The hidden costs of MP3s

Now that the great Format Wars of the last decade have been reduced to a few occasional skirmishes, fought with talking points tossed around by both sides, it would seem that, for better or worse, non-physical media is music’s destiny. Even with vinyl making a remarkable spike in sales over the last few years, it is unlikely that we will ever see a physical medium as the norm for housing music again.

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MP3s have forever changed the audio landscape; I mean what’s not to love about them? You can have thousands of songs and the only space they take up is virtual. You can email a song to a friend and they can instantly listen to it just about anywhere on a plethora of devices, and with a little know how and a short internet search you can gain access to just about any song ever made, for free. Considering how much joy the little buggers have brought to the world how could anyone possibly speak ill of them? Aside from, of course, the fact that you can’t ask an artist to sign an MP3.

Whether your music collection consists entirely of free downloads or you took the “moral high ground to support the efforts of the artist” and paid your dollar per song, the fact remains that there have been unforeseen costs with this format change that the $0.99 price tag doesn’t cover.

Music is now disposable

Music has been a consumable product ever since the very first mogul realized that he could record some music and sell it for a profit. MP3s have now taken things a step further and turned music into a disposable product. You can download a song you like (foregoing the entire album if you so desire), listen to it a few times and delete or forget about it as soon as the next hit song comes around. This mentality has caused much of the industry to become even more formulaic than ever in order to turn a profit. There is also less of a risk for labels now as productions costs allow them to throw whatever they can to see what sticks, effectively removing any filters of quality. No longer exists the mentality that you buy an album and treat it with more permanence. Picking out music carefully, intentionally, and spending money only on that which connects most to you. Most of the filtering on the consumer end is gone as well, now it is more a matter of ‘this sounds good right this second, buy it, bored with it, next’. This leads to people being less likely to become genuine fans of artists as they are building a short-term relationship with a song instead of a long-term relationship with an artist’s body of work.

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This has become especially true for DJs. Once upon a time, good DJs tended to be a lot more selective about what they played, if not simply as a result of the cost alone. They would immerse themselves in the music, learning every high and low in order to work a carefully selected song into a set as a piece of the story they were telling and get the most out of that song as they possibly could. Records would continuously make their way in and out of the crate depending on the gig, some never leaving at all. Now DJs often buy a new set for every gig, exchanging most of the tracks in their set for whatever the most currently released version of their cookie cutter music happens to be that week. It is no wonder that so many DJs/Producers resort to putting so much attention on a stage and light show, it has become the only way to tell them apart and keep people interested since the garbage music isn’t doing it anymore. In short, there is very little connection to the music anymore, which seems to ultimately miss the point of music in the first place.

There is no culture

While pop music has always been a part of the corporate machine and void of any substantial culture, dance music was on the fringe, in the underground and rich in culture. The culture is already suffering at the hands of the current transition to the mainstream and subsequent corporate takeover, but at an accelerated rate thanks to MP3s. Interpersonal exposure to music has become much more removed and impersonal. People may in fact be sharing new music more than ever, but really, the quality of sharing is greatly diminished. Sending a file to someone for them to listen to doesn’t have the same impact as people being in the same room and listening to it together, something much more common when music was shared via a physical medium. There is no way to truly gain insight and understanding of how a person sharing the music interprets and connects to the piece without being present. You aren’t just sharing music at that point, you are sharing an experience, which ultimately deepens the connection to a piece or artist.

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Similarly, something important is also lost by way of no longer going to a music store to discover new music, specifically, interacting with people behind the counter or the other people that are browsing in the store. While ultimately music is deeply personal, we only expose ourselves to new music through a very narrow lens. Interpersonal connections play a very important role when it comes to music exploration and understanding, all the blogs, Kazaas, Napsters, and Pirate Bays in the world can’t replace that. It saddens me to think that there is an entire generation out there that has never experienced a boutique music store, being opened up to new sounds by someone who has an unmatched passion for all things underground and rare.

Most importantly, for DJs, with record stores came the ability to create a unique sound for a region and an individual DJ. A store would have a limited amount of space and copies of a track so both shop owner and DJ would have to be discerning about what to buy. While a few cities still have a reputation for focusing on a particular sound, the internet distribution of music has destroyed the possibility of a regional feel as more and more people have access to all the same music and end up playing the same Top 10 tracks. Unless you work for a record label or are good friends with a ton a producers and getting tracks before they are released, finding that secret weapon that is unique to your set/region is an impossibility. In fact, all anyone has to do now is hold up their phone during your set and they can instantly download any song you play.

Quantity over quality

Over all, the music industry has long been lost to the philosophy of quantity over quality. While labels have always been concerned with doing whatever it takes to achieve the highest sales numbers, that system is more prevalent than ever. And don’t be naive and think that music is popular or sells on its own merits alone, good music doesn’t magically fall into the awareness or the hands of the masses, that is just not the reality of the music industry. Record sales have migrated to individual song sales and the labels push individual songs more than albums or even the artists making them. Even worse, labels work harder to monetize songs via ad revenue from sites like YouTube than they do investing in the artist with any real A&R of legitimate value. An album now needs to be a compilation of hit singles rather than a complete piece of art with a one or two breakout singles. There is a reason you can go to a massive/festival and every song sounds the same, the industry is about selling a formula, one that can be duplicated and pushed on to the consumers for the maximum possible sales results. For independent music, digital retail sites like iTunes and Beatport are the only ones making any real money (a third or more of the sales) and they thrive through saturation even more so than the labels. There are no industry filters anymore, anything goes and the mentality is now ‘the more the merrier’ to increase the chances that they get something that actually sells well. In more ways than one, this makes the business side of Top 10 playlists even worse in that it perpetuates the must play mentality, if for no other reason than very few are willing put in the effort to dig through all the crap when ten popular songs are a few clicks of the mouse away. This ultimately prevents a lot of legitimate art from being heard and supported, further ensuring the monotony that is the dance music/Top 40 scene of today.

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I’m not going to drudge up the thoroughly debated quality of digital vs analogue sound issue, as it ultimately doesn’t matter when people are primarily listening to music through earbuds, computer, and portable Bluetooth speakers. People, for the most part, don’t seem to care about the quality of sound anymore, otherwise they wouldn’t settle for MP3s (which by their very function down sample music and remove elements of the original sound) through their cheap headphones. This is already assuming it was originally produced at a higher quality to begin with, which for a lot of electronic music is becoming less and less the case. Again, it is no wonder that we are saturated with a bunch of formulaic sounds, produced by people with no understanding of proper production methods, and are bounced to an MP3 in order to be posted on a digital distribution site by way of their or a friends ‘label’. MP3s have helped considerably to make mediocre music acceptable and standard.

What it all means

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking you to dump all your MP3s in the trash but to rather, at the very least, just recognize that there are valuable aspects of experiencing music that are lost as a result of the format shift. If there is even a solution out there to regain what has been lost, we won’t find it until we first realize that there even is a problem. In the meantime there are always the well known and basic ways to help maintain a higher quality of music experience; support physical releases on CD or vinyl, support full albums, buy music and then actually listen to the music consciously from time to time instead of in the background while doing something else, learn the history behind genres and artists, interact with people and listen to music together in person, dig for music instead of looking at fabricated charts, and support independent, lesser known, and local artists. Let’s work together and make quality matter again.

Analog vs Digital vs Digital: Are we killing our dance culture?

I’m not opposed to change by any means. Change is crucial to life and growth.  It’s just sad when valuable perspectives, experiences, and lessons get lost as a result.

There is a lot of discussion in dance culture around vinyl vs digital, cd vs laptop, mixing vs programming, etc etc.  Those who embrace the new defend it, those who have mastered the past defend it, insults are thrown, pride is put to the test, but most importantly, there is a key discussion being ignored.

For those of you who are too new (and by new I really mean anyone in the scene for about 15 years or less) to really have experienced the history of the dance culture and electronic music scene there are some things you need to understand (don’t worry I have some words for the old-timers too).

Most of us in the early years of the scene had to constantly fight. We had to fight for space, for sound, for music, for a voice, for validity. Many of us didn’t even know we were fighting, we were just deeply connected to the music and had to express it, whether making it, playing it, or dancing to it. It was even a fight just to get the music.  It was expensive, limited, and you had have the hook-up to get the choice new releases in your area before someone else did.

The music was a necessity for us, the very essence of us. We were mocked, we were told it was garbage, it wasn’t real music, that it was a passing fad.  Because we were so connected to the music and identified ourselves through it, this meant they were calling us garbage.  We banded together, we built communities, philosophies, and we danced our asses off because it was who and what we were.

Every record was special, it was a weapon in the battle for validity.  Every scratch, imperfection, and skip was a memory of a party, an experience, a good time, a bad time.  We didn’t replace our music every week, we played it until it wouldn’t play anymore.  And even then we might try to play it a couple more times hoping that it had somehow magically healed itself through our pure love of the song. Long story short, we weren’t just connected to the music, we were the music.

Things are different now. People interact with the music differently, they relate to it differently, they express it differently.  There are a lot more people in it for money and fame as opposed to the pure need to express and connect with the art. Because of the foundation that was built, there isn’t nearly the fight for validity there once was (proven by the fact that dance music is in the top-40 mainstream).  There is a mass consumption of a product that we spent decades forced to keep underground.

This is something the old-timers need to recognize beyond the obvious.  These newbies aren’t connected to the music they way we were/are. They aren’t seeing the house built from the ground up, they are inheriting the family property. That’s not to say it is better or worse, just different.  We fought so they didn’t have to, they explore new ways to express it, some good, some bad, some down right insulting to those of us who have spilt blood, sweat, and tears. We can’t expect them to get out of it what we did because they aren’t building the scene, they are inheriting the scene.

The discussion should not be about what equipment they express on, or what medium they use, but rather do they have talent at what they do?  Is there effort, art, passion, connection, and most importantly, respect? That is what is important here. Are they pressing play or are they creating art? We old-timers can learn some new tricks from you newbies, and newbies we can show you some foundations and perspective that make this meaningful and an art form, not just a revenue stream or a way to get laid.

The reason I implore all of us to switch the focus of the discussion is because we are at a delicate turning point in our culture.  As something becomes consumed on a mass scale, there is danger of that thing being consumed to its extinction.  How many forms of music, fashion, art, etc., have been destroyed because it was over-consumed and the meaning, art, and specialness were forgotten and lost?

I love this music, these people. I want it to last as long as possible.  I want it to remain a meaningful culture.  Not just some ‘in’ product that will be thrown to the wayside because it becomes a gutted shell. Let’s keep dance music a meaningful art form, a culture with a rich history and that focuses on talent and passion.  Being in the top-40 realm isn’t inherently bad, but unless we maintain a level of quality, an understand of the roots, and pure connection to the passion and art of our culture, we will lose it. And rightly so.

Friends don’t let friends become a DJ Pauly D.

Just say no.