I remember, as a child, spending many an hour with my record player and LPs (long play vinyl records) in my bedroom. For me, half the pleasure of listening to the music was reading the sleeve notes which often gave up a wealth of fascinating information about the artist, composer, sometimes the instruments used, the recording personnel and the studio. And then there was the cover art which was a marvel in itself.
Of all the music that I listened to, I can’t forget an old Burl Ives record. One of the songs was called “I Know an Old Lady.” Apparently he didn’t “know why she swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll die!” I played that album over and over.
As I grew older, I began to realise that listening to an old man singing folk songs was definitely not cool and that if you were to be esteemed in your peer group, you had to be listening to pop music. Our attitude was extremely narrow for as soon as a song left the charts it was deemed old hat! With limited finances, buying music was an extremely selective process for most of us teenagers. You had to REALLY like something to release your hard saved money from the clutches of your sweaty palms. And an album would be given proper attention. We wouldn’t just flick from one track to another. That was dangerous. Moving the needle indiscriminately was a risky business. You didn’t want to scratch your record and render that side useless. And so we treated our music with much love and respect. Listening to an album was an event, a journey even. You could sense, as one track came to its end, exactly which track would be up next. There was a sense of building a collection too. Friends and relatives would look through your growing shelf of vinyl giving the odd respectful nod and throwing suggestions as to what they thought should be your next purchase.
Fast forward on to today and I’m sure I’m not the only one of us “oldies” who despairs at the attitude of the young towards their music. Firstly, they expect it for free! They have no concept of the need to support the artist or the record industry. Secondly, they have little respect for the concept of an album, they just flit randomly from one track to another like a bee feeding for a few seconds on one flower head before saying to itself: “Oh look, there’s another flower over there!” They don’t even know who they are listening to half the time let alone appreciating the artwork or understanding the story behind the song. Okay, that’s my grumpy old man moaning over with!
In defence of the young, I absolutely love how much more eclectic their listening is compared to my generation’s teenage years. Because they have almost unlimited access to the world’s recorded catalogue via the internet, they are discovering all sorts of music which is enriching them musically and culturally. Such open-minded exploration, toleration and enjoyment of music from other times and places must surely be nurturing and inspiring for the developing musician.
Something I have been thinking about over recent years is the significance of recordings on the story of music. Imagine living in the early 1800s. The vast majority of people were living in abject poverty. It was enough just trying to earn or find food for the day. Illiteracy was rife. Music illiteracy was even worse. As the industrial revolution got under way, some factories formed brass bands that gave the workers access to instruments and the opportunity to learn to read and play music. Up until this point, folk songs had passed down through the generations getting the odd tweak over time and regional variation. Hearing the great masterpieces by the likes of Beethoven and Mozart would have been unimaginable to the vast majority of the population but now brass band arrangements, albeit often poor ones, was making this music available to a much wider audience.
As time moved on, the piano comes into the spotlight and it’s hybrid cousin the pianola as a means to hear arrangements of orchestral music performed in a more accessible manner. Scott Joplin shot to fame and fortune with his song “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899 which allegedly sold over a million sheet music copies in America. With the invention of the phonograph (gramophone), recorded music exploded into the homes of a wide cross-section of the population. You didn’t need to be a musician to make music and with mass production driving down the costs of purchasing recordings and a machine to play it on, everyone had almost equal opportunity to enjoy the diversity that was now available.
So what impact has the phenomenal revolution that is recorded music had on musicians? Well undoubtedly being able to hear the greatest performers and ensembles has done much to raise the standards of musicianship. However, this also means that audiences have a preconceived idea of how the piece should sound; fans even know the lyrics better than the artists! No wonder live performers feel nervous!
And for composers? Rather than just creating music in a style synonymous with a small locality, with easy access to music from around the world, composers have experimented with fusions of ideas and crossovers creating rich, hybrid sounds.
And audiences? Well, they expect much. They are used to hearing the best takes of the best musicians on the best instruments aided by the best producers and engineers. Audiences also have a much shorter attention span. They need engaging with as much imagination and fireworks as possible! Hearing great music has now become the norm, not the exception.
What’s your opinion? How has the evolution of recorded music affected society for better or for worse? Will Apple Music be the saving grace of the crumbling recording industry? Feel free to join the conversation with a comment below…