I hear a lot of wistful sighs these days from music lovers. Typically these are older people or younger hipsters. A lot of these people still have quite the love affair with vinyl.
I have one question for basically everyone who loves music so much, “How come when you share music with me, it’s almost always in the form of a video?” Unless we’re sharing iTunes stuff, most of the ‘music’ people want to share with me are actually videos. Even the music magazines almost always share links to performance videos rather than links to plain ol’ sound. Why has video become the new music? I think there are two reasons: Convenience and Planning.
To start with, a lot of this is the design of the Masters Of The Interwebs. Ever since Google bought Youtube, they have constantly tried to push their videos to the top of search pages. A video with a given set of keywords will almost always rank higher than any other kind of content. Oddly enough, links to MP3s are real search losers—even if it is the ‘real’ music you wish to hear.
And Facebook has been pushing video -hard- for years. All their best practice recommendations for developers, advertisers and people like you and me encourage more video and pictures and less text. They feel very strongly that Facebook should be all about grabbing people’s attention, FAST. Some of Facebook’s neatest programming tricks are how it magically converts most links into fancy previews with neat little summaries. A few years ago, that required that other web sites did all sorts of work to make their sites ‘serve’ this information to Facebook. Now? Facebook can usually just scrape that info all by itself automagically. I’m their worst nightmare user. They would prefer that virtually all content contain a link to a video or failing that, a really snappy image. If that push for brevity reminds you of Twitter, the feeling is not coincidental. If the emphasis on immediacy feels like advertising? No accident, either.
One other thing about Youtube. We all take for granted now how easy it is to get virtually any piece of music you want. But almost no one ever talks about copyright anymore. I don’t know the percentages but a -very- large percentage of the music on Youtube is simply fans rendering a video using a static image (typically a scan of the album cover) with the song underneath. Fabulous idea. Totally illegal. I know that seems like a technicality these days. And yet, Youtube almost always rolls with this unless you try to upload such a video for a site associated with a business. Now here’s the funny thing: Youtube has spent a fortune creating a remarkable ‘sonic fingerprinting system.’ When you upload almost any copyrighted material, Youtube recognises the artist, album, etc. It actually -hears- the song. So, 99.99% of the time, Youtube -knows- you’re uploading copyrighted content. And I mean anything from John Cage to Jelly Roll Morton to Hildegard Von Bingen to Lady Gaga. Really. And yet, they almost never take down anything unless there’s some obvious ‘selling’ going on. I wonder: if someone tried to do that with music, I wonder what would happen? Oh, wait, they already did. It was called Napster. Hmmmm…
Clearly, the industry wanted very much to make video as easy and compelling as possible for users. And music is one of the most compelling (and cheap) forms of content to make available for almost everyone. I think it’s fair to say that they have succeeded. You and I find it so easy to share music as video that we no longer give it a second thought. In fact, it’s now our go-to method for almost all well-known content. It’s a lingua franca: ‘Go to Youtube and type in… Sun Ra blah, blah, blah…’ is how we tell people to find music.
Now the other side, the ‘end user side, the ‘you and I’ side is something we as music fans need to think about. Forget the fact that we’re all ripping off artists. You’ve heard those lectures many times I’m sure. What I want to leave you with is that I think many, if not most of us, have become so accustomed to the ‘visual’ aspects of the web that it has changed our innate preferences in appreciating music.
I think that video has become something of a ‘fast food’ for our brains. We all know that too much sugar ruins the appetite and weakens our appreciation of subtler flavours. IOW: once people lay off the sugar, they find they start liking their veg a bit more. In this age of excess we no longer eat whatever we feel like; we have to exercise some real discipline over our base desires in order to stay healthy. Similarly, I think Video hits the lizard brain -hard-. Once people get used to associating music and video, it’s harder to most of us to see ‘listening’ as its own activity. Or at least, one that is ‘fun’.
Also, most of us don’t go to concerts as much anymore. They’re usually expensive and most of us are busier than ever. But videos are, again, at that lizard brain level, somewhat better than sitting in a room ‘just listening’. When we do go to concerts, the expectations for the -visual- tend to be an order of magnitude greater than before the web era. My guess is that videos, even a static image of Coltrane while Good Bait plays underneath, hits some spot in the brain that is in some way more ‘satisfying’ than, again, sitting in a room looking at VU meters and a tiny CD case.
In short, it’s becoming a video world. We’re all being affected by it a lot more than most of us realise and it has real implications for not only music as a going concern, but also our ability to appreciate it. In other words, you can’t just ignore the music you don’t like anymore. The way it is being delivered is also changing our perception, tastes and enjoyment of music as a singular form of art and entertainment. If you buy this, listening then becomes, like eating, a skill that needs to be routinely exercised to maintain good health.
This was one of the primary things that got me started on the new record. When I was younger, I thought the things I didn’t like didn’t affect me. Now I realise that the web is a lot like the air: the quality affects you whether you are aware of it consciously or not. Everything about the new ‘electronic’ age is getting inside us and in thousands of different ways that we need to think of just like diet and the stuff we breathe. I don’t hear music the way I used to. And the machines I use to make music are affecting the music I make. The rise of video is just one element of that.
The question. The point of the new record is simple: How do I make this stuff do what -I- want it to do, something different, all the while recognising that it’s pushing right back… and maybe even harder.