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Psycho Recording Industry

Digital killed the musical star

Mar. 23, 2009
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Psychoacoustics is the study of how the brain perceives sound. One point of Steve Knopper's insightful Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age (Free Press) is that psychoacoustics also has to do with sounds the brain leaves out. As early as the 1930s, all sound transfer media were dedicated to cramming into their designs as little information as possible in order to achieve a certain kind of clarity. This was fine except for music, and when we come to the compressed audio file, we arrive at a condition of less music than is really there in order to make it efficient as an MP3 music file. Or a CD, for that matter, which is old technology today.

CDs tossed away all musical content the human ears do not hear. MP3s do this to an even further extent. Engineers, not musicians, make the decisions. Content is inaudibly present but immeasurable, and so the CD and MP3 formats carry less music.

The music industry, time and time again, was offered CD and MP3 technologies but refused to give up vinyl, even when there was a sudden drop in vinyl sales post-disco. Disco actually brought plenty of consumer disgust against all industry offerings on vinyl. There was a surge later on that is identified within pop music as the Michael Jackson Thriller era, but then there was another drop, and this is where the trouble starts. The music industry as a whole panics, and begins to look in desperation for a new medium to excite buyers, and finally executes all the wrong performance ways for the right marketing reasons.

The executives at all of the majors believed they were in control and did not perceive the new listening culture as one that would do anything but buy the next commercial offering no matter what the format. Bootleggers had been a nuisance, but, while lawsuits were initiated against them, nobody saw the next beachhead as being a virtual one, impossible to target. So while CDs were repackaging entire catalogs already on vinyl, the idea of selling digital music was thought by record labels to be unwholesome and entirely the stuff of science fiction. Pirates replaced bootleggers and a CD quickly became less quirky and cool than an MP3 file, especially one that is "liberated" from its marketing source.

The only one watching all this from a predator's fortress was Steve Jobs. He steps in when Napster ultimately steps down due to legal pressure. There was a moment when every consumer of MP3s was in one place at one time within Napster territory. The major labels could have grabbed all of them and turned them into consumers but, instead, when Napster goes down, the millions using it scatter onto millions and millions of servers and never are brought back together.

Although the iTunes virtual catalog, with its iPod material, was the singular business model Jobs crafted based on Napster's success and was sold to the music industry who bought it out of desperation, it represents a few squadrons of buyers compared to the battalions that were ready at Napster's HQ.

And statistics show that iPods carry more pirated music than purchased tunes, so while digital marketing was financially contained it expanded beyond legal containment and everyone now can carry a little Napster in their pocket.

That is the history. The aesthetic is that CDs and now MP3s do not convey all that is really there. Appetite forSelf-Destruction makes its mark by focusing on how music itself has been compromised with the battle waging around its distribution. iTunes is a sneak thief's way into your house of sound. And it gets captured and turned against itself. In the thrill of ruling your own music with the enemy's technological form, you ignore that your musical content has been compromised. Pirates do still rule but sail on empty hulls.

The industry lost album sales forever. Artists still make albums, but merely as selections of songs destined to be cut off sonically as well as aesthetically. There are fewer messages, less musical complexity, and yet listening culture continues to expand. We are victorious losers.

We lost the war even though we own the vacuous spoils of it.


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