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What Happened to the Music?

We're still in the midst of the iPod revolution

What Happened to the Music?

Oct 20, 2008 12:00 PM,
By Jason Bovberg

Do you still listen to music in your living room? I do. One of my favorite things to do to relax after a hard day’s work is to turn on my system, carefully select a favorite CD, plop myself directly into my living room’s acoustic “sweet spot,” settle back, and listen to the disc all the way through—sometimes twice. If it’s a darkened room, and I’ve got a refreshing beverage in hand, all the better. I’ll admit that opportunities for a family man to enjoy such an evening of musical perfection are few. But it remains a great personal joy.

And everybody I know thinks this behavior is exceedingly strange.

Music has changed in more profound ways than merely its delivery mechanism. Sure, we’ve evolved from tape-based and vinyl-based media into the digital age, tripping and stumbling as we’ve gone, and we’ve even scrambled to find our way across the shiny surface of the compact disc: We began with digitally compressed, compromised musical presentations that nevertheless—at the time—were an acoustic revelation. No pops, warbles, skips, or hiss! How seductive, that digital purity!

But as much as we were all bowled over by the CD, in the end we wanted more. We wanted smaller. Consumers that we are, we wanted something better. So, the market tossed up the fascinating but strangely old-school Digital Audio Tape (DAT), and a few of us bit. But nope, the CD soldiered on. Later, recognizing the inherent limitations of standard CD, the market gave us DVD-Audio (DVD-A) and Super Audio CD (SACD)—two tremendous music formats that endured a crippling format war and died in each other’s arms like bitter rivals grappling to the end. I wept. And the CD soldiered on.

But then everything changed. Apple gave us the iPod.

We’re still in the midst of the iPod revolution, so it’s difficult to calculate the magnitude of its power and reach. Suffice it to say, the CD is reeling (but, so far, surviving) under an onslaught of legal and illegal downloads. The notion of music “albums” is evaporating under a deluge of 99-cent, easily digestible singles. And, most egregiously, music—one of the great art forms of modern and ancient history—has become ear candy that people listen to on the go, when they need something to fill the boring spots in their lives. Music has become just the soundtrack playing in the background.

What happened? See, that’s about the point when my habit of listening to music carefully and almost reverently in my living room became something of an oddity. I have this vision of myself, a few years ago, clinging desperately to my DVD-A/SACD player and my modest collection of discs, hoping against hope that the format wouldn’t slip into the niche obscurity that threatened. I remember being intrigued by the iPod, but also frightened by it. It held the very real possibility of dooming what I thought was the natural progression of recorded music—toward ever-more-enveloping, high-definition formats—and dramatically downshifting the very experience of music to the realm of the casual. And that’s exactly what it did.

Now, of course, I won’t blame Apple and other digital-music pioneers for this heinous shift. I place that blame solely on the shoulders of the consumer! I’m not sure I can forgive the world for glimpsing the prospect of a high-def, surround-sound musical future and instead choosing a culture in which tinny, low-resolution downloads squeak out of earbuds everywhere. Picture me, here in my living room, squeezing the acoustic blood out of my meager, dead-end selection of high-def audio discs while my wife casually updates her iTunes account across the room. There’s murder in my eyes.

Of course, I’m exaggerating out of frustration. Surely, you’ve felt cheated by a tech-market evolution that, in your opinion, went in the wrong direction. Perhaps you’re a Mac devotee frustrated by a PC-dominated world. Maybe you feel, as I do, that HD DVD should be alive and well at the top of the high-def video world. So, you can imagine how I feel about my precious music.

Full disclosure: I own an iPod. I appreciate its convenience. It has its small place in my life. And I’ve found ways to maximize its fidelity. To a certain extent, strong-willed music purists can bend the iPod to their will and make it conform to their auditory passion. But the music-download industry doesn’t make it easy, does it? Online music stores rarely offer high-definition options, and when they do, they’re more expensive. Music applications such as iTunes force you through arcane procedures to vault beyond default, low-quality resolution settings. Of course, any storage limitations your computer or portable music device has will affect how much high-resolution downloading or burning you do. And forget about surround sound from an iPod.

So, where does that leave those of us who cherish the old-school musical experience? You’ll find many of us scrounging antique stores and flea markets for great deals of LPs. That’s right, we’re rediscovering turntables! You’ll also see us hoarding defunct DVD-As and SACDs off eBay. Above all, we’re finding that—you know what?—that old compressed, compromised CD ain’t so bad after all. It’ll do just fine. Because the digital music devolution is proceeding largely without us.

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