Sublime Audio

Here’s a piece I’ve just written for The Guardian about music.

For ordinary human beings, music is the closest we come to the sublime. The history of recorded music is the history of better and better access to the sublime.

We have the recording industry to thank for this. In little more than a hundred years, the stable musical universe of Church and hearth has been blown apart. Music is everywhere and anyone in any reasonably developed place can be exposed to hours of new and varied music daily.

Much of the music we listen to now would not even have been possible without the recording industry. Music and recording technologies have worked together.

As a result, the contribution of the recording industry to the fund of human happiness cannot be underestimated. Which other business can claim ‘bliss’ as a day-to-day value? There can be few better examples of the role technology can play in social and cultural change. Music, and our lives, have been immeasurably improved by the efforts of the music business. So it’s doubly disappointing to watch the recording industry missing an epic opportunity, perhaps on the scale of the recorded music revolution itself.

The latest giant misstep involves a new CD format called ‘Super Audio’. To understand why Super Audio is a misstep you need to understand how the listening habits of music fans are changing. And for this purpose I’m going to invite you into my kitchen. On the counter by the breadbin is a two year-old Macintosh computer with a flat screen – our ‘Kitchen Cube’. On the Cube Apple’s excellent iTunes MP3 application cleverly catalogues over 35Gbytes of recorded music – 23 days of continuous music, it tells me. Almost all of this music has come from the big stack of CDs now gathering dust in our sitting room. To call this Macintosh our jukebox is to hugely understate its meaning to us. To this machine my wife and I have entrusted 8,000 tracks by hundreds of artists – a vivid summary of our lives as influenced by music.

The kitchen is the social hub of our home. We spend most of our time there and since we’ve added music to the room we listen to more of it, from a greater variety of artists and sources than ever before and we listen to it in very different ways.

It takes a while for old musical habits to fade. In the early days, choosing something to listen to would be much like choosing a CD. Think of an artist, flick through the library for an album. Double click to play. With time, though, new ways of selecting sounds emerge. How about dialling up a mood or an ambience? Type ‘happy’ (65 tracks by 47 artists) or ‘light’ (37 tracks) or something more abstract like ‘you’re’ (32) or ‘red’ (24) into iTunes and see what you get – a playlist linked across genres, periods and artists by a loose, often surpising, theme – creating unexpected connections. Tighten the theme for something more specific or just ‘shuffle’ the entire library for one surprise after another. Or play only the tunes you’ve listened to most in the last few weeks – or only the ones you’ve never listened to. This is a radically different way of encountering music and one that I don’t need to tell you is not possible in any other format.

So we, like millions of others, are busy inventing a new relationship to music, weaving it more tightly into our lives. Remarkably, though, all of this has been done despite the recording industry – it might even be illegal. And Super Audio, the latest development in the ongoing drama of ‘geeks vs. suits’ is a particularly insidious twist. You see, Super Audio CDs won’t play in a PC so I can’t add the apparently pristine sound from these discs to my library. So, as the ‘digital hub’ takes hold and early adopters reorganise their musical lives around MP3s, the industry is planning to take us down a new technological dead end. Instead of adapting to new habits – coming up with a way to charge for file sharing, for instance – they have devoted millions to a spurious enhancement to quality inaudible to ordinary music fans and left the next generation of eager consumers out in the cold. Far from bringing us closer to the sublime, the record business is ready to close it down.

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  1. Steve,
    Very relevent article for me.
    I am upgrading my whole house and am looking into a two zone music radio system for the ground floor.

    I have been looking at Linn equipment including their hard drive system – all rather expensive for simple background music listening.

    I have in my home office the latest and largest i-Mac with i-tunes already on it.
    Can you please advise how I can link the i-Mac to speakers in the two zones and enable me to utilise i-tunes as you are doing?

    Do you know which hi fi kit will work best with Mac?

    I too have enough cd’s so if I have to I will miss the new ‘super’ system out altogether in this liftime!

    Ken Allen

  2. I think you are making a valid point in your article ‘Music is becoming a racket’.
    Traditional activities of the music industry are being squeezed out of existence by a variety of market pressures. I have been made redundant today by an artist management company which has been the focus of my career for over three years. However, as any music manager will tell you, when the artists aren’t earning, you’re not earning. Music companies, particularly those operating in the independent sector, must diversify to stay afloat these days. It’s not that there are less bands out there to manage, but that fewer of them are being signed to anything approximating a deal from which band and it’s managers can survive for longer than one record.

    Pressure on the majors to retain market share of record sales has had some extraordinary consequences over the past five years. On the one hand, more of their budget is spent developing short-lived pop acts which, in the case of Popstars, form a part not of the music industry, but of the wider entertainment industry – this is not about aiming to nuture bands that will be cherished by people for years over the course of several albums, but about selling the maximum amount of product while the TV marketed ‘star’ remains in the public’s awareness. On the other hand, record companies have felt the pressure from an ever-growing computer game and now DVD market, which they say eats away at kids’ pocket money which would otherwise be spent on music.

    In order to be competitive, record companies are ultimately having to sacrifice art for entertainment, lond term development for swift sure-fire hits, all of which leads to smaller pool of artists with any real money behind them. This is bad for all other parts of the industry: managers, pr companies, booking agents … And this is where your own article gains it’s poignancy. Record companies, especially majors, have been extremely slow to latch on to and embrace the internet and computer technology as means of acquiring and listening to music. In the early days of the boom, when thousands of music-related sites could be found on the web, majors didn’t even have homepages. Check today and Universal music do not have an active homepage for their UK branch. They have been slow at investing in methods of charging for and handling music downloads, despite the massive attraction of file exchange site such as Napster & KaZaA. They say they’re waiting to get things right. Instead, as the Super Audio CD and anti-copying encryption developments show, these companies have only sought to protect their copyrights and their margins. This is hardly indicative of an industry embracing the new technology and practices that you speak of in your article, methods of gaining access to the sublime that I and my friends regularly use.

    I shall now be concentrating on my own business Bambola Recordings which as well as releasing records, is engaged in celebrating and promoting the various artistic endeavours of electronic musicians and graphic designers in both the UK, Japan and beyond.

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