When did music become unimportant?

MTV gave up on music ages ago, and only a handful of young bands make money selling records. Has music just become a 'soundtrack' to other activities?

In last Sunday's Mad Men episode, "Lady Lazarus," the advertising agency's creative director, Don Draper, asked, "When did music become so important?" Draper's clueless about what's going on outside his Madison Avenue office window. The episode was set in the summer of 1966 when the culture revolved around music; in 2012 the Web is where the action is.

Jazz great McCoy Tyner listening to music David King

What went wrong with music? Some blame the record companies, believing they mismanaged themselves into a crisis, then again, maybe it was inevitable that our tech culture would move away from music. In the 1960s of Don Draper you had to flip the LP over every 20 minutes to keep the music going. In 2012 music never stops, but people stopped actively listening. Music is always "on," in a supportive role as a soundtrack to other activities. I'm not just talking about recorded music; when I go to concerts and clubs I see that a sizable percentage of the audience is texting or otherwise involved with some sort of device. I get it; music isn't the main attraction, it can't compete anymore.

The Loudness Wars are symptomatic of the problem, music is mixed and mastered to maintain a consistent volume level precisely because the music is in the background. If it were less compressed, you wouldn't be able to hear the quieter parts when you're busy doing other things. That's unacceptable, so the market demanded and received music that stays at the same volume all the time. Real music has ebbs and peaks, but that's not what people want from music anymore. I think that's strange because if the musicians they love invested a massive amount of time perfecting the details of the sound, why wouldn't the fans drop everything and really listen to the music? Not all the time of course, just every now and then.

Once paying for recorded music became a purely voluntary act the value of music plummeted. What's potentially free is certainly worth less. How can bands survive and make record music when the old revenue streams are drying up?

It's possible, of course; the Black Keys struggled for years, but they finally broke through not by developing a fan base from concerts, no, they struck gold when they licensed their music for use in commercials, and their music became familiar as a soundtrack for selling stuff. The Black Keys' music sold a lot of Cadillacs and seeped into the consciousness of the market. That's a great way to monetize music, sell it to advertising agencies, TV shows and movies. The Beatles tune "Tomorrow Never Knows" was used in that Mad Men episode I referred to in the beginning of this blog, and the show reportedly paid $250,000 to Apple Corps for the song. So music licensing is a viable revenue path, and is helping the business stick around. That's good because fewer and fewer music consumers are paying the bills.

I'm relieved that people still pay to hear live music, and if bands can survive that way, that's a good thing. I'm all for it, but will bands continue making records (with their own money) when it's always a losing proposition? I doubt it; fewer records will be made. And the ones that are will have to be done on smaller and smaller budgets. That doesn't bode well for the future of recorded music.

So if music really is so important, do you ever turn off the lights and devices, stop talking, and listen to it? How much recorded music do you buy each year? Tell me all about it in the Comments section.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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