Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Things We Lost with the Death of the Record Industry

I spend a lot of time bidding good riddance to the record industry here. That's only because, for whatever reason, I only consider the last 20 years when I talk about the record industry in the context of copyright management. But the generation of producers before the ones that drove the industry into the ground are a real loss to American culture.

Jobs: Goes without saying, but a lot of jobs got flushed. Oh sure, you can technically still get a job arranging strings or horns, but it's even less likely now than it has ever been. And in the present climate, you no longer get to just be an arranger. You've got to be an arranger and a producer and most importantly, an entrepreneur. At least the record industry had management to think about this stuff for us. But listen to a recording like Harold Melvin and the Blue Note's Don't Leave Me This Way. You've probably got to employ 2-3 people just to place all the microphones and maintain the equipment. Then there's a string arranger, 3-4 string players at least, and the list goes on. I seriously doubt that those string players were also trying to hold down a full time boring job and use social networking sites to promote themselves. Because there was a larger organization to be part of, they were able to specialize.

Quality: I'm not saying I don't know a lot of brilliant independent engineers and producers. I'm saying that I don't know many of them who get to work on a Neve board the size of Minnesota with a plate verb and a 2" tape setup. Without the institutions that were record labels, it's nearly impossible to afford the quality facilities that existed in the past. These resources were completely squandered by the 1980s, however. Take a listen to a Duran Duran record if you want to hear the miserable, flat, blurry sound that I'm talking about. I blame cassettes, the only medium I reserve more hatred for than CDs. The era of digital instruments brought about a lot of real opportunity to expand the options for the musician. Instead, they were used to do crappy approximations of what we were doing really well for the preceding 30 years. They put a lot of people out of a job, and they reduced the quality of recordings dramatically.

Freedom From Choice: The options available to the average listener now are so enormous. Most mp3 player users spend the entire time fiddling with them. I wonder if a song even gets finished anymore. Fact is, the way the human attention span is, having 300 songs just means that what you're listening to isn't quite the exact song or mood you'd like to be listening to. The average schmuck had fewer choices in the 1970s than he does today, and those choices were higher quality. When I listen to Tears of a Clown and I imagine that it used to be popular, I imagine a society with a lot more dignity, and a lot higher standards than the society that made "Soulja Boy" a number 1 hit.

People choose music that they think is a vice, that they feel is bad for them. It sold metal, it sold rap. If you want your kid not to listen to this stuff, tell them it's good for them. That it will make them smarter. Given the option of choices they perceive as negative, the public typically takes them. The record industry acted as a tastemaker, and for some time they did a pretty good job. Once their work in this department became so awful though, public contempt toward them started building. But thats like hating a baker who made something so delicious and bad for you. On the other hand, that might not be as absurd as it sounded before cities started banning trans fats. Anyways, their obviously miserable taste turned the entire peripheral industry against them.
Ultimately, I think that the real killer of the record industry was this decline in quality. But I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Most of our society's greatest recordings were made with the help of a system that was dying a slow painful death when my generation put it out of its misery. I still won't miss them, because I can't forgive them for the 1980s and 90s.

No comments: