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Originally published at An Island Where No One Lives.  Adapted and edited for inclusion here.


Well, I finally bought the Coldplay CD, the one with "Speed of Sound" on it. I just couldn't get that song out of my head. So I went out and got it, thus succumbing to, I guess, peer pressure. I did, however, wait for a couple of months, so Coldplay's fifteen minutes are pretty much over, so it wasn't like I was succumbing to good peer pressure. I also bought a Doctor Who DVD at the same time, so it wasn't like Coldplay was my only goal. Defensive, aren't I?

The reason I hesitated so long was that I was pretty sure "Speed of Sound" would be the only really good song on it. And I was mostly right. Don't get me wrong, the rest of it is at least agreeable, and there's a clever re-working of the riff from Kraftwerk's "Computer Love" that's, er, clever. But it's basically U2 sonic mush, shaped into some riffs and keening vocals.

Notice I don't say it's "U2-like" or "U2-esque." This is basically a U2 record that they didn't make themselves. Chris Martin and Bono have very similar voices (Martin's voice is sweeter, but Bono's is more powerful), but the guitarists for the bands could be evil twins to each other. The only thing I can figure is that Coldplay must have been really scared by U2 some time in their (collective) past, and they've been trying to work out some kind of therapy this way.   It's the least cynical explanation.

That's not really what I want to write about, though. It struck me that a CD, as a container of music, is a fixed product. One generally has the idea that it should hold a certain amount of music, anywhere from 35 minutes (at the extreme acceptable low end) to over an hour. Anything less than 35 minutes seems like unused potential (at best) or a cynical rip-off (at worst). So I imagine that any conscientious band, not wanting to appear parsimonious to their fans, probably puts some less-than-stellar material out, just so the CD format seems to be a reasonable value to the potential consumer.

But doesn't this mean that the overall quality of the CD is diluted? Sure, we're consumers, but we're also listeners. Back when vinyl was the standard, this good stuff on this Coldplay CD would have made an outstanding EP. As in, play it til the grooves wear out. As an LP, it would have been somewhat less of an achievement, but probably still regarded as one of the band's "good ones."  As a CD, the sheer length means the excellent track ("Speed of Sound") and the couple of very good tracks are drowned in a sea of okay/not-bad noise. (Granted, the band members probably think all the songs are great, but they're not writing this, are they.)

As our entertainment technology continues to advance, performers are being asked to adapt not only to this technology, but to the changing expectations of the consumer, which are in turn generated by the new technology. So whereas once a recording was the means by which music could be preserved and distributed, now a band is the means by which a recording can be produced and sold. (Thatís not supposed to be as cynical as it sounds.) 

This isnít going to be a rant about how music nowadays sucks (though it does), as I suspect that as every generation passes, thatís the common complaint from the old to the young. The music that we choose is better than what came before, and better than what will come after. Twas ever thus.

No, what I want to talk about is the impact of recording technology, not just on how music is experienced, or how it is created, but why it is (possibly) created the way it is, and the ways in which it is considered and used by the listener.

I suspect that before the invention of recorded sound, music was less tied to any kind of restriction. If you wanted to write an opera cycle that lasted several days, you could do so without let or hindrance. Likewise, if your song was only a few seconds in length, there were no rules to say that couldn't be done.  (Having your music performed for an audience was a different matter, but I digress.)

Most composers and performers didn't do these extreme things, because popular music is, for the most part, a functional art form. People want to dance, or feel beloved, or feel blue, feel smarter than everyone else, or otherwise be entertained.  (Classical music also has these requirements and shares similar origins, but they are less obvious and also should be in a different essay.)  The music had to fit a certain need in order to become popular in the first place. While Wagnerís marathon works are respected, theyíre not as widespread as many other, simpler forms of music.

When recorded sound became popular, the limits of music (at least commercial music) changed. A song couldn't be longer than what a wax cylinder, or (later) what a 78 RPM disk could hold--there was no medium capable of greater length. And I think over the course of the decades, the recorded sound object (the record) began to shape music to reflect its own image.

Originally, a dance band, for example, would simply shape its performance to the length of the event where it was playing. If the town social ended early, they'd stop and go home. If the square dance went longer than expected, they could play more songs, or play longer versions of the songs they knew.

I think the first audio recordings were, basically, promotion for a band. The band could have a record played on the radio and people would know what the band sounded like, and if they liked what they heard, they'd go to the live show. The record was an advertisement for the concert.

My own opinion is that this was the norm for a long time. People bought records not for the records themselves, but because they liked the concert. For one reason, for a long time records didn't have the same audio quality as live performance.  Anyone who's heard recordings from the early twentieth century has heard pops and dings and an overall flat, dead sound, with everything using only the middle frequencies.   Concerts were also right there and then, probably more fun than a tinny recording that had to rely on memory for most of its effect.

But when records became audibly equivalent to live performance, and began to surpass that (via overdubbing, compression, effects, etc) I believe the balance shifted.

Suddenly, records were no longer the enticement to a live performance; the live performance was now the enticement to go out and buy the record. That must have seemed odd to those bands that realized what was going on--they just wanted to (at this point in the century) rock and roll, but their wings were being fitted to a different flight path. Playing music? Sure, sure, as long as the LP sells!

As the recording process (and the resulting LPs) continued to be refined, I imagine that bands began to tailor their aims more and more toward the physical record, and less toward what the record was supposed to document: the band's own performance. After all, most bands at first aspired to a song on the radio, ie, one side of a 45 RPM record (the other side could be, and usually was, anything). Two to three minutes at most, just enough for radio play. That was enough to get the band booked to play at the sock hop, which was the end goal of the whole process.

When the LP became the standard, suddenly more was required of bands. They had more minutes to fill. Pete Townsend tells how he wrote "A Quick One" (a ten minute song cycle) because his producer told him he was ten minutes short of enough minutes to fill an album. Townsend was a consummate professional though, and very talented, so that ten minutes wasn't just band noodling.

That wasn't always the case, of course. Insert your favorite meaningless jam band here, but respect me and my kind if we say But wait! about our favorite prog rock outfit. To say nothing of Tangerine Dream!

Since this is getting too long, let me wrap up here. The era of the LP gave way to the era of the CD, and bands were under even more pressure to fill those minutes. Which leads us to Coldplay, and an excellent EP turned into an okay CD.  Bands went from having to create three minutes of material, to around forty, to over an hour.   Sometimes a band just doesn't have an hour in them, so I imagine they start diluting the ideas that they have in order to spread the wealth.  So a great riff, a great chorus and a clever lyric might be used to create three decent songs instead of one terrific one.

There may be hope on the horizon. The advent of the iPod and downloadable MP3s have made a conceptual leap in what is expected of music these days. There's no longer a physical medium, with attendant specifications (and expectations), that has to be fulfilled, so a recorded work isn't tied to plastic or vinyl in order to be marketed.  It's still tied to recordings rather than live performance, but it seems to know that there's a need out there that bands and CDs can only sporadically fulfill.

Suppose Coldplay decided that what they wanted to go back to was the era of the 45 RPM record?  The song on the radio...or in this case, the song on the iPod. They could put all their resources into making that one song really, really great, and not bother with the attendant CD.   They would record again when they had another song they felt was excellent.   They could refine their writing process so that instead of three okay songs, they could combine that riff, that chorus and those lyrics into one excellent song.   In a sense, we're back where we started, with the artist focusing on the work, rather than the medium.  To me, that has to be a step forward.

Honesty compels me to note that I haven't bought any music downloads (and I haven't stolen any either).   To be honest, I like the feel of the CD in my hand as a nice, solid reminder of money spent.  (The LP has an even better feel.)   We've grown to expect to consume music in a certain format (at least we old people have, the young might not have such a difficulty), and any format change will encounter consumer resistance (though such resistance seems to be more easily overcome with increased communication--CDs were resisted for a time, DVDs for a significantly smaller time, MP3s are encountering little resistance).   

Wanting to possess music in tangible format is still a matter of terminal nostalgia, which our species seem can't seem to shake since the advent of the recorder, but at least MP3 files are a step forward for the consumer.  He or she doesn't have to listen to hours of drivel to get to the good stuff.  Which of course, varies from consumer to consumer. One man's drivel, etc.  Music will never be only stuff that I like, and it shouldn't be anyway.

Tailoring music to the digital file format might mean a whole new era of composer-consumer relations, one actually based on music and not product.

Or it might not. Never underestimate the ability of marketing to undercut everything.  That great three minute song might get tugged and yanked into a thirty-minute mess ("If they liked some, they'll like more!").   Bands will not only be able to focus their resources, they'll also be able to overindulge themselves at whim.   The marketplace might become a crowded, confusing mess, and it might be impossible to find what you want when you want it.   Let's not even talk about the advent of the MP3 with an expiration date.   Sure, vinyl would eventually wear out, but gosh....

But don't we have some of these same problems now, with CDs?   At least these problems replaced others, such as poor sound and fragile media.  At least we humans are consistent, upgrading our problems as well as our entertainment.   That ought to count for something.

Still. As for me, I should do something with that iPod, shouldn't I.

Before it does something with me.

September 14, 2005 - December 16, 2005


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