Commentary Magazine


Why Listening Will Never Be the Same

Last year, for the first time, blank compact discs outsold pre-recorded ones. This statistic has been widely reported in the news media, usually in connection with the fact that sales of pre-recorded CD’s in the U.S. dropped by 10 percent in 2001. To most observers of the music business, all this was further proof that the recording industry is in a state of acute crisis. But nowhere was it suggested that the CD-R (to use the trade name by which blank, recordable CD’s are known) might be anything more than a superior replacement for the now-obsolete audio cassette—much less that its burgeoning popularity is the latest sign of a radical and irreversible change in the way we experience music.

Just as significant, and even less well known, is the fact that 31 million Americans to date have used their personal computers to share music files—that is, to send recordings to one another over the Internet. It is no secret that record companies see file-sharing as a threat to their existence, for which reason they are futilely attempting to impede its use, mostly through aggressive litigation and the introduction of new software that would make it harder to copy a CD. Again, however, the wider implications of this development have gone mostly unexplored. Anyone reading a typical newspaper story about file-sharing would be likely to conclude that the process, for all its unprecedented technical sophistication, does not differ in any essential way from making a cassette copy of a favorite album and giving it to a friend.

Of course, when it comes to the effects of technology on culture, skeptics are in good company. The prophets of the 20th century, Utopian and dystopian alike, were in no doubt that middle-class Americans would by now be routinely conversing on picture phones and traveling to work in personal aircraft, à la George and Jane Jetson. And even as they were wrong about that, none of them foresaw the rise of the Internet, or the speed with which a relatively simple application like e-mail would become part of the everyday routine of tens of millions of people around the world.

I do not claim the gift of prophecy, but I have been using computers in my daily work for 25 years, longer than most Americans, and in that time I have acquired a healthy respect for their culture-shaping power. At the same time, I have become aware of a paradox: just as it is very difficult to grasp the potential of a new technology if one does not actually use it, using it can make it seem so routine as to be unremarkable. Since comparatively few people over the age of thirty have downloaded music files from the web and “burned” them onto CDR’s, they may find it hard to imagine how these technologies work, or to understand the dramatic impact they are having. By contrast, people under thirty, having spent their whole lives with personal computers, tend to take CD-burning and file-sharing for granted, and are less prone to speculate about their implications.

Let me, then, offer some thoughts on what it feels like to use the new computer-based listening technologies, and on how they are changing our larger musical culture and its existing institutional structures.

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First, a little history. For three-quarters of a century, records were made by a process now known as analog recording. In its earliest form, a musician would sing or play into the large end of a megaphone-like horn, which funneled the resulting sound waves to a recording needle. The waves made the needle vibrate, and the vibrating needle incised a correspondingly wavy groove into a rotating wax plate or cylinder. When the process was reversed, by the consumer, a needle placed in a groove would move in such a way as to generate new vibrations that resembled the original sound waves and could be used to reproduce them.

This process was replaced by today’s digital recording, invented in 1976. In creating such a recording, a computer is used to convert sound waves not into an analogous physical object—a wavy groove in a wax plate, or an electronically recorded array of magnetized particles on a strip of plastic tape—but into a sequence of descriptive binary digits. When this process is reversed, the digits are first decoded and only then used to generate a fluctuating electrical signal analogous to the original sound waves. This signal is sent to a loudspeaker, which converts it into new waves closely resembling the original ones.

The initial advantage of digital recording was that it offered a more accurate way to reproduce sound. With the introduction in 1983 of the laser-scanned compact disc, in which sounds are stored in actual digital form rather than (as was the case with the first digital recordings to be commercially marketed) etched into the needle-cut grooves of a vinyl disc, it was widely thought that the digital revolution was complete. The larger significance of the break with analog recording was yet to penetrate. It was simply this: instead of manufacturing physical objects from which sounds could be reconstituted, engineers were now converting those same sounds into strings of numbers. As a result, it was no longer necessary to own the physical object in order to reproduce the music. All one needed was the numbers.

Herein lay the true digital revolution. When recorded sound is converted to numbers, it exits the realm of objects and enters the realm of ideas. To put it another way, it becomes pure information, transmissible from person to person by an infinite variety of means. In theory, I could call you up on the phone and read aloud a string of numbers representing a recorded performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and you in turn could write those numbers down, type them into a computer, and eventually translate them back into sound. The only catch is that such a “conversation” would last for weeks, or however long it would take to read out the millions of binary numbers comprising a digitized version of a piece of music. Hence the importance of the Internet, which allows computer users around the world to transmit digitized data over commercial telephone lines.

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At first, admittedly, it was impractical to do this. So great was the sheer volume of information packed into a single CD that it required hours to transmit even a fairly short piece of music. But two recent developments have changed this situation dramatically. The first is the rapidly spreading availability of broadband cable modems that give high-speed Internet access to ordinary computer users. The second is the invention of MP3, the popular “data-reduction” software that compresses sound recordings into data files small enough to be stored on the hard drive of a personal computer, sent via e-mail, or downloaded from websites.

Such files can also be downloaded from “peer-to-peer” file-sharing sites, the best known of which is the now-defunct Napster. These sites are web-based clearing houses that allow their users to make MP3 files available for free to all other users. In addition, many record labels have launched or are launching online delivery systems from which their recordings can be downloaded for a fee.

How easy is it to do these things? I own an iBook, a laptop computer made by Apple. Bundled into its software is a program called iTunes. Whether I am downloading music directly from the web or uploading from CD’s I already own, the process is the same.

I have already uploaded about 190 hours of music onto my iTunes player, ranging from sonatas and symphonies to bluegrass and rock-and-roll. The exercise is so simple that I was able to start using the player without bothering to look at an instruction manual. I insert one of my recorded compact discs into the computer and click a few keys. The computer then takes the contents of the disc—all of it or any combination of tracks, just as I choose—and converts them into MP3 files that are stored on my hard drive. It takes about 30 seconds to “rip” a three-minute song from a CD. Downloading works the same way, and just as fast: it recently took me all of thirteen seconds to download an MP3 file of a three-minute song by Ella Fitzgerald from amazon.com.

To play any of the 2,300 selections that are now on my iTunes player, I go to the “library” screen, find the title, and click on it twice. The music begins playing instantly. I like to listen through headphones, but if I wanted, I could also connect a set of external speakers to my computer, or use it as a component in my stereo system, just like a CD player. Since MP3 files are compressed, the resulting sound is not of the highest possible quality, but my forty-six-year-old ears are rarely capable of telling the difference between an MP3 file and the original CD from which it has been ripped.

My iTunes player also burns CDR’s. In a matter of seconds, I can instruct it to record up to 75 minutes’ worth of MP3 files from my computerized library, arranged in any order I want. Within a few minutes, I have a custom-made compact disc that I can play on my stereo, give to a friend, or drop in a mailbox and send to my mother. Should I find that process laborious, I can e-mail the same files to anyone equipped to receive them.

If, after reading this, you still doubt the power of the new computer-based technologies, consider: what I have done is to pack the equivalent of seven shelves’ worth of CD’s into a plastic box not much larger than a stack of eight issues of COMMENTARY. This box also contains the personal computer on which I do my writing and from which I send my e-mail. I can use it whenever and wherever I want—at my desk, in a hotel room, on a plane. Were I to find the box insufficiently portable, I could also purchase an iPod, Apple’s version of a Walkman, into which the contents of my iTunes player can be dumped in about twenty minutes. An iPod is roughly the size of a cellular phone, and at present costs about $300.

None of these devices is a science-fiction fantasy. They are on sale now, and I use them every day.

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As people start using personal computers in the way I have just described, their relationship to the experience of listening to recorded music will change accordingly.

The nature of this experience has yet to be adequately described by theorists of art, most of whom make flawed assumptions about the nature of what the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin, in his 1935 essay of the same name, called “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” Benjamin, for example, feared the loss of authenticity that he thought would be an inevitable consequence of the mass production of replicas of art works, a process that (in his words) substitutes “a plurality of copies for a unique existence.” Conversely, André Malraux, writing in Le Musée imaginaire (1947), praised the prospect of a democratic “museum without walls” made possible by the widespread availability of just such replicas and reproductions.

In fact, however, traditional museums, rather than felling into desuetude, now attract larger audiences than ever, precisely because they offer viewers the opportunity to see handmade art objects whose existence is unique. Even the most unsophisticated museum-goer quickly comes to realize that no reproduction of a painting by Rembrandt or Cézanne can possibly convey more than the smallest part of the impact of the original.

But music is very different. Unlike a painting, the score of a Schubert song is not an art object in and of itself. It is a set of instructions that, if followed faithfully, will cause the object to be made manifest—once. But if music exists only through the act of performance, a recording of a Schubert song, being also a performance, does not bear the same relationship to a live performance that a reproduction of a painting does to the original. It is not a mere “replica,” but an independent and fully valid way of experiencing the song.

Indeed, a record album can be, and usually is, an art object in its own right. I own several thousand CD’s, each of which comprises a series of musical selections arranged in a specific order and (normally) intended to be listened to in that order. Some were recorded in concert, but most were created in a studio, often with the help of studio-specific techniques like tape splicing and overdubbing. Such famous albums as Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Bach “Goldberg” Variations, Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, or the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are not attempts to simulate live performances. They are, rather, unique experiences existing only on record, and the record itself, not the music or the performance, is the art object.

Since 1950 or so, objects like these have been the most significant forms of musical experience in the West—far more significant than live performances, and arguably even more so than specific musical compositions. Nor have they been rendered irrelevant by digital technology, any more than Citizen Kane made War and Peace irrelevant. But now something else is happening: when I load any one of these “objects” onto my iTunes player, I am opening myself up to the possibility of experiencing it in a completely new way.

All at once, the concrete object—the original album, with its cover art, liner notes, and carefully arranged sequence of tracks—ceases to exist. In its place is a string of abstract digits that I can manipulate at will. If I want, I can listen to the twelve songs that make up Only the Lonely in the order that they appear on the album. But I can also listen to them separately, in a different order, as part of a Frank Sinatra “greatest hits” sequence of my own devising, or in any other way that suits my fancy. Instead of permitting an artist or a record company to tell me how to listen, I am making my own choices.

This enhanced capacity for choice is central to the appeal of computer-based listening systems. Should I care for only one track on a CD, I can buy that CD, load it onto iTunes, and throw away the original disc. Or I can go to a website and download only that one song—which is just what young, computer-literate music lovers are increasingly doing. Instead of buying pop albums containing two or three good songs, they acquire the songs they like and listen to them in contexts of their own choosing. If record companies will not give them the power to make those choices themselves, they will take the power into their own hands by swapping MP3 files with friends, or downloading them from file-sharing sites.

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The spread of computer-based listening has already started to alter the way records are made and marketed. A young jazz pianist who recently signed with a major label told me in conversation that to get people to buy his CD’s, he now has to give them “something they can’t get by going to hear me at a club, or downloading a couple of tracks off the web.” Instead, he has to make albums that are strong from start to finish—a unified experience, not just “a studio jam session or a bunch of unrelated selections.” And, he added, “it’s not just the music, either. The packaging has to contribute to the total effect, too. Interesting liner notes, interesting art—all that really matters now.”

Indeed it does, more so than ever. But such efforts, however ambitious and thoughtfully conceived, are still doomed to failure. In the not-so-long run, the introduction of online delivery systems and the spread of file-sharing will certainly undermine and very likely destroy the fundamental economic basis for the recording industry, at least as we know it today. Nor can there be much doubt that within a few years, the record album will lose its once-privileged place at the heart of Western musical culture.

And what will replace it? I, for one, think it highly likely that more and more artists will start to make their own recordings and market them directly to the public via the web.1 Undoubtedly, new managerial institutions will emerge to assist those artists who prefer not to engage in the time-consuming task of self-marketing, but these institutions will be true middlemen, purveyors of a service, as opposed to record labels, which use artists to serve their interests. And while most artists will also employ technical assistants of various kinds, such as freelance recording engineers, the ultimate responsibility for their work will belong—for the first time ever—to the artists themselves.

What form that work will take is another question entirely. Prior to the invention in 1948 of the LP, popular musicians usually recorded not albums but specific songs or pieces of music that were released on single 78’s and meant to be experienced individually. Perhaps, then, there will never be another Only the Lonely or Kind of Blue, but, once again, only individual selections like “One for My Baby” or “All Blues.” Or possibly new modes of presentation will evolve, in the same way that Internet “magazines” are developing webspecific features like “The Corner,” a chatty group-discussion page that has become the most widely read department of National Review Online.

To be sure, this prospect is understandably disturbing to many older musicians and music lovers, given the fact that the record album has played so pivotal a role in the culture of postwar music. Nor do I claim that life without records will necessarily be better—or worse. It will, however, be different, just as the lives of actors were irrevocably changed by the invention of the motion-picture camera in ways that no one could possibly have foreseen in 1900.

One thing is already clear: hard though it may be to imagine life without records and record stores, it is only a matter of time, and not much time at that, before they disappear. Unlike museums and opera houses, they serve a purpose that technology has rendered obsolete. The triumph of the digit—along with the demise of the record album as culture-shaping art object—is at hand.

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Footnotes

1 The London and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras, as well as a growing number of individual classical musicians, have already responded to the decline of the major classical record labels by starting to make and distribute their own CD’s, though they are not yet generally available for direct downloading. For a discussion of the effects of file-sharing on classical music, see my essay, “What Killed Classical Recording?” (COMMENTARY, May 2001).

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About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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