Music has been an integral part of my life as long as I can remember. My father had a grand tenor voice, and could break into song at a moment’s notice. And he knew seemingly the Great American SongBook by heart.
My mother, though not particularly musically gifted, loved big band jazz (Glenn Miller), and singers like Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and Nat King Cole.
Both my parents had good careers, and one year they treated the family to one of those bureau-sized console stereos with a turntable and radio. We kids didn’t always love the tunes that our parents played on the console, but it certainly seeded our appreciation for music.
As we approached and entered our teens, we became attached to our personal transistor radios, and developed our own musical tastes. My older sisters led the way, listening to the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and other R&B and pop musicians.
It was late on a hot summer night. I was laying in bed, my window open, and music quietly wafting from the adjoining bedroom that my sisters shared. A song, Hello Stranger, played on a transistor radio, and the soulful, melancholy voice of Barbara Lewis sang:
It seems so good to see you back again
How long has it been, ooh
It seems like a mighty long time
Shee-bop, shee-bop my baby, ooh,
It seems like a mighty long time
I recall getting goosebumps that night, as I listened. It was a transcendent experience, because at that moment I understood, perhaps for the first time, the true power of music, its potential to evoke sadness, joy, energy, high spirits—and memories.
Technology and music
Of course, we’ve always had live music, but it has been technology that has truly taken music forward. From Gramophones, to 78s, LPs, 45s, cassettes and CDs, and the players, decks and radio stations that brought them to life, the basis of our listening pleasure has always been technological.
Amidst all that history, one can certainly find downsides. Albums and turntables were expensive and subject to wear and tear. Cassettes, while convenient, just didn’t sound very good and were even more delicate, particularly when left inside cars baking in the sun.
Digital music, in the form of CDs, then downloads, promised to alleviate those issues, but brought its own set of problems, and a growing list of critics.
Some of the most damning criticism has come from prominent musicians.
Neil Young famously said that digital music, particularly compressed digital music (e.g., MP3), has stolen the soul of music. “You are getting less than 5 percent of the original recording,” Young stated in a 2012 interview with The New York Times.
John Bon Jovi, who continues to fill stadiums while leading his namesake Bon Jovi band, has publicly lamented the loss of the album as the center of music listening and collecting. Bon Jovi has gone so far as to blame Steve Jobs for the demise of the music business:
Kids today have missed the whole experience of putting the headphones on, turning it up to 10, holding the jacket, closing their eyes and getting lost in an album; and the beauty of taking your allowance money and making a decision based on the jacket, not knowing what the record sounded like, and looking at a couple of still pictures and imagining it. God, it was a magical, magical time. I hate to sound like an old man now, but I am, and you mark my words, in a generation from now people are going to say: ‘What happened?’. Steve Jobs is personally responsible for killing the music business.
So, let me get this straight: because of technology, music not only sounds worse, the enjoyment factor has been diminished, and the intrinsic (dollar) value has dropped.
The music biz ain’t always pretty
The music business has always been a morass of complex contractual arrangements. One could argue that record companies and producers make most of the money, while musicians often got the short end of the stick.
As to whether digital downloads and streaming have helped to devalue music, one could make a couple observations.
First, when Napster and other file sharing services emerged, music for many people became free. One could argue that iTunes, Amazon, Google, Pandora, Spotify, and other paid services saved the music industry.
Second, what about the magic of buying and experiencing albums? I can’t totally disagree with Mr. Bon Jovi on this count. As a teen, I remember those days with some pleasant nostalgia, buying and discovering new music, enjoying the cover designs and liner notes, swapping albums with friends, and so on.
However, for someone who has also amassed large vinyl and CD collections, I would say that the magic is highly overrated. My primary experience has been that the vast majority of albums only have a few memorable songs.
So, remind me again, Mr. Bon Jovi, why I it was so magical to plunk down $15 for a few good tracks?
Sound quality is key
For me, the more important issue is sound quality. As someone who spent countless hours of my youth making cassette mix tapes, I can attest that even low-bit-rate MP3s sounded pretty darn good in comparison.
The fact is virtually all the online stores and streaming services offer significantly higher quality tracks than those early Napster gems.
Even though iTunes tracks are MPEG-4 files that employ a compression algorithm called AAC, blind listening tests have shown that, for the vast majority of listeners, they’re indistinguishable from the CD-quality versions.
For me, those digital tracks sound quite good in whatever environment they’re being played: on my home stereo, through headphones on an iPhone, or through a car stereo.
For home listening, however, I took the extra step of ripping all of my CDs into Apple Lossless Format, which provides true CD-quality sound while taking up about two-thirds of the disk space.
Frugal music lovers can follow that lead by purchasing used CDs and ripping only those songs that they really like. In addition, single high-resolution tracks can be purchased online from HD Tracks. Even Neil Young is getting into that act with his high-resolution Pono player and online music store.
There continue to be audiophiles who insist that vinyl records sound better than digital music, and who am I to judge?
But as far as the convenience factor, we consumers have voted with our wallets that digital music can’t be beat. And there continues to be a myriad of choices to make sure that the sound quality is as good as consumers want it to be.
Has the enjoyment of music listening been diminished? You couldn’t prove it by me. I went online today, found that old Barbara Lewis song, Hello Stranger, and got goosebumps all over again.