supreme in home video. The movie business was scared, consumers were excited, and early adopters were shelling out thousands for machines that would be obsolete in a few years. I suppose that’s one plus side to where we’re at now: the new services are a win for consumers due to minimal or nonexistent cost. But it seems like it gets harder for companies to define success. Since there’s no physical product anywhere in the chain, do they gauge success solely by numbers of users? Strange.

And its notable to remember that the winning format, VHS, is also arguably the lowest quality. Only to be replaced itself some 15 years later by an improved, smaller, and better-marketed laser-disc.

Listen to music like a King

Listen to music like a King

As for me, my revolution is complete. Literally. 360-degrees over the course of a couple decades. For a while there, I had thought that if I gave it enough brain, I might both get my head around how the industry was changing and how I might be part of a solution that would be satisfying to both creators and consumers (reminder: I – and many others – count myself as both). But recently the lightbulb went off over my head and I remembered that the only thing I need concern myself with is making the music that I think is the best creative expression in that particular moment in my life. Music that will move some people, bore some others, and hopefully perplex people some of the time, sometimes be out of my control, sometimes fail, sometimes perplex even me.

But when I listen to music now, if I’m home, it’s back to the old record player. I’ve long since shipped the vinyl & CDs out to L.A., so that it’s all now back in our hands. The hard drive is still hooked up but it is used less and less. In the evenings, after a day of working, I put a record on the turntable and sit, poring over the ragged sleeves, reading the liner notes, or just sitting with my eyes closed. Really listening to music. It’s the way I was meant to listen, I guess. And with so many new records released on vinyl now, I can get back to what matters to me while everybody else does what works for them. And maybe that’s the real revolution and, if so, that’s an embarrassment of riches that I can get behind.

1. Leaving you to figure out the semi-nefarious ways Columbia hoped to make bonus money out of this deal, it’s worth noting that, contractually, the label didn’t have to pay mechanical royalties to the artists for these club deals. Another shady bit of creative accounting.

2. Fast Fact: first song I bought on iTunes was Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone.” It was January 1, 2004 and we’d been watching the Twilight Zone marathon all day. I just decided I wanted to have that song and, boom, there it was. Admittedly, the ability to want and then get was a powerful new development. But there was a little part of me that wished I could have walked to Davis Sq. to root for the 7” single at In Your Ear. But if you’ve ever tried to find a 7” single in the post-vinyl era, you’ll know what a fool’s errand that would have been.