No, The Internet Hasn't Destroyed Quality Music Either

from the panic-panic-everywhere dept

At what point will the music industry stop crying wolf? Remember that part of the reason behind the 1909 Copyright Act in the US was the arrival of the player piano, which some feared would put musicians out of business. Same with the phonograph. Remember, John Philip Sousa told Congress in 1906 how those darned “talking machines” were going to stop people from singing:

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy–I was a boy in this town–in front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal chord left. The vocal chords will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape. The vocal chords will go because no one will have a chance to sing, the phonograph supplying a mechanical imitation of the voice, accompaniment, and effort.

And, of course, basically every other technological innovation was a threat of some sort. The radio was supposed to kill music. “Home taping is killing music” was a slogan! The RIAA undermined digital tapes and tried to limit CDs. It sued over the earliest MP3 players. It’s sued countless internet companies and even music fans.

Through it all, the refrain is always the same: if we don’t do this, “music will go away.”

But, of course, throughout it all, music only expanded. In the first decade of the 21st Century, more music was recorded than all of history combined, and it’s likely the pace has increased over the following five years as well.

And because of that, we’ve started to hear a new refrain from the same folks who insisted before that music was at risk of “dying” because of new technologies: that maybe there’s more music, but it’s clearly worse in quality. Some of this can be chalked up to the ridiculous pretension of adults who insist that the music of their youth was always so much better than the music “the kids listen to nowadays.” But plenty of it seems to be just an attack on the fact that technology has allowed the riff raff in, and the big record labels no longer get to act as a gatekeeper to block them out.

However, as pointed out in an article in The Age down in Australia, not only is music doing phenomenally well these days, but a recent study suggested that the quality of music continues to increase as well. Now, obviously, quality is a subjective thing, so it’s difficult to “measure,” but here’s what the report noted:

Yet all these years on we are still surrounded by music. It follows us throughout a day from our bedside to our commutes to our earphones at work to our drive home to settling into bed.

And an astonishing amount of it is new. A decade after the arrival of file sharing, US economist Joel Waldfogel charted what had happened in a paper called Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie? The Supply of New Recorded Music since Napster.

There is no doubt that recording companies are making less money since file sharing, he says. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are making less music, or even less good music.

Assembling data on the quality of songs from the “all-time best” lists compiled each year by Rolling Stone and other magazines he finds that the albums regarded as good tend to be recent, and increasingly so as the internet age wears on.

The good new ones aren’t even by old artists. He says around half of the good new albums are by artists who only started recording since file sharing. It has neither killed new music, nor frightened people away from beginning to make music.

Now, there are reasonable quibbles with this methodology. You can say that of course newer lists of “all time” best music will weigh heavily more recent favorites, even if they might not truly last the tests of time. But, at the very least it does suggest that plenty of people (myself included) are still finding a ton of new music to listen to that we find to be just as good, if not better, than music from decades ago.

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Comments on “No, The Internet Hasn't Destroyed Quality Music Either”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Percentages and numbers

But plenty of it seems to be just an attack on the fact that technology has allowed the riff raff in, and the big record labels no longer get to act as a gatekeeper to block them out.

Assume for a moment that the above is true, that it was only the vigilant guard of the record labels that kept the public safe from the horrors of bad music, and that with them no longer in total command, the floodgates for lousy music are open.

Even then more good music is being created and made available than ever before.

When the bar to create and get your music heard was higher, when the labels had all the power and could decide whether or not you were heard, they were able to act as quality checkers(and for this example it will be assumed that they did so flawlessly), allowing only the ‘good’ stuff through. At the same time many that might have been able to create and share their music were left in the dust as just not skilled enough to be worth label attention.

With the above, say there was 100 potential musicians, 10(10%) were deemed ‘good enough’, and 90(90%) weren’t, and therefore weren’t heard. Thanks to the labels, 90 bad musicians were unable to inflict their audio-carnage on an unsuspecting public, while 10 excellent musicians were heard.

However these days the bar has been set much lower, such that significantly more people are able to try their hand at music, creating high quality music with a modest investment and being able to offer it for a small cut of their sales, if not flat out free.

Most of them(90%) are still pretty bad, probably not worth a second listen at best, but that 10% of excellent musicians are still available to make up the slack. The difference is that while the percentages are the same, the pool of musicians has exploded, so where before there was only 10 good musicians now there’s 100.

Sure there’s going to be more low-quality stuff out there, that’s a natural result of opening the playing field up so more can create, but given that also means drastically more good stuff, I’d say it’s a more than acceptable ‘cost’.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Percentages and numbers

…it was only the vigilant guard of the record labels that kept the public safe from the horrors of bad music…

One could argue the record labels were also guilty of ‘bad music’ from the old practices of requiring their acts to record 2 albums per year and tour the rest, with no breaks or vacations. How many acts from the 1960s & 1970s ‘burned out’ because of such expectations?

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Percentages and numbers

I get your point but I dispute your 90% magical number (even though it is magical). I suspect we tend to think everything is shit because it’s getting more and more difficult to classify music into defined genres (the sheer output is part of the reason why this is happening in my view). And we tend to be very, very critical of genres we don’t like.

So I actively avoid saying, say, 90% o rap is bad because I wouldn’t know, I don’t want to know and rappers may die in flames. Ahem. That said, on the genres and variants I do like (ie: classical, metal, rock, folk – though this one is very localized) I disagree with that number. I’d say that around 10% could be classified as awesome, a whole load pulls number out of magical device (for all purposes we’ll call it “ASS”) that sits around 60% is average but still enjoyable and the rest is pure crap.

But you see, quality has not degraded, it’s just that we have more average stuff than we were used to.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Percentages and numbers

The 90% number was simply an invocation of Sturgeon’s Law, that says 90% of anything is low quality, and used to point out that even in the ‘worst’ case scenario, where the overwhelming majority of music was or would have been crap were it not for the labels to weed out the low quality stuff and only let the good stuff through, and this is now no longer true, even then the public is better off because the amount of available music has skyrocketed to such a degree that the remaining 10% is drastically larger in quantity.

klaus says:

Re: Re: Re: Percentages and numbers

I understand and agree, but I’d draw a parallel to what the NSA/GCHQ is doing regarding haystacks, and sorting out the wheat from the chaff. Speaking for myself, I know there’s much more music out there, but I’m never quite sure where to go to find new, decent music that I might like, and there are only so many hours in the day.

KeillRandor (profile) says:

Re: Percentages and numbers

But there’s more than one type of quality music can have, and that matters here – in fact, it’s the second kind that’s really been the record label’s problem:

Production quality.

When the labels owned all the ingredients necessary to produce a good quality recording, they could then decide which bands/albums/songs got the time/effort/value of production added to them, which then made them sound better and boosted their appeal. Again, this was a barrier to entry they controlled.

With the rise of digital audio, and the lowered cost of recording equipment, however, this has changed dramatically. Now, even amateur recorded music can sound good (if they know what they’re doing), regardless of how good their music is.

And what we’ve found, is that production quality is one of the main things people react to when listening to music – if not the most immediate thing. Now the labels don’t control that either, they know they have even greater problems.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Percentages and numbers

I bet all the stuff people hear on the radio now was recorded at home. Like Adele, Bieber, all that stuff. Before Garage Band came out, people used to have to go to some studio building and pay a bunch of money just to get their music recorded. Now they don’t have to do that and that makes the record labels mad. Their mad because I can make a record as good as that Adele record on my laptop in my bedroom. They can get mad all they want but that wont stop me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Sousa was correct...

This is the one area where I selfishly side with the music industry. If things like this happened more, maybe the two little girls next door wouldn’t continue to sing Taylor Swift outside when I have my windows open…

And yes, I have asked them not to play on my lawn.

/grumpy old man

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Sousa was correct...

“And yes, I have asked them not to play on my lawn.”

My grandson played with one of those flying quad things when they last visited. He flew the damn thing into my tree and it left a deep cut. First I wanted to yell at him but then I had an idea.

Since then no children on my lawn.

/grumpy old neighbor

mcinsand (profile) says:

for me, internet has greatly increased spending on music

When I was a teen, I bought music regularly, and I still have my vinyl. It was a gamble, though, because hearing an album before buying it was not easy. Then, there were also the issues of albums wearing out if they were good enough to want to hear that often. Furthermore, if you lost an album or loaned with no return, it was gone. During the decade of being a poor college student, my buying effectively stopped, and it didn’t really restart until not too long ago. Youtube and iheartradio are my main culprits, although I’m sure you can find your own gateways.

Being able to hear music before purchase increases buying confidence… a lot. Several artists have entire albums out there on Youtube, and the ability to hear before buying let’s me plan what I am going to buy when the time comes. Yes, I have a schedule for regularly adding to my music collection, which is part of the fun. There is a thrill to hunting and exploring to decide just what will go into my account at that time.

The accounts are also so much better than being tied to physical media. The music is there whether through computer, cellphone, or whatever. If you still want physical media, though, at least one major outfit allows for electronic download to accompany the physical purchase.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

As the RIAA members are only the middlemen no-one will care if & when they disappear as the real creators of music, those musicians will keep on making music just like they did before the middlemen became all too powerful. 100 years in the sun & now it’s time for the middlemen to crawl back into their caves.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The public already does that, how many people pause to think ‘Hey, sharing this awesome new song with my friends and family might be copyright infringement, I shouldn’t do it’?

The problem is that politicians still listen to the *AA’s just fine, which might have something to do with the fact that discussions between the two groups often involves a transfer of funds.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The public already does that, how many people pause to think ‘Hey, sharing this awesome new song with my friends and family might be copyright infringement, I shouldn’t do it’?

At least of the people I know here in the EU, zero. But that might be because sharing stuff with friends is seen as kind of a legal copy because it is not commercial. Well, my point of view from a German standpoint, not sure if others just don’t give a hug.

And that’s a good thing imho. Friends sent me songs, I sent them some songs and at least a few times we ended up buying the album because we liked the style.

Anonymous Coward says:

Modern music started going down the crapper on July 4, 1986, with the debut of the audio and video excrescence shat out by Run DMC and Aerosmith – the Birth of the Celebration of Mediocrity that pretty much took over modern music in less than a decade.

By 1990- 1991 at the latest – what was called crap inb the 1960s, 70s, and 80s was suddenly ethereal and transcendent. . . while the actual good music was reviled as “old.” The transformation was complete by 1992 – not a note of quality music has been released by the industry (excepting the occasional new release by “classic” acts) since.

If one looks closely. . . one will see that, in the mid-80s, there was also a shift in education – the mid-80s marked the point where education went off the rails into 75% illiteracy-land (that was fully realized by 2012) – and the quality of music has followed this curve almost point-for-point. . . as students get dumber, so does the music.

Science has proven this.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

No, The Internet Hasn't Destroyed Quality Music Either

Not yet at any rate. Though if Timothy follows through with his maniacal plot: “Hell, one enterprising Techdirt writer such as myself might take up the mantle of L. Ron Hubbard and simply whip up a religion out of whole cloth, calling it the Fairusenalists, replacing the prayer rug, the eucharist, or the kippah with loudly-blasted recordings of Justin Bieber.” it just might bring music to its knees.

Ninja (profile) says:

If you consider most of the output nowadays you are going to have a lot of average stuff, some very bad stuff, some quite good stuff and a few masterpieces. The difference is that the music produced under the wings of the legacy players falls largely under the bad/average quality. And don’t get me wrong, average doesn’t mean a bad thing, it’s just something that you wouldn’t go after it actively.

That said, it is good that the legacy players are getting less of the pie because more is available for people that we would never hear about. But even that assertion is not quite right. I suspect the legacy players are actually stuck with about the same general amount of money but the pie itself grew by several orders of magnitude and they failed to keep up with it exactly because they still live in the era where they were relevant for somebody to succeed as a musician. Today anybody can try regardless of said legacy players. Does not mean everybody will succeed. But then again, how many had the opportunity back then and from those, how many remained unknown?

gordwait (profile) says:

Quality? Not from my streaming service..

On the way to work in my car, twice in the same song (Space Oddity, because.. ) did the stream glitch and get interrupted like a cassette tape with a very bad crinkle.

So yes _when_ it plays, the quality is more than good enough for the drive to work.

And to start it, I tried “Ok Google, play Space Oddity by David Bowie”. Two things happened. Instead of loading up Google Play Music (I have a subscription), it went and found a Youtube track (this is a regular but random occurrence). Then my bluetooth stereo kicked into “Voice Dial” mode and I had to power cycle it to get things back.

I should install a cassette player in the car. You press play, it effing works.

I do have a CD player, guess it’s time to make a few mix discs..

Anonymous Coward says:

Speaking as a musician...

…my subjective impression is that the amount of quality music being made has taken a sharp upturn in this century.

Yes, there is still a lot of worthless drivel — the Backstreet Boys, Nicki Minaj — but then again there was worthless drivel many years ago (the Ohio Express, for example). So ignore all that, and pay attention to what’s being recorded by singer-songwriters, by country, jazz, folk, and blues artists, by the various collaborations and experiments taking place. Innovative, creative, daring music is being made — and a lot of it is being made by people who would never, ever attract a studio contract.

When I was young I could never dream of making a record without completely selling out. Now I can create one in my basement, and if it’s any good, and if I can find an audience, and if I can connect with them — then I’ll have achieved something that was near-impossible in 1975. Others are already doing it — and good for them.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Anonymous Coward says:

‘At what point will the music industry stop crying wolf?’

when politicians and judges grow sets of balls worth having and tell the music industries and others to get the fuck off their asses and start working to keep customers rather than using pathetic excuses to get legal measures to do the job for them, while shutting down every new listening/watching method as well as new distribution alternatives!

gutless ass holes dont deserve to have anyone buying the overpriced media, just to keep the heads of the studios in the ways they have become accustomed!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Wait what?

There is no doubt that recording companies are making less money since file sharing, he says.

Isn’t it possible that recording companies are making less money (if true) because they lost market share aka their monopoly? People can do great music themselves because studio like quality equipment is not that expansive anymore. And you can upload to Youtube for marketing and some phone store or your website for sales.

I doubt that modern file sharing impacts it that much because you could share music with tapes (recorded from radio) too. It had the same reach and everyone could do it. So in the end saying “since file sharing” would mean since their were music files, read notes written down.

Whatever (profile) says:

Finding Facts Where They Don't Exist

Studies, surveys, and reports like this don’t amount to much because of public bias towards what is recent and known, and age exclusion because some of the people voting may be too young or may not have been exposed to all of the music in question.

So as an example, someone who is 60, if asked, may lean towards the classic, or may mention something very current. Someone who is 20 may not have been exposed to all of the classic music, and may lean more towards the current. We naturally tend to lean towards what is now and what is recent as a result.

That said, I don’t think anyone said that there would be NO quality music made, only that the percentage of quality music may be lower. The last decade has been a pretty forgettable one, filled with cussing rap stars, nameless “rock” stars, and a media dominated by Justin Beiber and a string of Disney drop outs – and Nickelback(!). It’s been, well, classic, to say the least.

Volume of recorded music isn’t really a good indicator either. We all know a certain Techdirt writer recorded and published his “music” (yes, scare quotes, it was scary). Volume of production has increased as both the tools to publish became cheaper and more available, but also because the definition has shifted such that sample basic output is considered as music – basically, you don’t have to be a musician to make music.

The end result isn’t suddenly thousands more classic songs or desert island songs, but we do get Nikki Minaj singing, and I quote:

You a stupid hoe, you a, you a stupid hoe [x3]
You a stupid hoe, (yeah) you a, you a stupid hoe
You a stupid hoe, you a, you a stupid hoe (stupid, stupid)
You a stupid hoe, you a, you a stupid hoe (you stupid, stupid)
You a stupid hoe, you a, you a stupid hoe (you stupid, stupid)
You a stupid hoe, (yeah) you a, you a stupid hoe (you stupid, stupid)

Clearly, these are classic times.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Finding Facts Where They Don't Exist

” but we do get Nikki Minaj singing, and I quote:

You a stupid hoe, you a, you a stupid hoe [x3]”

But, but she was kind of naked and there was a Lamborghini in the video**. Isn’t that what makes a female superstar today? Level of nudity times money wast… ehm…. spent on the performance? I mean when was the last time you saw a female singer fully clothed on stage and in the video? If you think ABBA you might be correct.

** I googled the music video and the first 2 pages were commentaries about hope stupid this song was.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Finding Facts Where They Don't Exist

I don’t think anyone said that there would be NO quality music made

Oh, they most certainly did. There is a comment above on this very thread – which has been voted funny, but was clearly intended seriously – that quite explicitly claims: not a note of quality music has been released by the industry since [1992]

Just the other day, a commenter complaining about the quality of music was pushing this article, which quite explicitly states: you will never hear creatively original breakthrough music in a digital format.

So yes, people do claim there will be (or already is) NO quality music. They claim it frequently and unequivocally.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Finding Facts Where They Don't Exist

I am sure that some people will express their opinion in such an extreme manner. However, there are also flat earth types out there on every subject.

My father didn’t think anything good came after Frank Sinatra. It’s an opinion, not a fact.

Don’t confuse a few random opinions with overall reality. Some people will tell you that Kanya West is god. He’ll tell you that himself. Doesn’t make it true.

While there has been some enjoyable music since the Napster days, very little of it is classic desert island stuff. It’s easy to confuse “I liked that song I heard on soundcloud” with something that you would enjoy 10 years from now. Put another way, would a Justin Beiber album really compare to say an album from the Doors or perhaps Led Zeppelin 4? Is Ms Minaj going to be a better choice than Pink Floyd The Wall? There really isn’t a lot (a few but not many) in the last decade that appear to be able to stand the test of time. The rest are… disposable, like most of the current “culture”.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Finding Facts Where They Don't Exist

Hi Ninja. Not “still at it”, just pointing out the obvious. Techdirt’s own staff have proven that a lack of talent and total tone deafness doesn’t stop people from recording their “music”. The amount of music recorded doesn’t equate to some magic increase in the great, classic music records, just much more stuff.

Signal to noise, right?

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