If you were to believe the voice of Apple, the arrival of the iPod was an event which would completely revolutionise our music consumption and listening habits by delivering the convenience of portable digital sound and by so doing, improve our lives immeasurably; a constant bitstream of audio data acting as a universal panacea for all our ills. Magically, our lives would be better, happier and full of spontaneous joy.
Of course, in many ways it has changed the way we listen to and experience music, but this has not always been to the consumers’ advantage. The most glaring omission from the whole marketing campaign of any MP3 download service or MP3 device is the use of the word “quality”. Indeed the sound quality of music stored as MP3 and its subsequent playback is seen as being quite low down the list of perceived benefits. Content is sacrificed on the contemporary altar of convenience.
Since 2007, iPods have had a maximum capacity of 160Gb: apparently enough for 40,000 watered-down songs. In Apple’s own words, that amounts to a lifetime’s entertainment. However, that is a lifetime of low quality entertainment. I would suggest that the music fan deserves more. Given the advances of technology in the intervening years, Apple could easily have increased the capacity of their iPods, but 8 years of silence on this matter suggests they are really not that bothered about improving the quality of their offering.
Of course, this wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the collusion of MP3 download services such as Amazon and of course, Apple’s own iTunes services which restrict the bit rate to a miserly 256Kb instead of the maximum of 320Kb. This could be interpreted as reflecting a thinking on the part of Apple et al that the consumer is too stupid to realise the difference and if they do, then they are too shallow to part company with their lifestyle accessory; The one that has brought them happiness and spontaneous joy.
Thankfully, however, there are already signs that music quality for the common download is set to improve. There are a number of initiatives that suggest that segments of the industry are thinking about changing the formula.
While Spotify’s audio stream is currently capped at 320Kbps, the maximum bit rate MP3 can offer, it is rumoured that it intends to move to CD quality. Despite the PR debacle and ill-considered technology that was Tidal, the ongoing development of products and services such as Pono make it clear that upward pressure will undoubtedly hasten the eventual demise of MP3 for streaming services.
At the heart of all this is the question of whether there is actually a demand for better quality sound. I am continually surprised by how little people who are under 30 understand about the nature of sound. As consumer electronics in the form of iPods and tablets increasingly keep the details of music reproduction hidden, many listeners have lost contact with how the music goes from its source (digital files or analog LPs) to actual sound moving through the air. Few aesthetic experiences are as subjective as the sound you hear. The nuances of sound reproduction are, for most people, hard to differentiate and wholly personal. When your iPhone has a retina display with more pixels per inch, you notice it, but what we desire in sound is much more individual. Some people want “accuracy” and some people want a lot of bass. The audiophiles want depth and faithful representation of the sound stage and teenagers only care that it’s loud enough. The portability of modern technology gives you your tablet or your MP3 player/smart phone, into which you plug your headphones and you listen to what comes out. What used to be a contemplative and communal experience manifesting itself as a tangle of variables behind a vintage stereo system in your living room has been turned into an exercise of self centred introversion.
This trend engenders a disposable attitude to music. Before MP3, teenage music fans would value the purchase of each LP or CD and revel in the physicality of the product. You might not have been able to play your brand new copy of Ziggy Stardust on a Linn Sondek but the source product was as good as you were going to get and you could always aspire to a better sound system. Now, the experience for most teen music consumers is a low quality download shared with their friends over the internet. Devoid of any packaging, anything that can be touched and requiring no investment, financial, emotional or otherwise, it is easy to dismiss and discard and move on to the next thing. The result is that musicians lose identity and potential cultural reference points become blurred.
Collecting music in the form of vinyl or CD is so gratifying. The possession of a literal wall of sound and the inherent fetishism in studying the sleeve imagery and notes; a shrine proudly dedicated to your musical predilection. Somehow, an iTunes library seriously lacks the same personality or presence. Nobody ever comes round to your house and thoughtfully thumbs through your downloads. Data files are never a talking point or a subject of envy and Megabytes will never be converted into objects of desire.
One of the great functions that we have seen with popular music over the last 50 years is its ability to bring people together, whether it be at a concert venue, club or party. In the same way, record shops, by acting as a focal meeting point, bring people together who share a similar passion for music, albeit for separate genres. They behave as the physical disseminators of music and associated culture and a place to acquire music in its most original and authentic form. Low quality downloads erode such involvement. iTunes and the other online means of sharing, discussing, or downloading music, result in a level of humanity and personality being removed and hidden behind faceless discussion boards and bland generic online “checkouts.”
Does all of this matter? Maybe not. People probably don’t enjoy music any less, but the individual’s involvement with music and its cornerstone as part of popular culture is now seriously compromised.
We cannot blame technology and it is not strictly the fault of music going digital as much as it is the world increasingly going remote. If we want technology to serve us the product we think we deserve, then we need to seriously think about our interaction with our fellow music enthusiasts and how we want to engage with music as part of our shared identity.