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.