Why does music change? What makes it mutate within time?
It is not because of one single reason. Music changes because of a complex structural framework where different agents converge in different measures: sociocultural contexts, market economy, aesthetics trends and technology, to name just a few. Among these many reasons, there is also the audio format, be it physical or digital.
What we listen to is determined by where and how we listen to it.
In that sense, Youtube, as the main music consumption channel today, will have a huge influence on music evolution. Actually, it already has.
Although the 12 inches 33 1/3 RPM long play vinyl was marketed in 1930 by RCA Victor, eighteen years before the 7 inches 45 RPM single —launched by Columbia in 1948 during the so called “war of speeds”—, the latest was the format par excellence during the dawn of pop culture. It just made more sense: nobody could know how long the emerging artists’ careers would be, nor the whole phenomenon itself, and most of them didn’t have a proper repertoire beyond a couple of original songs and a fistful of covers. The market was based on a hit-and-run, one-hit wonder strategy, and the three-minutes-song-per-side single —or the four songs, 7 inches 33 1/3 RPM EP— was cheaper and more easily saleable to the teenage audience the music was targeting.
ELVIS PRESLEY’S FIRST 7 INCHES SINGLE: “THAT’S ALL RIGHT / BLUE MOON OF KENTUCKY” (1954)
But when the industry gave priority to the LP instead of the single in the mid-60’s, pop and rock music were allowed to mature. The long-play format offered the artists twenty-two minutes per side, so they could develop a more complex work on sound and structure and, since The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” (1965), a more accurate conceptual oeuvre, as the LP began to be conceived as a unity, not just as a mere compilation of singles.
FRANK ZAPPA’S THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION 12 MINUTES PSYCHEDELIC FREAK OUT “THE RETURN OF THE SON OF MONSTER MAGNET” (1966)
Things changed again with the rise of the CD as the standard mainstream format in the late 80’s. The 4,7” digital optical disc established a new take on the music album: no A & B sides but one single 74 minutes stream of digital data. And most important, an easy, reliable, remote-controlled way to participate actively in the process of music listening. Unlike the cassette, with the CD listeners could rewind and fast forward the tracks with extreme speed and precision without damaging the support. They could even change the track list order jumping straight to the songs they liked the most, repeat them ad nauseam, program a customized sequence of tracks entirely based on their own taste and mood and even let the CD player re-invent the tracks order using the random play mode. Artists were no more in control of the album’s “emotional route”, but acted as mere dealers of emotional-charged sound bits —tracks— that could be re-ordered by the listener’s impulse. The CD —and therefore the emergence of the digital encoded sound formats— marked the beginning of the end of the music album as we knew it for thirty years.
If the CD meant a deconstruction of the album concept, turned into a simple amount of tracks with a subjective, user-made track list order, the mp3 and its marketing system meant its total dissolution. And a severe transformation of the sound of music too.
“Designed to greatly reduce the amount of data required to represent the audio recording and still sound like a faithful reproduction of the original uncompressed audio for most listeners”, according to the Wikipedia, the lossy compression algorithm of the MP3 meant a radical change. Music dramatically lost much of its deepness, as low and high end frequencies were radically cut to preserve the lowest data weight possible. Although nobody seemed to care very much. As Simon Reynolds explains in “Retromania”, “what the inventors of the MP3 were banking on was that most of the time most of us are not listening that closely, and we aren’t listening in ideal circumstances. According to (Jonathan) Sterne, the mp3 was designed with the assumption that the listener is either engaged in other activities (work, socialising) or, if listening immersively, doing so in a noisy environment (public transport, a car, walking on a busy street)”. The mp3, then, is mainly designed for ‘casual’ listening on lo-fi speakers —the kind that computers & digital portable devices feature. But the main point here is not as much the sound quality as it is the way we listen to music today.
SOME TECHNICAL INFO ABOUT MP3 COMPRESSION