All that Noise, All that Sound

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.

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 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.)

It seems to me that as our entertainment technology continues to advance, performers are being asked to adapt not only to the technology, but to the changing needs of the consumer. 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. (That’s not supposed to be as cynical as it sounds.) Also, whereas in the past consumers would seek out bands, now the band has to court the consumer.

This isn’t going to be a rant about how music nowadays sucks (though it does), as I suspect that as every generation passes, that’s 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 thought about 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. The music had to fit a certain need in order to become popular in the first place. While Wagner’s marathon works are respected, they’re 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 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 party where it was playing. If the party ended early, they’d stop and go home. If the party 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. 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 realised 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 RMP record (the other side could be, and usually was, anything). Two to three minutes at most, just enough for radio play. The rest was the party.

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 had ten minutes to fill to complete the album. Townsend was a consumate 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.

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. It’s still tied to recordings rather than live performance, but it seems to know that there’s a need out there that bands can only sporadically fulfill.

Suppose Coldplay decided that what they wanted to go back to was the era of the 45 RMP 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.

It’s still a matter of terminal nostalgia, which our species seem can’t seem to shake since the advent of the recorder, but at least it’s a step forward for the consumer. At least 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.

This 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.

Still. I should do something with that iPod, shouldn’t I.

Before it does something with me.

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3 thoughts on “All that Noise, All that Sound

  1. I’ve bought whole CD’s for just one song. For instance, I have Dave Edmunds Repeat When Necessary just so that I could listen to his “Creature from the Black Lagoon” whenever I wanted. I also own a Blue Oyster Cult Greatest hits album for “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Godzilla”(I may well be obsessive on certain subjects.)

    Sometimes I’ve found the Want-a-Single-Song method of CD buying has introduced me to some really good music. From Meatloaf, say, or War. Other times I end up with a load of crap on my hands (Dave Edmunds again, I’m afraid.)

    The one problem I can with the download direct method is that the listener is risking being deprived of other enjoyable songs. This statement, of course, is being spoken from a well of ignorance, as I don’t hav an iPod, nor do I have the funds to explore downloading music. Back in the day, when Napster was free, I downloaded a ton of stuff exploring various groups, so if the conditions were right, I imagine it’s possible that I’m being overly pesimistic.

    All in all, a good essay. (What do you mean, modern music sucks?!)

  2. Very good points. I have, in fact, bought a number of recordings for one song, and ended up liking some of the other songs even more. Other recordings in the same circumstances had so many bad songs on them, I ended up disliking the one that had drawn me in the first place. That’s the problem when the space on a recording expands…you have to fill it with something.

    As for digital downloads, while in theory I think it means an artist can do what he likes when he likes, in practice I haven’t downloaded much myself. The problem with any kind of online activity, for me, is this: I already have to know what I want, before I can search for it. Even those “You may also like” things are based on what you already know.

    I love browsing through book and music stores, finding things that I never would have thought to look for. I’ve discovered a lot of terrific things that way. That seems to be getting rarer and rarer these days.

    And yes, today’s music does suck! You young whippersnappers, with your weird fashions and your noise!

  3. I am not liking the single song method of buying.
    I’ve come across some really wicked bands in recent history that way, but have missed out on thier little known or less played tracks.
    I still download for my MP3 player… and I still buy the CD if I like the singles enough. Not because I want to support the band… but because I don’t have an MP3 adaptor for my car.

    and today’s music does suck.

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