The Decade The Music Died…?
Neil Stainton – record producer, remixer, DJ, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist – examines the evolution of format and production methods and profound changes in how music is distributed, and finds that a certain magic has been lost…
First things first: I’m not a musical nostalgic. I would never, ever lament progress. Music has been my life since I was five years old, and I am constantly seeking out new artists and genres. I’ve used a computer for music since the 80s, and was a re-mixer for a long time from the early-mid-90s. Right the way up 2008/09, I’ve been programming beats and mixing material.
I feel like the era we’re in now is more like the 60s than any other era – in terms of the awful pop (not least some of the Motown) dross of that decade. But what’s really worrying – arguably even more galling than the amount of lamentably dreadful compositions currently filling our homes and public spaces – is the fact that we seem to be losing our emotional connection with popular music. It’s difficult as a consumer to have any argument against Spotify – if you have the premium service, almost everything in the musical canon is there – but streaming means that we listen to music in a different way to the how we used to. We engage with it less because dipping into music online at will means that we taste more but digest less.
My generation would queue outside a record shop on the day a new album was going to be released, buy it and devour it; play it over and over and over again. The hunger came because we’d been starved of that artist’s work since their previous offering – and could only listen to what was in our tangible collections.
All we’d got to consume, in regard to the artists we loved, was maybe something we’d read about them in a magazine – but that didn’t count for much, because really it was always about the music. Now, within a week of something new being published on YouTube, some guy has probably done a remix or cover of it in his bedroom which is available here and now for all. Of course, that happened in previous decades – people like Hendrix would cover, say, Bob Dylan when playing live; they all played one another songs, they were all buddies – but you couldn’t stream those performances at will.
Another problem is the fact that technical progress, paradoxically, has been detrimental to sound quality. An MP3 track is less then 10 megabytes, seven or eight normally, whereas the original WAV file would have been about 35 megabytes. What you get from Apple’s iTunes is not even the best quality MP3. Even ripping a CD in iTunes using default settings will deliver this inferior quality MP3. You can actually change the settings within iTunes to ‘rip’ the tracks as WAV files, which are top quality, but it’s unlikely that many iTunes users adopt this – after all, bigger files take up more memory.
When people bought vinyl albums, they would also pour over the artwork, the lyrics, the inserts. All this helped consumers to identify more easily with the album and artist, and make it became part of their lives; perhaps that’s why vinyl is enjoying yet another resurgence right now – but that, of course, also comes down to the sound, too. It’s warmer, it doesn’t sound as brash – depending on how well it’s mastered. Once, when someone told John Peel that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise, he replied, “Listen, mate, life has surface noise.”
When we listen to files, we’re still listening to songs, but they have no material existence. There is an estimated £30 billion worth of media stored online – debate about the bequeathing of digital assets and so on is ongoing and fervid – but these files are all intrinsically worthless. This throws up philosophical arguments – if you could digitally copy one of the Easter eggs created by Fabergé for the Russian Imperial family, the originals would be worth nothing. If you could digitally copy a Rembrandt then the original Rembrandt is worthless. When you can reduce music to binary, it’s worthless as an artefact. Surely that has to affect our relationship with it?
For me and my contemporaries, in our teenage years our record collections were effectively our diaries. It’s intriguing how we still call songs “records”. It was the dance movement that coined the term “tunes” – hence iTunes – but who is proud of their MP3 library, like they once were of their record collection? People might have been in the early days, but now no one cares.
Digitalisation has evened the playing field – but it was the competitive spirit that drove the creativity. There was a period in the 70s and 80s when rock producers were trying to make their music more and more bombastic, more over the top. Enormity became a signature of rock. Then, at the height of the dance music era, producers would go to clubs to hear their stuff with a lot of other steamed up people and, while having a good old dance, listen as to whether their stuff sounded right – whether the bass was nice and fat, whether the beats were coming though clean, checking the vocals weren’t slicing your head off. These were all things producers worked hard at to get right.
That competitive element in the sound really pushed dance music forward in the 90s. People think it was just down to this social movement, and drugs did play a big part, but the competitive element between producers was what really pushed the sound on.
But since everything went digital, you can buy the plug-ins yourself and master a digital file online. Skill and devotion have gone out the window. Music – as depicted on the producer’s digital equalizer – is all maxed-out, with no troughs or peaks. It’s intense from start to finish. So maybe our connection to music started to slip when we started to make records using computers and software instead of playing something ‘real’ to listeners.
Of course, it’s possible the current vinyl resurgence is also part of a broader connection with a safer time people are indulging in right now. There’s a desire for things to be a bit more local, a bit smaller and less corporate. People are going back to smaller businesses like local butcher, local greengrocers and barbers, for example.
Our newfound disconnect is not just down to the way we listen to the music, but with how it is made. Many of the big studios have closed, partly because of the diminishing amount of money coming in from record sales, but also because there is less demand for artists to work in them – everything can be done with a laptop equipped with a sexy sound library. You no longer need a live string section to make an orchestral backing sound great. You can auto-tune a singer to sing within an inch of their life – someone speaking in their ordinary voice can be engineered to sound like an operatic virtuoso.
The reality now is, there is no way of telling now if a singer is actually singing: whether it’s their voice or whether it’s been manipulated to be in tune, or whether they’ve chopped it up and got it in time. Us producers have always tried to display the artist in the best possible light, but you couldn’t take someone who couldn’t sing and create a recording of someone who seems to be able to sing. The downside of that is, vocalists’ dynamics never change. Things have been kind of shut down emotionally and lack soul. How can we connect as profoundly with music that’s been perfected mechanically, using computers and algorithms. Can you imagine Mark Knopfler auto-tuned? Or Bob Dylan?
It’s difficult to say, with hindsight, how many of those stars we came to know and love from the 50s up until the year 2000 would make it today in our music world. There are undoubtedly people as gifted as Prince, who would have made it at anytime because of his sheer ability, and the world won’t stop producing people with his talent. But when the record companies are only going for the out-and-out commercial prospects, I wonder if it puts off the more creative artist, those are less inclined to be mainstream. Where are they going to go? This is where is where it all gets murky.
Let’s say you’re a 17-year-old budding musician – do you get that out of your system by making tracks in your bedroom, then publishing them on YouTube? Are you going to get the same kind of kick out of that as you would have done pursuing a recording deal?
What’s certain is, the type of artists we are presented with by the industry powers that be is changing profoundly. You have so many genuinely talented musicians – your Pharrells and Ed Sheerans of this world – but others, if they didn’t have the media out there, if they weren’t showing off their bodies and dressing the part and being on TV at every opportunity, the music alone would not be enough to sustain them.
That’s why record companies are getting them to sign what they call them 360 degree deals, which means they sign up every revenue stream – the recordings, the coversheets, the merchandising, the advertising, the touring – and they will get you out there as a media figure to reap the dividends. The music just becomes a way of doing a million other things for which you and your record company can get paid. That’s the way it’s gone and will continue to go. I’m sure this, too, is a huge part of why the depth of musicality doesn’t isn’t what it used to be.
Roger Daltrey, late last year, cited another possible factor when he bemoaned the lack of musical movements in the contemporary cultural landscape. “Where are the artists writing with any real sense of angst and purpose?” he asked. “There are no movements at the moment: we had mod and then there was punk, but it’s so hard to start a movement now. Unless it’s Isis.”
The early ravers would say they were part of the movement – they like to suggest that going out on a Friday and Saturday night and getting completely trashed was rallying against Thatcher – but it wasn’t, because the people organising the raves were Thatcher’s kids, making vast amounts of money.
So why are there no movements today? Well, most of yesteryear’s movements were sparked by predominantly working class artists, and the current crop of musicians are largely middle-class. They’re the only people who can afford to take the steps, in the early years, to do it. They’re the kind of people who have parents who are prepared to turn a blind eye to them not doing something else – unlike back in the day, when the middle-class kid in question would be told to go and get a haircut and a job: in that order. Middle-class parents want their kids to go on X Factor and want be on the telly. It’s a badge of honour. But does that nurture the same emotional bond as before?
For me, the most exciting ever decade for popular music is the one that gets dismissed the most: the 70s. It had everything – the early blues bands of the 60s were doing stuff; the rock heritage of Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Queen, The Stones; jazz funk, disco, punk, new wave, progressive rock. You had Philadelphia soul, Bobby Womack, The Crusaders, Earth, Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan. Song-writers like Elvis Costello entering the scene. It was an era when everything was made live, before computers were used in the studio. It was an incredible decade, and I put that down to the openness of the market. People wanted to get into an artist they admired. We were connected to it, a great deal more than we are now.
A common misconception, commonly heard from the more sentimental bar-room lecturer, is that young people – and youth has predominantly driven popular music from the post-war years onwards – are “talentless”. It’s a biologically impossible myth that every generation has indulged in from The Year Dot.
What is certain, however, is that commercial and technological developments in the last decade or so are robbing us of a certain magic we may never recapture.