Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sound Treasoning: A Brief History of the Fall & Fall of Recorded Sound

The music industry is dead. Hate to break it to you, but it is.

Actually “dead” is too easy a term to use here, one that sacrifices the forest for the trees. A better word to use would be “in transition.” In fact, I’m convinced that the closest thing the music industry has seen to its current state (or lack thereof) of the last ten to fifteen years was about a century earlier, when sound recording was reeking havoc on the sheet music industry. Think about it – until around the turn of the 20th Century, the music industry was built around sheet music. If you wanted to listen to music, you made it yourself in your parlor. If you wanted to get some, there was a nineteenth century version of iTunes for your convenience: Song peddlers who came door-to-door, who would sit down at your piano and play “audio clips” of the songs you were interested in. You bought the ones you wanted, forgot the ones you didn’t. Sound familiar? (No pun intended, of course.)

Yessir, that was the good ol’ days of the music industry, back when Tin Pan Alley was a real place and the only digital recording around was the divots on a player-piano cylinder. But then along came the advent of sound recording – first wax cylinders, then coil cylinders, then circular discs (all of which was the BluRay vs. HD of its day…Remember HD? Or better yet BetaMaxx? Or the minidisc?).

I once had a professor who said the most radical invention in human history was the invention of recorded sound because it had absolutely no precedent. Motion pictures had photographs before them, which in turn had daguerreotypes. The telephone had the telegraph, and, um, people shouting really loud before that. Really tiny handheld devices had relatively small computers before them, which in turn had relatively enormous room-sized punch-card computers before them.

The point is that no one was trying to discover recorded sound while sitting under an apple tree or flying a kite during a lightning storm – Thomas Edison just sort of stumbled upon it while pursuing other seemingly important things that I can’t remember the details of now. But there it was. Sound vibrations captured in foil.

(My above-mentioned professor went so far as to claim that when introducing the first sound devices through nineteenth century informercials – that is, traveling around the country like a small medicine show – in which they would show the audience a live band behind one curtain and a cylinder player behind the other, the audience always picked the live band because they had no concept of sound existing any other way; even though the record was scratchy and flat to our ears, for them sound was sound.)

At any rate, this all sent the sheet music people up in arms over what “really” constituted music and who owned it. In truth, however, it was just the thing that made music so awesome – that it was an invisible, instantly fleeting experience – was also making it very hard to make a buck off of. But as what always happens in our country, an industry sprang up relatively quickly around it, which was strong and powerful for over a century.

Until these days. Once again, music’s etherealness is doing in the big dogs and for over a decade now, we have Chuck D on one side arguing for the music’s freedom and Lars Ulrich on the other arguing for artist’s rights, kids are having hard-drives full of pirated music being confiscated by the law, the idea of a “record label” has shifted so much that a once iron-clad reality has become an experimental liquid.

All of which is not necessarily a bad thing. America is nothing if not a country whose very ideals – freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of all that Declaration of Independence stuff that everyone assumes is in the Constitution (it isn’t) – forces it to constantly question, challenge, reinvent, and adapt. Why shouldn’t our music do the same?

Which finds us in a very odd predicament. The history of recorded sound is nothing if not using sound to make a bigger and larger statement – hence, the one-sided disc gave way to the two-sided disk, which in turn gave way to the multi-record album (so named because it was made up of several record sleeves bound together, not all that different in size and feel of an old photo album), which in turn gave way to the LP (about 20 minutes on each side) to the cassette tape (about 45 minutes on each side) to the CD (80 minutes of glorious, digital sound).

The recent trends in the music industry (or lack thereof) appear to be refocusing things on the single, the A-side, the hit. The albums that had stopped being physical albums around the time that the Greatest Generation were first taking advantage of the G.I. Bill were now being used by their grandchildren in the most abstract of terms: “I’m gonna buy this album on iTunes.”

Or more accurately, “I’m gonna find a copy of this album online and download it.”

Given the amount of sound that can be packed into a modern listening device – and if my collection can be considered an accurate representation, I have three and half days of music on my iPhone and over a month and a half of music on my iTunes – coupled with the ease of sharing that accompanies digital technology, we have an entire generation hoarding music, the majority of which they will likely never listen to.

What we have then is a camera obscura of the observation that began this piece. Perhaps things aren’t going back to the single song so much as people now have the capabilities of gathering lots and lots of albums’ worth of material, thus making it a sort of radioactive freak stepchild of the progression from the single to the album to the cassette tape to the CD. For, in downloading song after song by itself, aren’t we just ultimately gathering a library far beyond what could be held in a 200-disc Case Logic book, or perhaps, even a shelf-lined living room?

If this strikes me as natural, it also strikes me as very American. The history of this country was built upon the notion of Manifest Destiny, that is, the idea that the land is bound to be ours, so we might as well grab it now. It is of course a self-fulfilled prophecy built upon the same logic that drove MacBeth (and we all know how that turned out), but it is also an intrinsic reflection of our national character. Namely, I see it, I should have it, I will have it. Isn’t that the story of America in three phrases or less? If so, the whole thing seems closer to the myth of Icarus than anything to flow out of William Faulkner’s pen.

And if rock and roll is a quintessentially American artifact (which I believe it is) on the same level as the cotton gin, Coca-Cola, and Superman, it only goes to show that its postmodern incarnation is still playing out the same battles that we thought were long resolved when we mis-learned the story of Custer’s Last Stand.

Or even better, go find a copy of Larry Verne’s “Please Mr. Custer,” a stupid novelty hit that topped the charts the same year that JFK took office (it also made #9 on the R&B charts, if you can imagine that), and download it illegally. This is precisely what I thought I had done when I went through a novelty song kick last year (pick to click: Johnny Cymbal’s cover of Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” theory in the form of “Mr. Bass Man”), only except that it’s not there among the 20,773 songs in my iTunes library.

Apparently a bigger facet of the American identity was in fact driving the day: The freedom of choice.

Either that, or Verne’s song – an intangible, ever-fleeting digital indicator of how far technology (and, I would argue, America) could go before turning back on itself – sucked no matter how it was played.