I recently read this interesting reflection from David Byrne's blog.
Later Katz says that the length of 78s (and later or 45s) determined some changes in writing style. Those recordings, being limited to fewer than 4 mins (more like 3.5 for 45s) prodded songwriters to limit their composing to that length. To me a song length between 3 and 4 minutes seems natural, inevitable; I can hardly conceive that it could have ever been otherwise, but maybe it was. I dunno, though — even folk songs and blues, most of them don’t have too many verses — the old transcriptions and collected lyrics wouldn’t run much longer than that. So maybe this is an example where the technology happened to fit one existing form like a glove.
However, with jazz and classical it made a huge difference. Jazzers obviously would stretch out a tune or theme, and had to then limit themselves in the studio — they became more concise and jazz became more “composed”. I’d offer that for some jazz musicians this was not a bad thing — it became a restriction that forced rigor and creativity.
What is also new and old is that MP3s return music to experience rather than being things, commodities. To some extent this technology also returns music to the social experience it always was, maybe not in the way Microsoft would like to link to in their ads for Zune, and not entirely about file sharing either, but somehow. It’s information, communication, as it once was.
But is there a composing response to the MP3 and the sound of digitized compressed and private music listening? I don’t hear it yet. One would expect that private listening habits would result in a different kind of music being written — maybe a flood of ambient moods as a relaxing way to decompress, maybe dense and complex compositions that reward many replays and close listening, maybe intimate and sexy vocals that would be inappropriate to blast out in public. If any of this is happening I am unaware of it.
MP3s, which is how many of us hear music now, are in a way like virtual music. The compression that allows their smaller file size eliminates what the software decides are redundant frequencies and sounds the ear probably doesn’t hear and won’t miss. Maybe. There is less “information” on an MP3 than on a CD, and less on a CD than on an LP. Where does this road end, and does it really matter that sheer information and recording quality is going down?
One thing Byrne doesn't address here is that the age of the LP largely confined music to certain spaces, like home, and yes, if you had a fab system with kickass subwoofers and what not, you probably do hear a huge difference between an LP and a CD.
But what we've traded off in quality, we've gained in quantity, accessibility, and presence. I can (and often do) listen to music--my music, not that chosen for me by a deejay--almost all the time. I can listen on a stereo at home, on my ipod in the car, on my computer at work.I often choose silence, but that's obviously a choice, much more so that it would have been thirty years ago. I've recently seen products where you can dock your ipod in a desk lamp or a clock radio, so you really would be on your own soundtrack all the time. Of course, this all but eliminates the happy accidents of discovery which were once so common, but hey, that's what your friends are for.
It's possible now for a band with very little public presence to make a big splash, as Couple did recently in the Rolling Stone's "Best Bands on MySpace" contest. (I've got another whole rumination on MySpace, but later.)
Isolation--either geographically from the centers of production or just from the centers of distribution and marketing--is no longer an issue. Powerpop fave Jeff Murphy has a new CD coming out, Cantilever, which is, in noble Shoes' tradition, a complete DIY operation, but also points to early Todd Rundgren, McCartney's first album, even Emmitt Rhodes. The difference is that then, one needed access to a distribution network; now, you just need access to a computer.
You can order Cantilever here.
In short, I can see Byrne's point, but I think he's missing the new democratization of music, which I can't help but see as a good thing.