In “As We See It,” in the October 2017 issue of Stereophile magazine, Steve Guttenberg performed a kind of thought experiment. He asked, “What if Digital Had Never Happened?” Much of his speculation had merit, and resonated with this old analog lover. “[W]e can look back and see that pre-digital recording was simpler,” he wrote, “with less of a fix-it-in-the-mix approach by engineers and bands.” Other things he said also seemed to ring true, and made me wonder if some of my assumptions about the digital vs. analog debate were worth examining.
Guttenberg sounds like a regular guy who, though a committed audiophile, wouldn’t scoff at my modest hi-fi, and could probably enjoy music even when played through a . . . computer. (I almost wrote “boom box,” but I doubt anyone still owns one.) I don’t strongly disagree with most of what he says in the article, but I think that many other baby boomers, like me, are eager to attribute the decline in the popularity and quality of pop music to digital’s influence on how music is recorded, prepared for release, and played back.
To some extent, pop music has been hurt by the perfectibility that digital makes possible, but I think larger cultural and technological forces are at work. What follow are my own thoughts about what I think has happened to popular music -- especially in the last 20 years, though I also take a longer view. My arguments are necessarily speculative, and less systematic than I’d like them to be, but that comes with the territory.
Early in his piece, Guttenberg asks, “How much better might LPs sound today had analog technologies of recording, mixing, and mastering continued to advance?” By the late 1970s, when 3M introduced the first digital multitrack recorder, innovations in analog recording had made it possible to record as many as 32 separate tracks of music. In 1967, the Beatles used two four-track tape decks to record all of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and eight-track machines for their next two LPs. In 1971, when Pink Floyd recorded Meddle, 16 tracks were available, and they recorded The Dark Side of the Moon on 16 tracks.
As the number of available recording tracks increased, so did the sophistication of the music recorded on them. I’ll be among the first to say that the results of multitrack technology have been glorious: the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run . . . the list could go on for pages. The musical and sonic complexity of those and many other recordings have enriched my life and the lives of many. The increase in the number of tracks available and the possibilities they offered were, in fact, driven by the demands of the rock and soul musicians, whose ambitions continued to grow.
More complex technology changed how music was created. The Beatles who recorded Please Please Me worked in a far different manner from the band that made Rubber Soul, let alone Sgt. Pepper’s and beyond, and the same was true of almost every other band working at that time. Music was layered with more instruments, sounds, and ideas. The result was ear- and mind-expanding, but it wasn’t the same as placing mikes next to amps, drums, and voices, and letting a band play live in the studio until you got the right take.
In other words, the idea of “a fix-it-in-the-mix approach” had long been in place when digital recording was introduced. The biggest impact of digital technology came later, when Pro Tools made it easy to move digital files by “cutting and pasting” them with a computer mouse and monitor -- engineers no longer had to take an actual razor blade to a piece of magnetic recording tape, then splice it in somewhere else to correct or enhance a recording. Add to that the ability to correct an instrument’s or singer’s pitch with Auto-Tune, and engineers, producers, and musicians were suddenly closer to being able to make note-perfect recordings.
But the spontaneity that pop music thrives on is undermined by the perfection made possible by digital technology. Instruments and voices are rarely perfectly in pitch, and drummers seldom keep absolutely regular time. When I hear music that relies on the tools I’ve described to correct things, I always think it sounds like something made in a laboratory.
Not long ago, I was sitting in my dentist’s waiting room as the local top 40 station played a handful of current hits, then reached back to the 1980s for Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door.” That’s not my favorite Townshend song, or even my favorite of the album on which it first appeared, Empty Glass. But in contrast to the other tracks I’d just heard, it had clearly been the work of an artist, a recording engineer, a producer, and musicians working to put one person’s song across. The other recordings had been too fussed over, overworked, to the point that they lacked a human touch.
I wonder if the current drop in sales of music can be partly attributed to the cold calculation that has taken over how it’s produced. I think there’s a subtle psychological reaction that causes people to enjoy today’s music superficially, but not connect with it as deeply as my generation did with its music.
I also think there are other factors to be considered. Young people now have immersive video games, television shows that can be streamed or watched on cable channels and personal devices, and social media. All of those things dominate their time and direct their attention away from music. The level of commitment that baby boomers and, to a lesser extent, Gen Xers had toward music has dwindled in a world that has so many more distractions.
Easier access to music also has had its effect. Guttenberg asked jazz musician Maria Schneider what the world would be like if digital had never happened. “People would be listening more thoughtfully to music,” she responded, “as they wouldn’t be gorging on an all-you-can-eat buffet of ‘content’ shoved in their face every morning, noon, and night.” When AM radio dominated the record scene, I’d wait eagerly for a tune that had caught my ear to be played again. If it wasn’t played, I’d call the station to request it. And if it meant enough to me, I bought the single. With long-form FM radio, that commitment moved on to entire albums.
Contrast that with being able to stream music from the many platforms available today. It’s not really shoved in our faces, but it is readily available. Music that you can hear by just clicking on a mouse or a smartphone screen doesn’t build loyalty or affection the way radio play or the rare TV appearance once did. In the same way, downloading isn’t the same as going to a record store and exploring what’s on the shelves. Some of the happy accidents that occurred in those old analog days -- something as simple as a single released on a small regional label building a groundswell of interest and sales -- are gone.
So far, I seem to be in agreement with Guttenberg, who is among the many audiophile writers who bemoan the rise of digital and attribute to it the shrinking impact of music in people’s lives. But I think there’s another explanation that doesn’t seem to come up in these discussions: It might be hard for those who grew up at a time when rock’n’roll and soul music changed the culture to accept the fact that perhaps our music has run its course.
In the 1960s, a good proportion of pop music was countercultural. It was dramatically different from the music our parents listened to, and their hit parade was different from their parents’. Most new pop music I hear, even the stuff I like, is based on chord structures and melodic approaches that sound familiar and well worn. I liked two albums released in 2017 very much: Near to the Wild Heart of Life, by the Japandroids, and Life Without Sound, by Cloud Nothings. Great records, strong songwriting, but nothing new -- nothing that sounds as if it could spark a cultural movement. Critics my age like to point to recordings like these as proof that rock is still vital. Real rock’n’roll still is, but in the same way that jazz is. It has its devotees, but it’s not a culturally defining artform in the way it had been for so long.
Guttenberg asked Neal Sugarman, cofounder of Daptone Records, to imagine a world without the rise of digital music. “First thing that comes to mind would be that the Dap-Kings and others in the Daptone universe would possibly be rich,” Sugarman responded. But the kind of real and emotionally raw soul music that Daptone does so well was already in the distant past when, in 2002, the label released the first LP by the late Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.
Disco has had more staying power than some of the music I grew up with -- I hear it in so many records now -- but a lot of innovation seems to be occurring in hip-hop. I don’t follow hip-hop closely, but young jazz musicians, including my son, have incorporated it into their music, along with current R&B and 1970s fusion. The results are often bracing and exciting . . . but I don’t see jazz becoming the next big thing.
I don’t know what the next big thing will be, or what will spark it. Hip-hop and R&B are such big sellers that in 2017, for the first time, the Recording Academy finally gave them their own categories in their Grammy nominations for that year. But those genres are sellers in an already depressed market. People don’t buy music -- they stream it. And I’m not convinced that streaming or downloads will create the same sort of loyalty and commitment to music that my friends and I had.
When I graduated from college and got a job, the first thing I bought was a decent stereo. So did many of my friends. A few of us became audiophiles, within our budgets. Our desire to hear music in the best sound possible was driven by our love of music, and by the fact that we had sizable record collections. When CDs were introduced, we began collecting them, too, while remaining loyal to vinyl. Over the years, we’ve become archivists -- curators of a sort.
My kids grew up in a house filled with LPs and CDs and heard a lot of music that their friends didn’t. Because I’m a somewhat older parent, my kids heard unusual music, such as Captain Beefheart and Archie Shepp. But they also know more of the Beatles than the music that they recorded after Sgt. Pepper’s, as well as all of the Who and the Stones, Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and so on. Radio has focused so narrowly on “classic rock” that many worthwhile recordings are lost in the shuffle.
How many people would know that Steve Miller’s first five LPs are better (at least to my ears) than the stuff that’s played to death on classic-rock radio? Or that Spirit made four terrific albums? That Frank Zappa’s music is breathtaking in its variety and scope? That Miles Davis (to move into another genre) made records that are not titled Kind of Blue?
I’ll continue to write about great vinyl reissues here, but perhaps I’ll occasionally try to highlight a few obscurities worth hearing in any recording medium. Maybe I can direct young listeners and musicians to Stax/Volt records, to kindle their interest in that kind of music. Exposure to all kinds of music makes musicians and listeners more adventurous. I know about Archie Shepp and other challenging music because someone, probably Lester Bangs, wrote about it in Rolling Stone decades ago, and because, in its early days, FM rock stations were so loosely programmed that their DJs would play all kinds of strange things.
None of this will undo the effects of digital technology, and attentive listeners unable to tolerate the coldness of today’s pop may find themselves moving in other directions, toward music that moves them more, and in which they can become deeply engaged. And, who knows? Maybe Neal Sugarman will find that the musicians in the Daptone universe, and other honest musicians, will become rich after all -- that they’ll spark the next big thing in music that changes everything.
. . . Joseph Taylor