Young Takes A Stand (or Why We Got It Right In The 80’s)

Neil Young

Neil Young has taken a stand against Streaming services such as Spotify and Apple. But he says it’s not over money, and the continually shrinking residuals from streaming services. No, his argument is that the quality of the service is total rubbish, and he doesn’t want his music traduced by crushing it into what he feels is a terrible medium.

BRAVO!!

But unfortunately, he has somewhat missed the point. Demand for this service hasn’t been driven by the companies that provide it as much as it has been created by the truly awful technology we now use to reproduce music in our everyday lives.

I mean, if you listen to music through your computer speakers, or your iPod, well to be honest it really doesn’t matter where you obtain your music. Chances are, it sounds like total rubbish. Very few people have a good music reproduction setup.

Back in the 70’s, when I first got into music, there was a phenomenon called the 8 track cassette. It was battered out of existence by the compact cassette, but both were an answer to a simple problem – I love my record collection but it doesn’t work in my car – because the bloody needle skips. (Did you ever see one of these?  That certainly wasn’t the answer). And we were all starting to spend more time in cars (and had been since the 50’s as car ownership grew).

8 track had one great advantage over the compact cassette – it ran much faster – 3.5″ per Second compared to the compact cassette’s meagre 1 7/8″.  So it was dynamically a stronger solution. But it was bigger, and you couldn’t rewind them due to the fact it had only a single reel rather than 2. However, you rarely had them wind up in the capstan because they were always under tension and were lubed with graphite.

So what killed the 8 track? The Original boom boxes, to reduce size, went for cassette. Then in 1978, the final death of the format was triggered by Sony, with the then revolutionary Walkman. So it was simply killed by size – that was the whole bag. Of course it helped the cassette that it could be formatted in the same way as the vinyl record, two sides of music of largely the same length. And they were dirt cheap to manufacture.

Sony-Walkman

Unfortunately, what seems to have been forgotten was that tapes were RUBBISH!! They sounded lifeless, noisy and  weak compared to vinyl (and the 8 track), and they deteriorated quickly, but that was not the point. Suddenly your record collection was totally portable, it didn’t matter that the headphones were shocking and the tapes didn’t last. Kids loved them. Freedom of travel (even on your roller skates).

Even Cliff Richard got in on the act – Sony must have been ecstatic! But Phillips were there, developing what soon became the ultimate format for music – the Compact Disc. In 1981, the Bee Gees had their new single on a BBC’s Tomorrow’s World with Kieran Prendiville. What really made the CD work commercially was that the whole industry decided on one digital format, with the manufacturers. and it’s never changed to this day.

And that’s where the story should have ended. It took a little while for the record industry to make the medium ‘musical’  – the vinyl record and it’s beautiful packaging and feel was lost, but by the time Brothers in Arms came along it was clear the CD was by far the superior platform for music. Now I love my Vinyl, but there’s no argument. In a play off between Vinyl and a well mastered CD, the CD is streets ahead. It’s out of sight to be honest. For a start, it doesn’t get quieter towards the end of one side (didn’t you always wonder why the ballad was always last on the album…?)

But that’s not the end of the story, because the audiophile traditions of the 70’s and 80’s were still on the wane. Teenagers grew up not used to high fidelity sound. Then of course the record industry also changed with the introduction of electronically created music. At every step, the things that made the CD fantastic, were being thrown away. The transparency of the sound, the frequency response, the ability to capture the room in the recording – all lost to an ever increasing use of digital creation mediums with drum machines, synths and DI boxes. By the time we got to ‘Autotune’ vocals (yeah I’m talkin’ to you Cher!) – pretty much everything in the charts was created without a single note being ‘played’ in a room by a ‘live’ band or musician. Fidelity didn’t matter because the subtlety of musicians in a room was largely a thing of the past.

Then there’s the Loudness wars. CD had the potential for fantastic dynamics. But radio, which didn’t, ruled the day. MTV was the same, all that video left little room for audio on the bandwidth. If the public were listening with their eyes… Record producers formatted for the lowest common output – and so everything became compressed to death so it stuck out like a bad TV commercial.

Once you have taken all the dynamic out, then how much information do you really need? And that’s how you eventually got to MP3, if it needed to be small for the internet then in the pop industry, well that no longer mattered too much. The big sellers were producing music without dynamics, so what did it matter if the medium didn’t have any? If the Kids accept rubbish, then how cheap can we provide it?

So back to Neil Young. I can’t tell you if his publicised motive is truly behind this move or whether it’s really about money. But I salute it. MP3 is crap, WMA little better, streaming is trash and don’t get me started on the iPod! Fashion, not sound, has sold that particular item (and the styling was borrowed from the 60’s).  It all has its uses sure, but don’t you want to own a physical copy of the music you buy? Read the sleeve notes? Know that you got some real value, and of course the best sound technically possible?

And most of all, don’t you want to hear what the artist originally intended for you to hear? What the artist heard sat behind the mixing console for hours with a top producer to create?

If you have to think twice about the answers to those questions, I suggest you go along to your local Hi Fi store with a proper CD (not one burned from an MP3) of something recently remastered for the medium. Say for example ‘Harvest’ by Neil Young, or ‘A Night At the Opera’ by Queen. Or maybe ‘Giant Steps’ by John Coltrane. Get them to put it on a good system and turn it up a bit.

If you do, you might never go back to MP3 again.

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