End of Decade, End of Tangible Media?

Over the past couple weeks, I have noticed many music sites posting what they believe to be the best albums of the year, as well as the decade. For some reason, this has got me thinking about the future as well as the past.

How will things look at the end of the next decade? Music, fashion, trends – all these things will undoubtedly be different. In addition, the way we consume media will be different as well.

I was listening to an NPR report in the car the other day, and they were discussing technologies that came out at the beginning of this decade. Some popular three letter abbreviations include Y2K, PDA, MP3, and AOL. Along with the turn of the century came Napster, the first truly popular peer to peer file sharing software. I think that this is where digital music files were realized as the definitive form of consumer music.

In many ways the end of this decade could mark the end of tangible media in general. To clarify, by tangible media I mean physical media – anything that is not digital. With services such as Netflix instant stream, actual DVDs are no longer necessary. The Kindle has brought reading to a new level, where heavy and bulky books are not part of the equation. Ever since Napster, music has been consumed in a much more digital realm. It is weird to think about, but I cannot even remember the last time I purchased a CD at a brick and mortar retailer.

So does this actually mean there will be no more CDs in ten years? Who knows. Perhaps CDs will experience a resurgence in popularity similar to the vinyl revolution that is currently happening. What I do know is that the only CDs I have actually purchased in the past few years have been from local or touring acts. The first thing that I do with these discs is rip them onto my hard drive and put them on my iPod.

Only time will tell how people consume music and other media products at the end of the next decade, but I am betting the trend of digital and intangible files will continue.

Original Artwork by Nick Gentry; http://www.nickgentry.co.uk/index.html

The Impact of Recording on Listening

As technologies change and evolve, so does the human reaction to them. For example, when the first computers were built, they took up entire rooms. At the time, people thought the larger the computer the better. Today, our cell phones are much more powerful than these early computers, and smaller is preferred in most cases.

Early recording technology involved wax cylinders, and then shellac records. With the introduction of the gramophone/phonograph, people could gather around and listen to three minutes of an orchestra or jazz band recording. This was revolutionary at the time, and sometimes even perceived as magic. How could an entire band fit into such a little box?

As recording technology progressed, people became more familiar with the idea of captured sound and were no longer as surprised. After the discovery of magnetic tape, record sound quality increased dramatically, and LP records allowed listeners to enjoy an entire album of material. The communal listening experience was popular in the heyday of LP records; friends would simply sit and enjoy music together.

Similar to computers, the trend of music playback technology has been smaller and better. With cassettes and CDs, music became portable. It was easy to take a CD with you and play it in your car, or listen to it with a portable CD player. I remember how great I thought it was to have 35 CDs in a binder that I could take with me – how portable and convenient!

With the onset of digital recording, things have changed once again. Mp3 players are the preferred playback hardware, while their file counterpart have taken over the internet. The format has changed from heavy vinyl records to intangible 1s and 0s. Listening habits have taken a much more personal form, as opposed to the community listening approach that was popular back in the day. It seems everyone walking down the street has earbuds on. I find it interesting (and kind of sad) that people used to listen to albums all the way through together, and now many people I know have a hard time sitting through a single song.

Digital music has also led to what I guess could be called “subconscious listening”. In todays world, we are constantly being surrounded by music and other recorded sounds, even if we don’t realize it. Upon entering most restaurants and businesses, we are greeted by music. When calling a friend, many times they have “ringback” tones, which play a selected song while you wait for them to answer (this is especially true for customer support lines). Watching TV, listening to the radio, going to work, surfing the web, even walking down the street, you are always listening to music – even if you don’t want to be or aren’t aware it. And to think, someone had to record all of this music.

Why People Listen to Music

It is easy to take music for granted these days. There is so much of it, such a great variety, that it can be overwhelming. Never has it been this readily available to us, and we don’t even need to leave the house to access it. I know that when I am listening to music, I never really think of why I am doing it. This is just something that seems natural, very “human“.

Thinking back to the music classes I took in college, this feeling is reaffirmed. Here is what we were taught:

Music has been found in every known culture. Historically, this means that all people on earth, even the most distant and remote groups of settlers, have a form of music they call their own. If music has been there from the beginning of modern humanity, we could conclude that it has become a fundamental aspect of human life. Over the course of time and from region to region musical expression, instrumentation, and the situations in which music is performed have all changed. The music we choose to listen to identifies us as a part of a culture. We relate to the common ideas and themes, as well as social and economical classifications that go with it.

So according to this, listening to music is in fact a very “human” thing to do, considering we have been doing it for a long time. However, I believe modern humans do not listen for the same reasons ancient humans did. I think in todays environment, people choose their music based on a strong emotional and personal reaction. In my own experience, I am initially much more drawn to the primal elements of music: beat, rhythm, and harmony. The message any song is trying to communicate often takes a back seat.

The reason people listen to music is very personal. It has the power to express any type of emotion. It calms, it relaxes, it enrages, it excites, and it is natural (note: this is by no means a complete list of human emotions). Music’s long lasting relationship with the human race has clearly withstood the test of time.

How does this relate to music production? Perhaps not directly. I feel that if you understand why humans listen to music, you can understand why we record it. Or at least part of the reason why we record it. If someone is extremely passionate about the tracks they are laying down, then this emotion will be shared with the listener (maybe this passion is why an audience will choose to listen to this particular recording). Of course, there are many other reasons to record music. The process can be fun, there is a strong sense of accomplishment, and for many people there is the desire to make money or get famous. But aren’t these all just emotional reactions as well?