Friday, April 17, 2015

Music of things

In 2015 the big new technology trend is the 'internet of things'. In this the focus shifts from software to physical objects, with digital technologies moving from being an end in themselves to a tool that increases the utility of 'things' such as cell phones, coffee makers, washing machines and wearable devices. The internet of things provides an interface between the physical and virtual world, and its emergence sends the important message that no matter how clever the technology, digital solutions can only enhance and not replace physical interactions. This message needs to be taken on board by the classical music industry, where the obsession with virtual content has turned streaming into flooding. Confirmation that the virtual can never replace the physical is also coming from within the music industry: in 2014 9.2 million vinyl records were sold in the US, the best year since the monitoring of vinyl sales by Nielsen restarted in 1991. Received wisdom tells us that vinyl sales are booming because analogue records sound better than digital CDs. But in an article on music industry commentator Bob Lefsetz begs to differ, explaining that in his view:
Vinyl is agitation against a disconnected society where we have no way to display our identity. If it were really about sound, people would be gravitating to Deezer Elite and Tidal. But they’re not, because they don’t want to hear better sound, they want to own something.
The money quote is that classical listeners want to own something, whether it is owning a physical CD or LP, or owning the shared experience of hearing great music live in a concert. Classical music must embrace the shift from the virtual to physical by celebrating the music of things in the form of physical recordings and live performances. Quite rightly much attention is paid to the musicians who make live concerts possible, but too little attention is paid to the dedicated retailers who make owning CDs and LPs possible. Saturday April 18th is World Record Store Day, an event that celebrates the culture of independently owned record stores. Without independent record stores On An Overgrown Path would not exist, and there have been many celebrations of these dedicated retailers here over the years. Physical recordings are more than vinyl LPs or polycarbonate CDs: they are also bold visual statements that express agitation against a digitally connected but physically disconnected society. So to celebrate the 2015 World Record Store Day I offer bold visuals from a CD that I discovered recently in one of the world's great record stores, Concerto Records in Amsterdam. Oud virtuoso Haytham Safia was born in Northern Galilee, but is now based in Europe and the artwork is from his CD U'D on the Dutch Loplop label. I will now leave you with those ravishing graphics as I am swapping the virtual world for the music of things and travelling to Fez for the Sufi Culture Festival. As Sufi master Rumi instructs us in the Mathnawi: "Say less, learn more, depart". Back soon insha'Allah.

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Scott said...

Interesting thoughts ... thanks. I agree with much of it, but some points are worth debating.

"Received wisdom tells us that vinyl sales are booming because analogue records sound better than digital CDs"

I guess I haven't received the official letter yet. However, as someone not newly infatuated with "vinyl" (or "LPs" for those of my age), I continue to enjoy both my LPs (and in honour of this post, am now listening to a 1964 Szell Mahler 4th which sounds terrific) and my CD's. Does one sound "better"? Not consistently. Some reissued 180g vinyl sounds terrific, but so do some new CDs. For me, it's ultimately a pointless argument. If someone prefers "vinyl sound" and someone else argues convincingly that it's due to the warming effect of 2nd order something-or-other distortion, I don't care. My own ears are really all that matter to me.

A more interesting point ...

"Confirmation that the virtual can never replace the physical is also coming from within the music industry:"

I'm not sure that the numbers trends support this statement, but that's not my point. I've bought some downloads (Linn, Hyperion and such) which include the full covers, notes, and all. However, I'm finding that there is something a bit extra in having the physical product. My personal best example is Musica Omnia, a small label of which I'm fond. They do such a good job of the physical packaging that it does come across as the "premium product" compared to downloads. Does the fact that I started with LPs many years ago affect that opinion? I can't tell.

"World Record Store Day, an event that celebrates the culture of independently owned record stores..."

Well, bricks & mortar stores. A Canadian site from whom I'm bought some jazz vinyl reissues (they sell vinyl only, no downloads) reports that they are not allowed to participate in World Record Store Day because they do not have a bricks & mortar storefront. In other words, it seems as though the physical store is more important than the physical product. Odd.

Focus on physical product? I can support that. The physical store? I'm less interested in that. I can understand its value for some. For me, the value just isn't there.

bill wesley said...

vinyl lps have a quality little considered by most audio experts, they produce feedback. At loud volumes they take room resonances shake the needle in the groove which then inter modulates the content coming out the speakers which in turn shakes the needle in the groove which further effects the output in an endless loop, thus a phonograph system is none linier and reactive to room dynamics. this is also true of acustic and acostoelectric instruments, room resonance impacts the way they vibrate thus an LP in a given room does sound more realistic than a CD or other digital formate in a givern room.

bill wesley said...

When acoustic or electro-acoustic instruments play in a room the resonance of the room effects the resonance of the instruments in a feedback loop and the louder the instruments the more this is true, because electro-acoustic instruments can reach any amplitude they can even feed back endlessly at frequencies based on room acoustics, but this is not true of digital instruments or taped sound.

When a phonograph is played in a room the resonance of the room effects the resonance of the needle in the groove causing inter modulation and the louder the phonograph the more this is true, this is not true of digital means such as CD's or tapes however, they do not inter modulate with room acoustics in a feedback loop.

I do not think the preference for phonographs is based on whimsy, phonographs in a given room sound flat out more realistic, its not subtle, especially at high volume, they can even feedback like electro-acoustic instruments going into infinite oscillation which proves the effect is not subtle at high amplitude but blatant

Digital sound and taped sound never apears connected to the room its in while the phonographs sound seems to morph to fit the room its in. digital and tape playback could be modified by using a microphone to detect room resonances and by then instituting an artifical feedback mechenism to match the phonographs ability for realism but this has not been done because tests are carried out with headphones where there is no need to match the playback rooms resonance. through headphones digital sounds best