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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Music is Dying on the Internet

There is no question that technology has improved the quality of life worldwide. The internet has made communication, collaboration and connection faster and easier than ever, but that does not necessarily mean that the quality of these things is improving. The simplification and reduction of a conversation to a collection of acronyms and emojis is not an improvement on interpersonal communication. Also, the accumulation of hundreds of virtual friends and the ego building “likes” that they give is a degradation of what it means to be or have a friend. Similarly, technology and the internet have had deleterious effects on the quality of music and the variety of discourse that it inspires. Mp3’s and the sharing of digital files on peer to peer networks and bit torrent sites has reduced the value of music for music consumers to nothing. This is a problem for both makers and consumers of music because the incentives that have driven the viability of the music business have been undermined and we are seeing those effects in the variety, quality and non-existent emergence of new forms of music being produced today.

Music is culturally, recreationally and ritualistically valuable to humanity and has been for thousands of years. A pair of flutes, made of animal bone, that have been proven through carbon dating to be between 43,000 and 44,000 years old were recently discovered in a cave in Germany. Thus, proving that music has been a part of our lives since the beginning of our species. Researchers have suggested that music may have been one of the behaviors unique to homo-sapiens that provided an evolutionary advantage by helping early humans to maintain larger social networks, thus aiding in the expansion of territory (BBC.com).

We can not listen to or even know what was played on these flutes, but the objects themselves have profound cultural value just as the artifacts of modern popular music do. Consumers and fans of music collect ticket stubs, set lists and t-shirts to prove that they were one of a lucky few who was there to experience the ephemeral magic of a live performance. LP’s, CD’s and Cassettes were cherished and worried over by heartsick or angry fans who memorized every word on the album sleeve and marveled at the meanings hidden in the artwork. All of this has been lost in the digital age of music.

Music plus the internet, also known as music 2.0, has led to a complete devaluation of the product that musicians create. As soon as a song could be reduced to bits and effortlessly copied and transferred over the internet, several detrimental effects followed. Peer to Peer downloading sites such as Napster and Pirate Bay cropped up and made it possible for music fans to download vast libraries of music and other media for free. Music consumers now expect to pay nothing for the music that they love. Neil S. Tyler, in an article written for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, explained that most of the revenue created by copywrite ownership goes to the major record labels because of the common practice of artists signing over their intellectual property rights in recording contracts (6). This allows certain music consumers to feel justified in illegally downloading  music from the internet, but Tyler goes on to state, “by diminishing the operating budgets of record labels, however, music piracy also limits the opportunities available to recording artists; consequently, the supply and diversity of music that can be made available to consumers diminishes as well”(7). Another byproduct of the elimination of the physical CD or LP is that the feeling of guilt that would normally be associated with shoplifting has also been eliminated. Music fans who would never think of walking out of a record store with a backpack full of stolen records are unphased by downloading an iPod full of music from the internet. In fact, some even try to justify it by calling it an act of civil disobedience (Lanier, 87).

Music 2.0 has also had negative effects on the quality of music being made. Music evolves to the context that is available to its composers. Music from every era and culture is designed to sound good in a specific space. Music that sounds good in a large echo chamber, such as a cathedral, will not have the same power if performed in the open air of an African savannah and vice versa (Byrne, 16-28). Additionally, attention span, the speed of turnover in fads and the seemingly infinite amount of music available on the internet all act as constraints to the individual creating music today. Song lengths are shortening, and songs have become more repetitive and less complex. In the past, a song could have a slow build up to a gratifying resolution or chorus, but today the recommendation is to open the song with the chorus and just keep on playing it over and over for two and a half minutes. This new trend in popular music replaces sonic and emotional dynamics with a singular hook better suited to selling shoes than expressing any real artistic intent.

Another casualty in this conflict is the album. Albums are growing less cohesive and some artists are forgoing the album altogether opting, instead, for a constant stream of singles. Gone are the days of the concept album, replaced now by albums in which every song sounds like it could be from a completely different performer. Artists do this for the same reason that a fisher casts multiple fishing lures. The thinking is, make 12 completely different songs, use them as bait on a hook, cast them out into the internet and hope that one will take off. If one of them does catch, it is certain to create mere one-hit-wonder success. If an artist does not develop a unique personal style and voice it is highly unlikely that they will create a lasting and meaningful album having a resonant and quality message that will attract lasting fans, let alone a lasting career. Albums such as Pink Floyd’s, The Wall and The Beatles, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, if made today, would never attain the commercial success or have the social impact that they did in their respective eras.

Other advances in technology have also had negative effects on the quality of music today. Recording and mixing tools have been developed that make the impossible possible. These tools can be used sparingly to significant effect but when overused they rob musicians and their audiences of a unique experience and space in the musical culture. Digital audio workstations (DAWs) such as Pro Tools are “hardware and software that allowed musicians to record, edit and mix sound in the digital domain” (Milner, 294) These tools are great for independent musicians. There are many of them available and a serviceable setup consisting of a DAW and digital audio interface capable of recording an entire band can cost as little as $1000 to $2000. Add a few microphones and a laptop and every bedroom in the nation is a recording studio. Independent musicians can now bypass the expensive recording studio process by doing it themselves, which can be good for musicians and their fans.

Deterioration of quality enters with the overuse of some of the tools that are built into the DAWs. Because of plug-ins such as Auto-tune and Beat Detective, drummers no longer need to hold a steady beat and singers no longer need to be capable of holding a tune. In the book “Perfecting Sound Forever, An Aural History of Recorded Music,” Greg Milner asserts that “DAWs have dealt a fatal blow to the idea of musical spontaneity”(299). Milner illustrates this by letting three prominent recording engineers, Chris Lord -Alge, who has 2007 credits, from Diana Ross to Slipknot to his name, Tom Lord-Alge, who has 1430 credits, from Peter Gabriel to Coldplay to his name, and Bob Clearmountian, who has 1733 credits, from The Rolling Stones to The Cure to his name, have their say.

‘You create a lazy musician who will play a mediocre part and then enhance it with tuning or plug-ins,’ says Chris Lord-Alge. ‘I definitely hear mediocre performances becoming takes, whereas back in the day we’d have them resing or replay it until it was perfect,’ Tom agrees. Sometimes while mixing a record, Bob Clearmountain adds, ‘I’ll hear something and think, why did they even bother? Why didn’t they get someone who could play it? There are amazing musicians out there, who can play in time and sing in tune, so what’s the deal? Why are these losers having their records made?’ (299)

Auto-tune, which corrects bad pitch, and Beat Detective, a quantizing plug-in that corrects bad drumming, are two of the worst offenders in removing the human element from music. Milner quotes Chris Lord-Alge who says that Auto-tune, “sounds like a car horn… Everything’s perfectly pitched, so sometimes you get ‘em hitting harmonies and no one’s bending. It just sounds so fake”(343). In the popular music produced today, every cymbal crash, bass drum thump, and crack of the snare is perfectly in time and every note sung is processed to unnatural perfection. The result for fans of music is that every song sounds the same and live performances become a disappointment when the fans realize that their favorite singer cannot even sing. The result for musicians is that talent no longer matters. The keys to success are no longer passion, practice, and refining of craft, they are marketing, branding and, if you are lucky, a pretty face.

Making it big as a musician has always been elusive and the “superstar” club has always had a relatively small membership, but there was once a middle ground where lesser known and less accessible artists could create and sell their music to support themselves; even support a family and have some semblance of financial security. The internet promised them more. It promised fans of music more. The thinking was, by removing the prohibitive cost of entry and the barriers that stood between artists and fans, artists would have direct access to their fans and fans would be able to directly support their favorite musicians. Artists would be able to keep more of the money generated by album sales and fans would have more ownership and connection to the artists. While much of this has happened, it has not been on the scale that was dreamed of and there have been detrimental side effects, for independent creators, caused by the devaluation of music as a commodity. As album sales plummeted, due to internet piracy, the major labels, represented by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), fought back in court by suing file sharers, Napster and all others that came from that mold (Arditi, 413). The result and compromise has been the rise of subscription-based music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music as well as free services such as YouTube that generate revenue for Google, by selling advertising and aggregated usage information to those advertisers. Streaming services charge a minimal amount per stream for copywrite access to giant catalogs of music and the Industry has bought into it. In fact, the major labels, as part of the compromise deal, were given stock in Spotify and the other streaming services in the contract agreements for access to their entire artist rosters. The Industry has found a way to recover losses and remain solvent, but the artists receive even less of the profit generated by the enjoyment of the art they create. Streaming services pay a pittance per stream and the artists only receive a small fraction of that. The chart on the following page, based on information gathered by the International Federation of Phonographic Industry, shows a matrix of the number of streams needed, on various streaming services, for an unsigned artist to make minimum wage. It indicates a dismal outlook for independent artists. The most popular streaming service for music is YouTube and because of their advertising-based business model, they pay artists $0.0006, or 6 hundredths of one cent, per stream. This means that it takes 17 plays to make one penny, 1,667 plays to make a single dollar and 2.4 million plays to make minimum wage, which they estimate at $1,472. Clearly, this is not a sustainable career choice for any independent artist who would like to pay the rent, let alone live comfortably and support a family.

More people enjoy more music now than ever, but they also pay less for it than ever before. Younger fans of music value music as an experience rather than a possession. This leaves live performance and merchandising as the only viable revenue streams available to musicians. Sherman Young and Steve Collins wrote in an article titled “A View From the Trenches of Music 2.0” that “While unwilling to pay for MP3 files, fans are willing to pay significant amounts of money to see their favorite bands live.” They went on to state, “MP3s and CDs are becoming viewed as promotional tools dispatched to draw fans to live performances. There, they transform into customers paying for the initial ticket and then merchandise including the traditional T-shirt, but also singles, albums, and in some cases a recording of the gig they just saw—the ultimate fan memento” (352). The economy of music has changed dramatically and not every musician wants or can afford to spend their lives on the road, touring endlessly. One musician interviewed by Young and Collins said, “’We need a completely different economy perhaps. But performing live is also a hard way to make money. Touring is expensive’” (353). Jaron Lanier, in his book You Are Not a Gadget, sums up the endless touring dilemma well by writing,

If you are young and childless, you can run around in a van to gigs, and you can promote those gigs online. You will make barely any money, but you can crash on couches and dine with fans you meet through the web. This is a good era for that kind of musical adventure. But it is a youthiness career. Very few people can raise kids with that lifestyle. It’s treacherous in the long run, as youth fades. (92)

The options available to up and coming musicians are not promising as sustainable careers and this directly effects the quality of the music available to listening audiences. Quality underground and independent music will, of course, still be made, but there will be much less of it and the careers of those who make it will be short. The musical space is filling with terabyte upon terabyte of cheap, self-produced, vapid viral content rather than professionally produced, well thought out and cultured records. Many talented songwriters and musicians will choose careers in other, more lucrative, industries and music will be emptier and poorer for it.

Music is so much a part of us that it seems to be written into our DNA. The natural laws that organize the universe are the same that demarcate the musical scale. A music lover can be transported through time and space by a song. Songs bring sights, smells, and emotions back from the past as well as inspire vision and future progress. Gods are worshiped, laws are changed, lives are saved, love is gained and lost, death is mourned, and birth is celebrated through music. The catharsis that is achieved through music holds communities and countries together and allows us to connect to and understand other cultures throughout the world on a deeply human level. We can share in each other’s pain, anguish, hope, triumph, regret, embarrassment, and pride and know that we are not alone in our lives. It is important that we value music and the people who create the music that inspires us. Musicians need to be provided a space and a means to create the music that adds so much to the enjoyment of our existence. Technology has removed many of the economic foundations that make this possible and fans of music must support the musicians that they love, not just with adoration and attention, but with their wallets. Otherwise, they will live in a world of disposable music filled with mash-ups, ringtones and advertising jingles.

Works Cited

Arditi, David. “ITunes: Breaking Barriers and Building Walls.” Popular Music & Society, vol. 37, no. 4, Oct. 2014, pp. 408–424. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/03007766.2013.810849. (413)

Byrne, David. How Music Works. Three Rivers Press, an Imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2017. (16-28)

“Earliest Music Instruments Found.” BBC News, BBC, 25 May 2012, www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-18196349.

Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, 2011. (87, 92)

Milner, Greg. Perfecting Sound Forever: an Aural History of Recorded Music. Faber and Faber, 2010. (294, 299, 343)

TYLER, NEIL S. “Music Piracy and Diminishing Revenues: How Compulsory Licensing for Interactive Webcasters Can Lead the Recording Industry Back to Prominence.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review, vol. 161, no. 7, June 2013, pp. 2101–2150. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asn&AN=88950304&site=ehost-live. (6,7)

Young, Sherman, and Steve Collins. “A View from the Trenches of Music 2.0.” Popular Music & Society, vol. 33, no. 3, July 2010, pp. 339–355. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/03007760903495634. (352, 353)

 

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